Posts Tagged ‘Brand Culture’

Grant McCracken

Hmmm. I smell a juicy topic. Courtesy, once again, of the anthropologist of consumption, Grant McCracken.

In his most recent blog post, McCracken asks why our culture tells such horror stories about our economic system, capitalism.

And it’s true. In a way. Although I do think that, in some corners, some households, some rooms of our bastions of higher learning, a different kind of story about capitalism is being told. But mostly to capitalists, or wanna-be capitalists.

Yet, as McCracken points out, capitalism is the unsung hero (because he’s not classically heroic) who owns a handful of dry cleaning shops, that’s employing people’s moms and dads and sponsoring little league teams and, at the same time, keeping us all in freshly-laundered duds.

Kwakiult spoon clearly designed to drive consumption

I wonder if this whole demonizing of an economic system that, from empirical evidence, is at least currently preferred to any other in most parts of the world, isn’t due to a bigger rift in how we see ourselves and our culture.

Because an economic system is just as much a cultural artifact as a building or a symphony or a set of  dishes. It’s as much manufactured by humans as any other part of what we call culture. And yet, in a way that strikes me as historically unusual, the economic system is deeply separated from many other parts of our culture, and neither sees itself as beholding to or dependent upon the rest of our swirl of human meaning. And our human lives.

Capitalism is not integrated with the rest of culture in the way it should be. If it were, it wouldn’t be seen as alien in the first place, and it wouldn’t act as if it’s not dependent on both the natural and human eco-system which it occupies.

Blatent consumerism supported by Aztec corn god

My guess is that part of this comes from specialization. When a person wants to go into business they study business. They don’t necessarily study philosophy, religion, history, biology, literature, music, dance, theatre, and all the other contexts in which business lives. In other words, business students don’t study the culture and the environment which business is supposed to serve. It’s seen as having its own laws, its own purposes, which are centered on creating profit for shareholders.

Whereas, throughout human history (and pre-history, we may suppose), the economic system is a means, not an end in itself.

Likewise, those who don’t study business feel victimized by this alien system that seems to be serving no one they know and doesn’t have a regard for non-business things.

To me, this is what the whole new values-based branding model is all about. We are finally trying to re-align our economic system with our larger cultural needs, as well as the needs of the planet. And not just our material needs, but our spiritual needs as well.

Which is what makes this moment in branding particularly exciting for me. As it should be for you. For all of us.

– Doug


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TalentSteals_logoThank you, Deborah Morrison of the University of Oregon’s advertising and journalism program, for pointing me towards this paper called “Logocentrism: Brands as Modern Myths,” by Faris Yakob, who is obviously a kindred soul and long lost brother of ID Branding’s. Read his blog posting and then click on the download link at the bottom to get the whole thing.

His insights and instincts around the anthropological significance and role of brands today very nicely dovetail with our thinking on Brand Culture. Nice thinking, Faris.

– Doug

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I’m amazed to hear people still using dead language when it comes to brands. One such piece of deceased wordage is “brand loyalty.”

Ford_shirtRemember the concept of brand loyalty? Your Mom always bought Charmin so you bought Charmin. Your Dad was a Ford guy so you were a Ford guy. You can still find attitudes like this scattered around the country, but the idea of brand loyalty basically doesn’t work anymore.

Today, you stop buying Charmin because you see a brand on the shelf that promises a higher amount of recycled paper, and you and your wife are trying to reduce your collective carbon footprint. Or you stop buying Fords when you see pictures of the vanishing glaciers and decide your next car will be a Toyota Prius. There are all kinds of reasons why people do not remain loyal to brands anymore, but the biggest reason, according to anthropologists, is meaning. And meaning is the opposite of loyalty, because meaning constantly changes. (more…)

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In this business there are certain signs that you’re doing things right. For me, one of the supreme indicators of this is when you’re able to recuit people who make you feel humble. And man, am I feeling humble.

The latest major talent coupe for us is Josh Berger. I’ve known Josh for probably 13 years. Josh was one of the founders of first Plazm magazine, and then Plazm Design Services. He is considered one of the significant designers in this country. And I’ve always known him to be one of the most principled humans out there.

Well, now we can announce that Josh has joined forces with ID Branding as a Creative Director here. No worries, he’ll continue to issue Plazm magazine. But he’ll be working with us to grow rich and enduring brand cultures on behalf of our clients.

