Category Archives: Insights

TRUMPING AMERICA’S LIZARD

A neuro-exploration of the ever-present bluster of Trump brand, and how Donald Trump effectively used it as a shorthand for choice to the White House

Donald Trump tweeted that Barack Obama will go down as the worst POTUS.   President Obama quipped, “at least I will go down as a president” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”  The president was not alone.  Mitt Romney, who challenged President Obama in 2012, dismissed Mr. Trump as “phony and fraud.”  Several more high-profile Republicans denounced using apocalyptic language to warn others not to choose Trump as their nominee during the primaries or not to cast their ballots in the general election.  Prominent right-wing broadcasters from Glenn Beck to Washington Post columnist George Will to The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol asserted that Trump lacked character, values, and experience, and declared that he would put the country’s national security and well-being at redoubtable peril.  Left-wing media tried their best to expunge Trump by covering his faulty business records, failed deals, tax evasions, and his salacious past with super models and beauty queens.  More shockingly, newspapers that had no permanent address on the left-right scale also reclined in their opulent endorsement to Trump’s rivals both in the primaries and in the general election.  Editorial boards of conservative papers such as, the Arizona Republic, the San Diego Union-Tribune endorsed a Democrat for the first time in their century-long history.  The heavy reliance on big data journalism, survey and exit polls, powered by sophisticated modeling augured a massive Trump loss.

All along the rousing campaign speeches, Trump made extraordinary claims: mainstream media wants to surrender the constitution, American media is dishonest, media folks are scum, poll numbers do not present reality.  One of the handicaps of the twenty-first century postmodern thought is that most election pundits, like most market researchers, have the vaguest and biased notions of what constitutes a nation (or market); a nation (or market) is never made of monolith citizens (or customers).  Just as Indians of India do not have the same preferences, tastes, and choices, so do the Japanese of Japan or the Americans of the United States.

Hours after the polls closed, the New York Times reversed its anti-Trump stance when election results percolated early evening.  It declared Trump had 91% chances of winning the presidency.  The newscasters reporting the results did not know where to hide their numb faces.  Election analysts and pundits who based their estimates on their own subjective odds bit their fingernails, silently howled, and ran for cover.  After the results were announced, President Obama graciously asserted that all Americans root for Trump’s success to make America great again.  Romney sent his wishes, and so did the scores of defectors of the Donald Party.  Headlines screamed the day after “major upset,” “unexpected result,” “surprise victory.”

Beyond the presidential victory, the Republican Party secured a majority with fifty-one senators and retained its strong presence in the House of Representatives.  State-wide gubernatorial elections also established a Republican majority.  Trump’s win showed how little the electorate cared about media endorsements and opinion columns.  The barometers of opinion made obvious how they were out of tune with the great swathes of American feeling.

Feeling is an instinct—a conscious, subjective experience of emotion—that cannot be measured in survey forms, self-reports, mathematical modeling, and rational analyses.  Also, emotion can be evocative or suppressive; the latter, more oblique, and so more challenging to ascertain.  The Trump campaign actually retreated beyond the rational and the emotional.  In order to uncover unarticulated forces behind behavior, a new set of glasses are recommended to charter the recondite terrains of the ancient segment of our lizard brain.  A unique concoction of neurobiology, cultural anthropology, and cognitive psychology need to be employed to discover the hidden forces that pre-organize the way people behave.

Don MacLean first informed about the triune brain: reptilian complex (lizard), limbic system (monkey), and neocortex (human).  If trigonometry, descriptive statistics and polling numbers reside in the realm of neocortex (the new brain) and evocative emotions in the cortex (the middle brain) that we inherited from mammals, instincts, cherished beliefs, and reflexive decisions are governed in the lizard brain (the old brain).  The new brain thinks, the middle brain feels, and the old brain decides.  Though humans like to think they are rational beings, most times they have no awareness relating to nonconscious behavior, and the reason why they make the choices they make.  The more outspoken ones would rationalize their irrationality, but why people do what they do, and how they related with Trump’s no-policy campaign is pre-organized in the lizard code.

