Do Brands Change Us, or Do We Change Them?

Posted inBranding & Identity Design
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As a young boy I was in constant search for an identity, always looking to fill the shoes of my missing father with the spirit of a pro athlete or a rock/rap star. I wanted approval from my friends, from society, and most importantly, myself. I couldn’t get this monetarily, so I searched for anything that could deflate the emptiness I carried around.

When I visit my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, I often think about my childhood, stereotypes, our role in society, and why we become who we are. Until the age of 13 I grew up in a black neighborhood with a Jewish step-father and a Catholic mother. Money was nil for the family; while we weren’t necessarily struggling to eat dinner every night, we certainly did not take family vacations very far, eat out at restaurants a lot, or buy new back-to-school clothes. I was often embarrassed, always hesitant to bring a girlfriend home, and totally humiliated when my mother picked me up at school in her rusty, loud Chrysler LeBaron.

When money is tight, all you have is the idea of the way things could be. I soon found an array of mentors in my life that I copied character traits from. They couldn’t teach me how to shave, as my missing father might have, but they gave me the tools to gain confidence in my life. I naturally learned how to play many roles, allowing myself to adjust to different personalities, races, ages, classes, and sexes.

Years later, when I worked at COLLINS:, we sometimes used archetype cards to help with our brand stories and positioning. Archetypes are ancient, universal patterns of behavior that are embedded in what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” Archetypes highlight an original example, ideal, or epitome upon which others are copied. The cards are supposed to be used as a means to achieve greater insights into one’s life. We used the cards to gain greater insights into the kinds of brands we’re working with.

According to this idea, all people fall into various types, including: the Trickster, who manipulates others through duplicity; the Martyr, who transcends service to oneself or a cause; the Fool, who helps people laugh at absurdity and hypocrisy; the Bully, who intimidates others; the Artist, who inspires others to see life symbolically; the Gambler, who follows intuition even when others don’t; the King, who is benevolent of leadership; and dozens of others.

This helps us know who a particular company is, what they stand for, and where they stand in culture—which sometimes informed our entire creative process. From there, all strategy, auditing, image making, and thinking are derived from the positioning of these archetypes. When I buy a Harley Davidson, I’m not buying a motorcycle, I’m buying a story of rebellion. But what happens when I remove the logo? All I have is a hunk of metal and a great marketing department.

Some of my favorite brands of recent times are the social media brands with seamless identites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google. They’re thriving because they’re adaptable, ephemeral, and experiential; they’re looking to please everybody, not just slide into a type. These brands aren’t telling us stories or fitting into an archetype anymore, instead they’ve enabled us to become the characters in the story. Often times, when I check Gmail or Twitter for the first time in the morning, I’m lying in my bed half asleep. I don’t buy them—I live with them, raise them, learn from them, and grow with them. They revolve around habitual change and pontification, and this throws a stick in the spoke of traditional brand marketing.

The aforementioned brands have made my identity completely provisional. I’m just a click or two away from telling the world who I am, what I stand for, and where I’m going. Furthermore, they encourage me to change, to express myself, to unleash my opinions, talents, personality, and experiences. This is seemingly interchangeable, enabling me to play a different role tomorrow. And the more this happens, the more I realize that I don’t want brands to give me a voice, I want brands to be a catalyst for my voice.

But if I’m constantly changing my voice and identity, where does that leave our brands? Are brands changing us, or are we changing them?

It makes me think about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Mr. Edward Rooney’s secretary, Grace, speaks about Ferris: “Oh, he’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads—they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.” And this is exactly the role social media outlets are playing. These brands don’t have to be archetypal anymore, they just have to gainfully house all archetypes.

Which is exactly what I learned to do as a teenager. Being crafty and running towards your position in society is no different for me than it is for post-capitalist branding and advertising. Myths and worlds are created around our brands and ourselves. And my favorite brands seem to be throwing all that aside, making a new platform for the world to play in.

They’ve decided to be the story, rather than tell it.