What's The Matter With Branding?

Emily Hill - What’s The Matter With Branding?

Emily Hill - What’s The Matter With Branding?


For several years, I've wanted to start a podcast about the design process. The name has always been "Process Out Loud." The conversations are with people who have a perspective on design and are willing to process out loud with me (about the good, the bad, and the ugly). In the spirit of starting small, I decided to take baby steps toward my dream podcast by recording interviews and transcribing the conversations here on the Trischler Design Co. blog.

For the first installment of Process Out Loud, I interviewed my friend Emily Hill. Emily recently earned her Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, where she wrote her dissertation on the perils of marketing as it relates to the Church. Emily and I often find ourselves in conversations related to theology, branding, marketing, research, and design. I felt the desire to share the ideas of our discussions because, as you will read, most people are totally unaware of how brands influence them. Likewise, designers, like me, are often unaware of the influence we have on others through the brands we create. While I'm still left with questions after chatting with Emily, I think those questions will influence my approach to design and branding for the better. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

D.J. Where are you from?

Emily Loveland, Ohio

What's your favorite color?


What was your dream job as a kid?

A marine biologist (to swim with dolphins). 

What's your Superpower?

I can quote a lot of Top Gun lines. Somehow that became my family’s favorite movie.

What makes you weird?

I have a hard time having surface-level conversations. I can turn something into a theological question pretty fast. I guess that makes me weird; it definitely makes me a nerd.

What's your context within branding? 

I studied economics for undergrad and my master’s and went into marketing research. I spent about ten years working with large consumer packaged goods companies, with some of the biggest brands in the world. I was not explicitly working on branding, but that was the environment that I was operating in every day.

Then I left the corporate world and went back to school to get a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, which means looking at different issues and questions from a theological perspective. I ended up doing most of my research on economics, specifically marketing. I looked at the ethics of marketing from a general social perspective but also from a Christian perspective. Branding was a big part of that.

Look for the Bass beer triangle in this painting by Manet (1822). The logo is the oldest known trademark.

Look for the Bass beer triangle in this painting by Manet (1822). The logo is the oldest known trademark.

How do you define brand and branding?

We tend to think of a brand as the way they originally started, which is a logo or trademark. That started in the early 20th century when there were an increasing number of anonymous, industrialized goods. There was no way to identify them, so logos or trademarks developed to try to personalize and make those products familiar to people. That certainly still exists. But, really, branding plays a much different role than it used to. It often means more than the product itself.

A major goal of marketing in general is to create loyal customers by satisfying their needs. Companies want to retain loyal customers because it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than it is to attract a new customer. As the number of products available has grown, pricing and quality have converged, and most physical needs have been met, so satisfying and retaining customers has become much harder to do. As a result, branding exists to help develop emotional, spiritual connections with customers so that they will become loyal. By doing that companies can protect themselves from competition and generate more profit. 

Products have value and function, and those can be good or bad on their own, but branding is about adding some kind of aura or other meaning to a product, like the central values that reflect the kind of people we want to be or the kind of life we want to lead. Brands attempt to associate those values with a product, which may or may not have anything to do with the product’s functionally. When a brand gets people to associate and identify those values with the product, they create an emotional or spiritual connection.

For example, one branding expert suggests that people "join" brands for the same reason that people join cults: to belong, to make meaning, to feel secure and experience order within chaos, and to create identity. In today’s society, brands try to help people do those things.

Is that why you left corporate America?

I didn't leave corporate America over branding, marketing, or the techniques that I eventually examined in my Ph.D. research. I generally had a sense that I didn't want to stay in corporate America forever. Part of that, but not the only reason, was that was I more attracted to social justice issues.

I was also disillusioned. I did not want to get up every day to help companies sell more things that people don't really need. It is not that marketing is all about selling people things that they don't need, but I got a sense from some of the companies that I worked with that they really believed that the products they were selling made the world a better place—and I didn't equate those products with that idea. For example, they were selling wrinkle cream that they thought would help make women more secure and, therefore, improve their lives. A growing number of companies think that their products are more meaningful and fulfilling than they are, or they promise something more than a product can ever really be or give—like significance or love.

That makes sense. Can you elaborate on what's the matter with branding?

The first problem with branding is that while brands may try to provide some type of community or meaning for people, the fundamental purpose of the brand is to create loyalty for the sake of profit. Profit is not necessarily bad. But the intent of the brand is for the corporation to make money, so we have to recognize that any community that it does generate, any identity that it does create—even while we might in some way be able to classify that as a potentially positive thing—is never purely for the consumer. It's for the sake of company profit.

Brands are actually financial assets that are worth something on the balance sheet of a company. It's something that can be bought and sold, but the brand itself doesn't actually mean anything. It's a wholly fabricated idea, and it only has meaning if the advertisers persuade us that it does. As we consume those products, we start to try to embody those values, or believe we are doing so by using the product, but it's an entirely subjective experience.