Having the richest experience in politics, spending millions in election campaigns, or conceptualizing the best policies to address nation’s problems does not guarantee that voters will vote.  Those address the monochrome rational brain.  Exciting findings in brain research inform that speaking to the old lizard brain in the simplest of language and in the most authentic means triggers passion, decision, and action.  In the book “How the Brain Works,” brain scientist Leslie Hart states, “much evidence now indicates that the old brain is the main switch in determining what input will go and what decisions will be accepted.”  Dr. Joseph LeDoux in “Emotional Brain,” points out that amygdala—located in the old brain—“has greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on amygdala, allowing emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking and decision making.”  In other words, the lowly orders of our organism are in the loop of higher reason and cognition.

With all this scientific evidence, the challenge in sales, marketing, and branding is how to address a four-hundred million year-old brain.  While all candidates were debating various issues from national security to green energy and educating inner-city America, Trump was engaged in piloting an emotional movement; mesmerizing the American lizard.

Donald Trump couldn’t articulate his political stance though he ran on a Republican ticket.  He is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.  He has been a Democrat and also a Republican.  He has endorsed candidates or parties on both sides.  He threw his weight behind those on the right, like Mitt Romney, and on the left, like Bill Clinton.  Instead of appearing as a centrist, he chose to reconcile the right’s losing popularity at an unsatisfactory status quo with a grandiose positioning statement: Make America Great Again.  That was his best chance of winning, because the US had seen eight years of a liberal Obama.  Bernie Sanders widened the playing field, introducing a brew of socialism-inspired transformative policies that greatly weakened Trump’s rival, Ms. Hillary Clinton who had more things to worry throughout her campaign from deleting thirty-three thousand confidential e-mails to her slightly manufactured brand identity.  Trump was authentic.  He spoke his mind.  Though authentically dangerous most times in the campaign trail, he effortlessly earned the points for being more openly terrible than any of his rivals.  It’s considered authentic that he doesn’t speak from a teleprompter but just wings it.  When you’re not making a consilient argument or an elaborate policy, winging served Trump’s purpose.  As much it abundantly helped him get under opponent’s skin, it significantly thrills the lizard brain to be liked here and now.  The lizard loves such authenticity.  And that causes the intoxicated lizard to erupt in chants and cheers that you often witness in religious and liturgical traditions; giving one up to the communal ecstasy of making America great.

People have personalities.  Brands have personalities.  Nations have personalities.  For brands and nations, good maps for charting highways and byways are guided less by hyperrational charts of maximizing utility that economists, statisticians, and strategists believe.  In my excursions of practicing the alchemy that happens when brand truth meets consumer insight, I am moved beyond conviction that anthropologists and psychologists hold these charts in spades.

In Freud’s psychology, the ego does its best to mediate between the irrational urges of the id and the moralistic constraints of the superego.  Archetypal psychology builds up on Freudian psychology to promise a baroque set of charts to explore into the deeper dynamics of instincts as natural drivers and agents of feelings as they’re felt.  Carl Jung said that archetypes, a universally familiar character of unconscious origin, transcends time, place, culture, gender, and age.  This notion of collective unconscious that culture has created evolves over time.  This cultural unconscious offers a powerful imprint, a reference system that evokes imagery and story, produces meaning and feeling, engenders loyalty and advocacy.

America’s cultural adolescence informs Trump’s core market segment in a wide variety of ways; the very same theme showed up in nearly every American discovery session I have made in my brand consulting engagements.  Americans never had to kill an emperor; we only rebelled against one and shut the door on him.  Perhaps for this reason, our rebellion never terminated.  The US never produced a world-class classical composer, but we exported thousands of rock and rap artists.  We sold sugar and cola syrup in water, violent movies, fast food, high-energy sports and made more icons than anyone.  Our celebrities encapsulate this adolescence:  Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Elvis Presley, Tiger Woods, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton..the list is endless.  If Michael Jackson did not want to face the reality of his age that he boxed himself up in an oxygen chamber, Tom Cruise jumped around Oprah Winfrey’s set, hopped onto a couch, fell rapturously to one knee to profess his love for Katie Holmes (who are now divorced).  If we look at Trump’s supporters through this set of glasses we see the lizard’s trappings of deep-rooted adolescence.  Bill Clinton was a political genius, not for his understanding of world problems, but for his ability to resonate to with American cultural unconscious.  Donald Trump, like Bill Clinton, is the perfect adolescent president.  Trump’s adolescent rebellion showed in myriad ways:  1. I do not want money from special interest groups; 2. our political system is rigged; 3. the media people are dishonest; 4. immigrants can’t kill American people; 5. we make stupid trade deals with China.