As I said, we’ve had a string of humbling hires lately. More on that later. Suffice to say, we feel incredibly lucky.

– Doug

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Painting by W+K employee Storm Tharp

Painting by W+K employee Storm Tharp

I find myself returning to a comment made by the Portland art critic, D.K. Row, in his review of an art exhibition at Wieden + Kennedy quite a while back. The show features work done by W+K employees, including the very fine painter Storm Tharp.

Row asks, in his review, why Wieden + Kennedy doesn’t get the local respect it deserves as an important cultural force. One of the reasons, he says, is:

“…that in iconoclast-loving Portland, the convention-breaking agency is still, well, an advertising agency.

Call it an existential dilemma. But no matter our culture’s captivation with fame, appearance, the Internet and its transient, twittering pleasures, we have always valued — and will continue to — the notion of authenticity. Wieden+Kennedy, however, practices a form of marketing judo; it makes money on the savvy, insincere business of manipulation and

Manipulated by the evil Dr. Caligari

Manipulated by the evil Dr. Caligari


I am haunted by the phrase “the savvy, insincere business of manipulation and seduction.”

My pondering of Row’s comment dovetails with an internal conversation we had a while ago at an agency brown bag. Someone essentially asked if, in our theory of Brand Culture, we weren’t elevating brands to the level of religion, art, morality, and all the other things that make most human lives meaningful. In other words, were we ridiculously exaggerating the importance of brands?

This is a terribly important question to ask. Because, as a branding agency, we cannot believe anything naively. Every belief we hold must be questioned and challenged in the light of the the average consumer’s doubtfulness and suspicion.

Are we puppets?

Are we puppets?

Not that people want to be doubtful and suspicious, but they’ve leaned to be – taught by decades of advertising. Too many agencies and clients have believed, either naively or cynically, that they could manipulate people into patronizing their brands. So, Row’s accusation of the category is well-founded. I’m just not sure you can accuse all agencies of manipulation.

At the same time, consumption, fueled in part by brands and advertising, has been blamed for replacing spirituality with a false, materialistic idol.

As far as I’m concerned, this last issue has more to do with a form of capitalism that demands, through the stock market and shareholders, continued growth, which leads to continued growth in consumption. But that, as a topic, is too big to tackle in this blog entry. I do, however, want to tackle the words of Row’s phrase.

First, the word “insincere.” Now, in my past I’ve actually worked with one or two clients who were entirely insincere in what they were selling and how they talked to their audiences. But I considered them the evil spawn of Satan and have never worked with such people again.

So, my clients, for the most part, over 20 years in this business, have been deeply

The cheese made me eat cheese.

Did my advertising make you eat cheese?

sincere, whether it’s Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, Tillamook Dairy, Waldenbooks, TriMet, Entertainment Weekly, M3 Snowboards, Allied Works Architecture, Kodak Dental, Integrity Spirits, or so many others.

In all these cases, I believe we helped them communicate their passion for what they do and helped them build stronger relationships with their audiences. Maybe I’ve just taken jobs at agencies which carefully choose their clients, but I have faced only a few cases of insincerity on either the clients’ or the agency’s part in my entire career.

Pollack's No. 5 sold for $140 million.

Pollack's No. 5 sold for $140 million.

Now for the word “business.” Yes, unlike art, we operate a business. On the other hand, in what way is art not connected to and dependent upon commerce – specifically the buying and selling of art? I’m not so sure that art can claim to be separate from business. As to whether art IS a business, well, that’s a question for others to answer. But art certainly conducts business. My business is in helping other businesses build relationships with customers.

Peter Moore, the brilliant past creative director at Nike and then adidas, once told me that the difference between art and what we do is that art is about solving your own problems, while design and advertising are about solving your client’s problems.

The word “manipulation” is one which, as an industry, we need to recognize and own the way Germans must own the word holocaust. It has, indeed, been a part of advertising and branding, and still is in some places. I consider it a question of intention. And integrity.

We, as a branding firm, are tasked with deepening the relationship between a brand and its customers. Like any relationship, that can either be manipulative or not, depending upon the people in the relationship. But a relationship, per say, does not require manipulation, except in the most cynical and paranoid

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner


I remember getting into an argument with a post-grad at the Skinner lab when I was visiting my stepbrother at Harvard. This guy was absolutely certain people’s behavior can all be predicted. I stubbornly believed humans were capable of being unpredictable. He countered that our unpredictability could be predicted. So I smacked him. (Not really.)