The second problem with branding happens when a company associates a brand with a particular political stance, a specific value that we want to embody, or a cause that we think is important. Part of our political energy that could be productively used in society is then channeled towards that brand, and it's not actually a productive thing within a community—it doesn’t really address the cause or meaningfully embody the value. It's just basically going towards our own consumption, again to help the company make money.

Nike Ad featuring Colin Kaepernick

Nike Ad featuring Colin Kaepernick

An example of that, and this is a tricky one, is Nike and Colin Kaepernick. Regardless of what you think of the stands that Colin Kaepernick takes, Nike made a calculated decision that by associating Kaepernick's message with their brand, their target audience would then positively identify with Nike. 

After the ad started airing, I saw a lot of people on social media saying that they saw a Nike purchases in their future. What’s implied in those posts is that, because of the connection to Colin Kaepernick, wearing Nike said something about the kind of person, the type of values, or the sort of political stance that they had. That's exactly what Nike wanted. They wanted people who supported Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter to buy their products. This is an example of a value or cause I want to stand behind and embody, but branding teaches me to channel my political energy to buying Nike as opposed to actually working for change in society. I think their share price was at an all-time high after that campaign.

Customers wait in line for a new Apple product. Photo:  Rob DiCaterino

Customers wait in line for a new Apple product. Photo: Rob DiCaterino

And then lastly, the third problem relates to our meaning systems, whether it's Christian or some other religion or ideology. We need to recognize how branding is going to try to compete with that meaning system and the ways branding and our faith tradition are in contradiction. 

If a brand is trying to generate loyalty, other words for that loyalty might be faithfulness or worship. From a Christian perspective, then, we could recognize a brand as being an idol, or something that we worship instead of God. The tricky thing about that is we're not really conscious of doing that because the system and the culture of branding are so pervasive that it just feels normal. But a brand is trying to generate loyalty that is affecting our worship in some way whether we recognize it or not.

You could also analyze it in regards to other systems or communities within society that are more real or more productive in terms of creating meaning or value in culture or in our lives. Branding offers a type of community and requires a kind of worship. It competes with other systems that are hopefully deeper or more real or truer in some way. Whatever you believe about a given religion, usually people think that it is meant to define them in some way, and a brand attempts to do the same thing.

That is really powerful.

So, to summarize the three points of what's wrong with branding, the first one had to do with the fact that no matter what it does the brand has the best interest of the company in mind. They're building loyalty and trust so that they can continue to make money. 

The second point was that when buying from a brand that purports to back a social cause, we're mostly funding the brand, not the social campaign. The problem there is that we feel we are doing something "good" and may actually not be doing anything at all. A false good. Instead of loving our neighbor, we're building up a brand’s value.

The third one is related to our meaning system and how brands can pull us from traditional spiritual anchors. Beyond a product, brands offer self-actualization, and we're increasingly going to them rather than a mosque, church, temple, etc. 

Yeah, that about sums it up.

RX Bars – example of a clear and transparent product.

RX Bars – example of a clear and transparent product.

So what can we do about it?

Basically, at a minimum, it comes down to not promising something that a product isn't. Communicate clearly what the product is and what it can do for your audience. There are real things that a product can do that are good. Focus on what is really good and what that product or service can really do. Once it starts going beyond that to any sort of emotion, community, or spirituality, it’s gone past what a product or service can actually do, and now it’s encouraging people to identify a product with something much bigger than it really can be.

What I'm hearing is that somebody like myself, a designer working for mostly lowercase "b" branding projects (not household name brands), needs to be cautious not to promise more than what my client's product or service can offer. And, that if there is a community involved, don't guarantee more than what that community can offer. You and I have talked about this before. Be clear and transparent. 


Everlane – example of a clear and transparent product.

Everlane – example of a clear and transparent product.

But doesn't “clear and transparent” become a brand to some extent? Beyond garments, that's what Everlane sells, for example. 

Yeah, it's almost unavoidable. We can't escape brands. I mean, if Everlane is actually transparent and doing ethical production, then okay, that’s a good thing; they're not building up a false story around their product. But even a true story has power over people.

I talked about this in my research. The more that I am rooted in Christ (or a belief system), then the more I can turn outwards (from that rooted place) towards other people (and brands). Yeah, sure, I'm going to buy brands because they exist and everything is a brand. I'm going to have a product that has a logo on it. But my identity, my action, is determined by my relationship to Christ and the needs of my neighbor. My purchase is going to be based on that overall orientation of my life, not the promises that a brand has made to me in some way.

What the brand is trying to provide is an orientation, a way of living, a form of worship, and we need to be aware of that. If I can become aware of that and know who I really worship, that’s going to change my interaction with brands.

Awesome. This is really helpful for me, and I could see this being helpful to other people too. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Where can people connect with you online?

Sounds good! I'm on Twitter as @emilybethhill.