Let’s ignore the illegal immigrants who have jumped the fence, even legal immigrants who have not been assimilated to American cultural unconscious wouldn’t understand Trump.  And, Trump did not need to embrace them in his target audience.  He was trying to fish from a pond that will supply him many fishes to outdo his opponent who was preaching “togetherness” in a culture that worships individualism, anti-authority, and freedom.  Now let’s look at his brand communication strategy.

Words have been around for forty-thousand years; prior to that, man’s communication was limited to grunts and gestures.  Written words have been around for ten-thousand years.  Old brain is thirty times older than written words.  In an era of one-hundred-forty-character tweets and ten-second TV sound bites, Trump’s fourth-grader language and colloquial vernacular resonated with a broader swath of voters than his highfalutin opponents.  His vocabulary was filled with simple words that impel divisive emotions like “huge,” “terrible,” “beautiful,” “stupid,” or punchy, direct phrases like “all talk, no action,” “low-energy,” “take their oil,” “build a wall,” or “she’s nasty.”  Though the educated may suppose a continued decline in the complexity of political speeches, the lizard brain doesn’t understand drawn-out exegesis nor was Trump targeting Ivy League professors.  He was persuading the Iowa corn farmer and the tattooed Milwaukee motorcycle gang member using unbridled emotion, not sagacious reason.  He was talking New York style; a type of language that can be perceived rude, offensive, or even dangerous.  For instance, a person from Seattle would say:  It looks like it may rain.  New Yorker:  Oh, shit!  As if I needed that goddamned rain on my noggin.  Trump’s New York speaking style was a mistake to speak outside New York, but soon the Midwesterner understood and Trump also toned down his brusque enunciation.  His short sentences began and ended with strong words almost like a perfect copywriter of a Fifth Avenue advertising agency.  Millions of people bought the Trump brand for what it said about themselves to others midway through the campaign.

Who are these millions of people?  As media ofttimes portrayed a rally pugilist or a white supremacist, the true Trump supporter comes out of conservative tradition but she is not a traditional Sunday church-goer.  She is the archetype American Trump coveted to fish.  She is inspired by Ronald Reagan, but does not get her news from Fox Broadcasting Company.  She is not wearing three-inch stilettos on the streets of Tribeca.  She is in her comfortable sneakers and lives in Topeka.  She is not listening to Beyonce’s contemporary R&B or Kurt Vile’s lo-fi brew of alternative country.  She loves the angst of hard rock or stuck with Appalachian folk of yore on her iPod.  She is not the one who will enthusiastically stand in line to participate in a survey or post a Facebook selfie update with a “nasty woman” hashtag.  She will rather go to the Trump rally in the Michigan cold.  She is not a jingoist, homophobe, or a dummy, though some are.  She is the slightly spoiled white girl who relates to experience rather than is not swayed by the lame-stream media.  She clearly does not want the government to shove her health insurance down her throat, for she loves autonomy, freedom, and individual choice.  She may not have the aptitude to go to graduate school.  She is a freewheeling country girl with abundance of attitude.  Let’s remember that attitude is more consequential than aptitude to bring about any change or progress.  She has been dubiously asking herself where American exceptionalism exited since the day President Obama was elected.  She recently woke up from an eight-year nightmare to miraculously believe that privilege and respect were two shakes of a lamb’s tail the day Trump sits on the throne.

Believing is a old brain task; seeking is the duty of the new brain.  Politics, like religion, belongs to the realm of belief.  Belief gives two hoots about evidence.  When the red-hot button of the lizard brain is switched on, Trump’s supporters can be tone-deaf to his unbounded vulgarity, knowledge-free authoritarianism, and ingrained misogyny.  A lawyer takes a side out of sheer belief, and then diligently seeks evidence to build the case.  On the contrary, a scientist diligently seeks evidence first, and then draws upon a thesis after multiple experimentations.  People vote like lawyers; not as scientists.  The chimera of the fiercely independent American everyman’s belief reigns supreme every four years.  Perhaps that’s also the reason why among the four-hundred-and-thirty-five members of the House of Representatives, we seldom find a microbiologist or a chemical engineer.