I guess I’ve never believed that is was that easy to manipulate people. I associate this view of branding with the Hidden Persuaders hoax where the author tried to get people to believe there were naked ladies in the ice of the Scotch ads – intentionally put there to titillate audiences. Talk about paranoid. The book was a bestseller and many VPackardpeople still believe this is what happens in advertising.

It’s kind of an anti-business anti-Big Brother romanticism. Yes, there are people who want to manipulate the masses. But the masses are not that easy to manipulate. And those who say otherwise always seem to exclude themselves, if you’ve noticed. It’s all those other people who are being manipulated.

The goal of manipulation is the lowest aspiration of our field, which, at least from our perspective, is a field that can, at its best, help people find brands which share their value systems. That’s the whole premise behind our theory of Brand Culture.

That said, we just recently hired someone who worked on a multi-national account at a very creative agency where the client didn’t really care about values or relationships, they just wanted his agency to make people buy more of their product. This new employee is excited that our clients are interested in developing a deeper relationship with their customers.

So Row’s accusation, which bugged me so much, is something which still haunts this industry. And, despite our own attempts at ID Branding to do things differently, some people in this industry still dream of manipulation. I don’t think they’ll be effective, but that won’t stop them from trying.

Sad. Somehow I thought we were way beyond this.

But, as with our client, the Sisters of Mercy Health Systems, who are out to change the way people experience healthcare, we can’t change the whole field, we can only change how we operate within it.

Onward, Sisters.

– Doug

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The recent announcement of Amazon acquiring Zappos certainly caught my eye as I have been following Zappos closely over the past year to further my understanding of what it takes to create enduring brand cultures. I have to admit the first thing that came to mind was that this acquisition was the beginning of the end for Zappos’ culture as we know it.

And for good reason: it is typical for acquired organizations to be assimilated into the acquiring entity without much care or attention to the values and culture of the acquired organization. I’ve certainly witnessed this first hand many times over with clients I have worked with over the years. Look what happened to Saturn when it was brought back into the GM fold. Sure, GM adopted Saturn’s core values as their own, but their culture broke poor Saturn’s spirit until they became… GM.

As I read the letter from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to all of their employees, I began to recognize all of the typical corporate speak about this union: “…accelerate the growth of our brand, …we plan to continue to run Zappos as an independent entity, …opportunities to tap into their knowledge, expertise, and resources.”

I have to say I felt a little skeptical. Until that is I came across this statement in the Q+A portion:

Q: Do we keep our core values? Yes, we will keep our core values, and Amazon will keep their core values.

This statement, while on the surface seems very unassuming, gives me hope that they might actually pull it off. It’s because they recognize that for each brand to thrive under common ownership, each must operate from its own distinct set of core values. From these values, each organization can attract both employees and consumers that choose to join its unique brand culture.

Well, I’m rooting for you Zappos. And you too Amazon. You have each created something special for your respective brands, and I’d hate to see you lose what makes you… you. Best of luck.


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On Thursday I was walking to lunch when I happened past the Ira Keller Fountain and stopped.


Originally called the Forecourt Fountain, it was created by the famous landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. I still remember when it opened in 1970. My friends and I were among the multitudes who happily splashed about in its cool cascading waters. That was part of Halprin’s radical proposition – that the fountain was meant to be actually waded in, not just politely observed.


As I looked at the fountain these 39 years after it was built, I was struck by how mesmerizing it still is. With its multiple layers and the different angles of water produced by the horizontal and vertical facets, everywhere my eye went there was something enticing and rewarding. I felt like I could stand there for another half-hour – long enough to be significantly late for my business lunch.forecourt2

How many things in the world do that?

As I tore myself away, I started thinking that brands need to aspire to be like Lawrence Halprin’s fountain. Why can’t a brand deliver meaning to the world at this level? Why can’t a brand give people something more than just the utility of its products or services?

Halprin was tasked with producing a piece of civic landscape architecture. His fountain could have been just as functional and forgettable as most, and he would have essentially earned his fees. Yet he gave something to Portland that cannot be measured in mere dollars and square footage.


Brands have the same opportunity. Whether it’s Patagonia or Apple or Ferrari or a Michael Graves teapot from Target – any number of brands have proven that a brand experience can be imbued with lasting value and meaning beyond just earning its price. It’s a matter of intention, determination, and heart.

– Doug

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