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The limits of branding

When I started working in branding consultancy back in 2000, we were delighted that the market, in almost all categories, was leaning towards hyper-competitiveness and saturation. It was an ideal situation for us. “All you need is a brand that builds on your difference and makes you stand out from the crowd”. Nothing to object to this strategy, except that it forgot to ask why there was so much of everything and what its origin and consequences were.

Instead of trying to tackle the problem of excess, we encouraged it, providing tools for companies to take advantage of a clearly anomalous situation. And we closed our eyes to everything we didn’t want to see or didn’t seem to care about. We, the branding consultants, were also alienated.

With the new century, the digital era was born and everything accelerated to the point of exacerbation. As spatial-temporal barriers fell and access to information became more democratic, all sorts of businesses and identities competed for our attention. Since it was easy and cheap, we all got a speaker.

The first 20 years of the century brought a widespread lack of focus. Instead of focusing on virtually the only important thing: how to adjust supply and demand to sustain and regenerate the planet without leaving anyone behind, we became huge creators of garbage, including our own content and all that which we never erase because every year we have more free space to accumulate what we never ever review. Instead of fixing the problems, we worsen them to infinity. Every year we exceed the physical planetary limits first. As Gerry McGover says in World Wide Waste we have created an enormous amount of useless and sometimes dangerous virtual waste. Amazon and its 1 click has turned us into spoiled children who want it all and want it now. 90% of the data that our web accumulates is useless and we are not aware that everything that happens in the digital world, from a simple tweet or mail, has an energy cost. The web is obese, he tells us. If it were a digestive system, it would be defined by its inability to poop.

The speed that the web imposes prevents us from thinking in the long term. We are too busy and distracted. Social networks have made addiction to distraction their business model. All in order to produce, accumulate, and sell more and more data. Mostly useless.

We desperately need to stop and think much more. To think about everything. Even our automatisms. If we need to publish photos and videos on Instagram every day, answer that email, create a twitter thread, waste our time on Facebook, change our mobile phone every two years, listen to our favourite song 20 times on Spotify, buy that book on Amazon Prime, buy clothes we don’t need and return them because we don’t like them, publish another new blog without really having anything new to say, create a new product, launch a new company…

And while all that is happening, branding has become expert at hiding the ugly part of the stories, the suffering, and slavery, the new poor, the social and environmental damage that is hidden for example behind fast fashion or our mobile phones – which we can no longer live without – and behind most businesses. Let what we see be so “cool” and so irresistible that we do not want to know more. And the surplus that the market does not know how to dispose of is destroyed, burned, thrown into the oceans so that it does not belong to what we perceive.

A third of the food we produce ends up being wasted or ends up in the garbage. Every second (yes, second!) the equivalent of a truck full of clothes is thrown into the sea or burned. And if we could collect all the old mobiles, computers and household appliances that we throw away every year in the world, their weight would be equivalent to the nine Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, says a BBC article.

We have to think about the ethical boundaries, about what is right and what is wrong. It is unethical that our consumption is based on injustice, environmental destruction and inequality. Inequality that has grown disproportionately in all countries in recent decades.

Ethics Professor Dr. Adela Cortina reminds us that ethical values are not open to opinion. Freedom, equality, solidarity, mutual respect. Those are the values because they were born out of a centuries-long dialogue on the true foundations of our humanity.

When we focus on competing to create more excess, we forget where the deficits are. Just as we are already seeing a plethora of business models born from recovering our garbage, we will need, for example, experts to help us discern the grain from the straw and clean the virtual world of everything we no longer need.

We must dare to bury a system that is not working and set sail for the new world where everything has to be done. Let us use the pandemic moment to get it right. Let’s not do more of the same. Let’s really think about what the world needs as I said in a previous post.

I’m convinced that doing it well involves a “slow” philosophy. If we go back to using our brain that has been hijacked by the Google search engine and look around with the curiosity of a child who dares to ask the question “why?” common sense will make our house of cards collapse. 

If acquiring brand status means that our product or service is associated with certain meanings, let us do this work with the love and talent of a good craftsman, thinking about the long term and the meaning of its existence. Let’s do things as best as possible, not as fast as possible. Fewer brands and well made. And with nothing to hide.

I love my profession and I hope it survives this one and all the crises that are to come. But its destiny has to be otherwise. Let’s help to increase the R.O.L.*, let’s provide powerful identities to all the dreamers who do it right and provide the solutions that the world needs. Our children will be grateful to us.

*R.O.L: return-on-love