Captivated with the apparent logic of pithy observations as “it’s not media which matter, it is what men do with media,” Trump manipulated media the way media manipulates the public.  Instead of being the subject of the news, he became the news.  Trump, a salesman, above all, of Trump, singlehandedly turned media around; he did not require Lady Gaga to strike a note in Omaha nor Katy Perry to sing his praise in Montgomery.  When you are on your way of hypnotizing the cultural domain of the lizard brain, why bother splashing some culture with hip hop music in campaign rallies.  Most below-average brands do, and so did Trump’s rivals.

Hillary Clinton should know American Presidential campaigns are not about ideas; someone needed to remind her that she was not running against Jeb Bush.  Presidential campaigns are about the finding of a hero who incarnates the fantasy of the masses and finds a way to make it burgeon.  Though he might have seemed like a twisted caricature of every reflex of the right, Donald Trump addressed the prevalent pain of national decline in tweet-like prose to capture the cloak-and-dagger lizard of the millions of forgotten and anxious white people who leaned slightly right or left of the political spectrum.  Trump awakened something that Americans felt they did not have.  What thing?  As a street preacher would, Trump reconstructed their worldview that America was not as great as she could be, and peddled to them that he will make her great again.

Trump’s brand is a brand of bombast.  He says a lot in blunderbuss style.  “I built the greatest hotel, the greatest golf course, the greatest casino, and wrote the greatest business book.”  He believes what he says.  The paradox of Trump is that he knows “The Art of the Deal” was written by a ghostwriter, he does not own the greatest hotel or casino, but he says it the way he says because that’s just who he is.  Heroes are narcissists.  Heroes believe in themselves.  It is that enormous self-belief that makes others believe.  Trump believes.  It is that lizard-kicking belief that made scores of American believe.  Tell me seriously, if your money were at stake, wouldn’t you take Trump?  He’d come with an aggressive first offer:  deport all the illegal immigrants.  At the end of the negotiation, he’d make a more sane deal, but still win.

As a brand strategist, I am distinctly impressed how Trump positioned himself to trump America’s lizard.  I also understand the semantic tricks or techniques that were, in effect, supposed to demonstrate how the American voter was made to believe America was frail, fragile, and fatigued, and that he is the wall builder who will resolve the immigration plague; the superior dealmaker who will remedy America’s trade woes; the guardian angel who will revive the US.  The truth however is Trump is a blowhard billionaire with mixed-up political ideologies who funded his own campaign to seize power before an imminent collapse of the Republican Party; a pathologically impulsive salesman who fortuitously keyed in to the lizard’s vault.  As the president-elect, I wish he improves his short-attention span, begins speaking a language that of at least a sophomore of high school (definitely not as a New Yorker), and truly makes America united, prosperous, and more innovative.

As a postscript, I must announce I prefer free enterprise and favor deregulation and privatization.  After having lived in large metropolises such as Chicago, London, and now New York City, it should not surprise the reader that I am socially liberal.  I am neither left nor right, but all the better for it that you want to call the radical right-center.  Since neither of the candidates appealed to my political stance of true progressivism, I inform the reader of the objectivity of this piece.


WRITING ABOUT WRITING

Writing about Writing

Though not a voracious reader, I still prefer books over movies or television. I’ve always believed the little cinematographer in my head to be more capable than some hatchet-wielding director hell bent on robbing some poor author’s work of its finer bits. I’d like to cast the given script on my mental screen myself. In my college-going years, when I embarked on the obligatory quest for truth, non-fiction displaced fiction. Why would I want to waste my time reading someone’s hackneyed version of Jack and Jill going up the hill? You only get to engage in a few hours of cock-and-bull thrill, flipping through their twists in the tales: Jill came tumbling down the hill… pregnant, deciding to kill the heavy-handed Jack (ass); or Jill discovered atop a pleasant Michigan hill, her real soul-mate—Janet—who proposed and they lived happily ever after. And thus, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu dethroned Salman Rushdie and Ernest Hemingway, and their books have occupied the hallowed book shelves ever since.

