Skip to main content

Are branding professionals interested in changing the status quo?

“People around the world are yearning, quietly, for something better”  

Jason Hickel, Less is More.

Experiences. Perceptions. Opinions. Sensations. Feelings. Stories. Meanings. This is the world of branding. But beyond what we perceive, through all our filters and biases, lies reality. Now we know that Tom Peters‘ famous phrase, “Perception is all there is” is not true. Reality exists and it is stubborn. It permeates our daily lives. It is impossible to avoid it. We can close our eyes and continue working in air-conditioned conditions on our next brand, but the slap of inhuman heat that we receive as soon as we set foot on the street reminds us that something is wrong. Something’s terribly wrong.

Where is this coming from, what does it have to do with branding? Let’s flash back a little.

Although the origin of branding dates back to the ancient world, our profession, branding consultancy, begins to make sense in a period known as The Great Acceleration. As Kate Raworth reminds us, it was a spectacular global economic development that allowed many millions of people around the world to lift themselves out of poverty. They were the first generations to enjoy a long life, healthcare, education, clean water, electricity in their homes, and money in their pockets. Moreover, although only in the privileged part of the world, greater equality between men and women was also achieved. 

Car culture, the growth of the middle class, the little house in the suburbs, and the adoption of television, supported by advertising and branding, began to play a major role in everyday life.  The production of consumer goods was so overwhelming that it created competition between countless products that looked and functioned similarly. Modern branding was born out of excess: a unique identity had to be created to differentiate products from their competitors by studying the wants and needs of the target audience. Brands create more profit for companies because the status of a renowned brand allows them to sell at a higher price, and this is the definitive claim. If at first, it was good enough with a simple functional differentiation (“Ariel washes whiter”), it soon became necessary to create an emotional connection, especially if what we are selling is something as intangible as, for example, radio frequency space, i.e. “air”. If consumers “feel” that it is the best product, they will buy it. 

The whole logic of our profession goes hand in hand with a worldview known as business-as-usual. It is the voice that does not question. The one that still believes that our era is living a wonderful, ever-rising success story. As long as brands grow and corporations continue to deliver profits to their shareholders, everything is fine. And that is success. To grow and grow. To infinity. Exponentially even better. The main plot of this vision is to go ahead, to prosper. Nature is a commodity for human consumption. Promoting consumption is good for the economy and everything that happens to other people, nations or species are “externalities” that do not concern us. 

But the story of business-as-usual is crumbling at the same speed that collapse is knocking on our doors. The pandemic that matched Australia’s devastating fires of 2020 was perhaps the starting point. The systems that give us life are already beginning to break down. The global North has begun in this decade to live out the horror story that we ourselves have brought upon the world with an unsustainable lifestyle. Wildfires are becoming more and more terrifying, hurricanes more and more devastating, a brutal excess of carbon dioxide is causing the acidification of the oceans, the mass extinction of species, the melting of the poles, the loss of biodiversity, persistent droughts, shrinking harvests, freshwater shortages… Nothing is normal anymore. We break records every day.

The widespread feeling is that governments and corporations are not reacting with the speed and determination that a state of climate emergency and ever more glaring inequality requires. But fossil fuel sales continue to set records and we are reluctant to change our lifestyles. We don’t seem to be aware of the current reality, the ground truth, the catastrophe, the scale, the priority, the interconnectedness, the acceleration or exponential change, the cascading collapse, the ripple effects, the tipping points, the crisis mode…

What is the role of branding in a world in climate emergency? What should branding consultants do? “Don’t look up”? Perhaps the first thing to do is an exercise in honesty and even conscientious objection: where do we want to place our talent? What brands would we like to boast of having contributed to bringing to the world? What weight does the profit of our consultancy carry in deciding what kind of clients we want? Are we really going to apply for a rebranding competition for an oil company / airline / SUV brand / gaming company / tobacco brand…? Knowing that even its own creators are scared of its negative potential, would we decline to rebrand Chat GPT out of conscientious objection?

Sometimes we don’t know the extent of the negative impact until we analyse in depth the context, the trends, the sector, the logistic chain, the environmental impact, the human exploitation… If we were really honest, the recommendation would simply be don’t do it. Don’t launch a new low-cost brand bound to quickly become junk. Don’t launch a snack loaded with salt and addictive chemicals. Don’t contribute to the junk food shelf. Pepsico’s efforts to get all its ingredients suppliers to learn regenerative agriculture are highly commendable. We need more multinationals to set this example. But… to produce Doritos and Pepsi Cola? really?  If the product does not contribute to the health and well-being of humans and also pollutes the environment with plastic, the truly ethical thing to do would be to stop producing it. But without causing harm. Planning how to reconvert its entire infrastructure into truly nutritious and accessible products.  Exterminating toxicity, not biodiversity. Promoting revitalisation, not depletion of finite resources. Creating collateral benefit, not harm. Investing in solutions, not creating new problems. Reducing environmental impact at all stages of the product/service. Branding consultants should be brave enough to ask:

Who does your company really serve?

Alice Kairo, an activist sustainability consultant, claims that there is a hunger to contribute to the new paradigm. And she is right. Now, that hunger also needs to permeate the centres of power where the wrong decisions are being made for the wrong reasons.

Branding consultants are in a privileged position because our natural interlocutors are the top management. It is important to help them express and activate a positive purpose for the world and values to which they can commit themselves. But it is not enough. We should ask: does this product deserve to exist or will the world breathe easier if we don’t brand it? This is the brave question Houdini asks itself every time it launches a new product. And they continue, will it last long enough? Is it versatile enough? Will it age beautifully? We haven’t added anything that isn’t necessary, have we? Will it be easy to repair? Is it tough enough for our rental programme? Do we have an end-of-life solution? It’s very impressive how they educate people with their product care guides and how they apply the Doughnut economy.

Ultimately it is about helping to change things here and now by answering a new strategic question:

What is it in what we are and know how to do, that is truly useful to the world and contributes to human equity and well-being in an honest and lasting way?