Ten years ago, I was searching for a topic on which to write my dissertation. While I was people-watching at London Heathrow, I saw a man with a New York Yankees logo prominently tattooed on his neck. That poignant vision implored me to adopt the commoditization of corporate logo tattoos as my life’s purpose. Ten years perhaps is a long time, but that’s how long it took me to sufficiently understand human behavior: why do humans adorn themselves with brand logos, what transforms average fans to devotees, what causes or changes one’s beliefs? My research took me to Sturgis, SD and Daytona, FL where, among other things, I immersed myself into Harley tribe subculture. I’ve conducted ethnographic interviews with blindly devoted patriots of iconic brands such as, Google, Nike, Apple, et al. At one time, tattoo artists dominated my Facebook friends. I’ve even cheekily infiltrated religious cult groups for weeks at a time just to examine their brainwashing techniques. To sum, my research has been compiled during the years that saw America elect a black man as its President, get their revenge against Osama Laden, and completely lose their shit over deflated footballs. Who knew all this work would pale in comparison to the work that lies beyond the horizon?

Ideating and researching, though significant, form only a small portion of the writing process. Writing is bloody hard work. When the writer puts ink to paper, he sits as a cat stranded on a hot tin roof. I’ve seen vapors emanate from my ears. A clear sentence is never an accident. Think about writing as stringing together a few sentences to transfer worthwhile thought from one head to another. As a debuting author anxious to reach a wider audience, I understand that you can never knock at the doors of creativity and expect an answer. Writers wait for creativity to hunt them down, hoping their meticulous application of scents and well-practiced calls will attract it to within striking distance, only to accidentally run it over on the way home. How succulent is literary road kill!

Writers hang in there during moments of despair by myriad bizarre ways that resemble a deranged person in a funny farm. Personally, banging my head against a wall when no one is looking has proven efficacious, as has gnawing pencils like a graphic zombie well past the midnight hour into the dawn of morrow. More recently, I’ve discovered a healthier tactic; I reread the written, and I’ve mercilessly transformed into a murderer, hacking away at every sentence to find its cleanest form. Every word that serves no function deserves no place in the book. The superior writer is empathetic, knowing the focus should be placed on the the reader, not on himself. By the way, did you realize your brain did not recognize the second “the” in the previous sentence? Perhaps this also explains why proof-reading one’s own copy often drives writers to the impact-wall or chew on nonfood objects like the pencil-gum. Same hopeless result.

Even after successfully completing the footnotes and tables, constructing bibliographies, listing indexes, illustrating frameworks, and designing the cover, a writer’s destination is still not in sight. In fact, after the hard work of getting everything on paper, writers have to take a back seat. The book proposal needs to seduce a literary agent who must then sell the work to the editor of a reputable publishing house before the book hits the stand. Even then, readers have to be convinced to adopt their screaming child, and post a five-star review on Amazon. In these times of electronic diffusion and social media, authors are required to elicit direct sales. Instead of spiritlessly brooding about how I can’t be a J. K. Rowling, like every other writer in the world, I am crawling by the inch, word by word, and forcing a more reductionist view of the ominous mountain ranges to be scaled, to lure an agent or an editor into selling my ten-years worth of work.

Authors of nonfiction relay specialized knowledge. They can hide behind the wall of science or research. On the contrary, fiction writers have no scaffolding with which to brace themselves; they just stand there with naked words. The characters of fictional work need to be created; their personalities sculpted; their environment crafted; their story developed. Emotion needs to be aroused through these characters and their interactions, in their environs, and in the profound impact of their adventures.

Recently, while incubating a Jersey park bench that overlooks Manhattan’s impossible skyline, I realized I’ve been disrespectful to the works of fiction, to the men and women who have shared many memorable stories with the world. I got back home a changed man. The thought of the extra pain the fiction writers endure gives me renewed vigor as I try to make the words shine and pop in my own manuscript of vade mecum. No wonder that since the time of the Akkadians, storytelling has always been attributed to divine sources. Even this sentence is a goddamn miracle.


SEMIOTICS OF BRAND BUILDING

Smoke signifies fire.  Thus the saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  Similarly, facial micro expressions often manifest unseen emotions.  Even words (or letters) which are only sounds carry meaning to communicate and also persuade.  Like signs and symbols, brands are also imaginative signposts, signifying sign-object relation, and connecting specific signs to definite objects.  Take for instance the “golden arches”.  Kids scream for a Happy Meal at the very sight of it.  For children, McDonalds’ becomes a clear representation of food and fun, while for adults golden arches symbolizes many other meanings, such as: fast food, quick consistent service, clean bathrooms, which are instrumental brand identity markers in impressing the image of American food in consumers’ consciousness.

Semiotics, the scientific domain of study that explores actions of sign systems, lays out fertile territory how brands assimilate to provide meanings and representations in the consumer ecosystem.  Though brand owners and custodians create identities, consumers actively involve in the process of signification, thereby constructing brand meaning and related brand connotations.  To mine the insights that can unlock the sheaves of meanings, consumer behaviorists and market researchers can turn to semiotics to explore the transient or enduring collections of mental associations, perceptions, and expectations.  Because every time consumer groups decide to use and recognize a sign as a vehicle to interpret vessels of other intangible qualities, in another vein, brand managers can also actively employ semiotic elements to define or aggregate brand referents.  Since a brand is a system of sensory signs that incites consumers in a symbolic process, which then contributes to tangible value, semiotics is the keystone of brand building.

Although interest in signs has a long, celebrated history starting from Hippocrates to Plato, modern semiotic analysis can be said to have begun with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the incomparable American pragmatist and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).  Important theoretical and applied work were uniquely reinvigorated throughout the 20th. century via Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and several other distinguished semioticians.  In today’s entropic world of consumerism and instantaneous worldwide communication, principles of semiotics can be an effective strategic tool for marketers to compare brand intention with consumer interpretation, to robustly align brand identity with brand image.

Unlike conventional research approaches, Peircean semiotic resources are emergent approaches that emphasize determining referents by interpretants to further develop brands as dynamic symbolic entities.  When we consider the semiotics of music culture, the iPod was an inspired outcome that not only leveraged culture, but also changed pop culture.  Nintendo Wii transformed the symbolized culture of laziness in gaming to human interaction and activity; so did Starbucks a decade earlier, and the Muthoot Group in gold-loaning business.

Although branding is by far the most visible application area, semiotic techniques can also be employed to formulate brand elements from logo to packaging design, marketing mix, promotions, and advertising, etc.  In this context, author’s slide deck, “Semiotics of Brand Building” embedded in this article below, is worth exploring.  The presentation consists of three sections: 1. Why semiotics, 2. philosophic historicity of semiotics, and 3. semiotics in the context of brand building.  The case of the Muthoot brand lends credence to the structural semiotic concept of “bricolage” that not only offers an innovative framework to understand both narrative and dialectical process of branding, but also formulates memorable visual, indelible verbal, and experiential identities, and effectively manage those discursive structures of the brand.

Brands, at root, is a metaphor, but the nature of metaphorical thinking is entirely a distinctive aspect of human behavior of his civilizations.  As a culturally determined activity, brands are a totality than the arithmetic sum of a group of identity markers from name, logo, strap line, advertisement, endorser, or whatever.  The object of symbolism is the enhancement of the significance of a brand that is symbolized.   Consequently, brands are privileged doublets, born out of the materiality of “messages on bottles” and resides as organic states of mind with which consumers can directly form consociation.  You only need to think of myriad bottled water brands named with imagined properties associated with pristine water sources.  For instance, bottled water brands, Yosemite Waters and Alaskan Falls are packaged using municipal water sources in the industrial suburbs of Corpus Christi, TX and Dayton, OH respectively.

Though it seems mystical at first blush, brands are also symbolic expressions of meanings that can augment regimented mental associations and emotional attachments of the consumer.  Brands add emotion to instinct and afford a foothold for reason by its delineation of the particular instinct it expresses.  The expression of symbolic brand meaning is a distinctive type of communication:  narrative, picture, enactment, and re-enactment, and yet somehow separate from them as ever-present components of consumption culture.  The effect of symbolic meaning formation is primarily the formulation of perceptual experience, conscious, non conscious and unconscious, which constantly reinforces and/or reformulates conceptual frames.

Analogous to a jigsaw puzzle-solver, a semiotician can figure out how the bits of signs and pieces of concepts cohere into larger patterns.  After all, people buy things not only for what things can do, but also for what things stand for.  Brand meaning mediates between products and consumer motivation; semiology can amply help in deciphering those meanings.


AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TO BRANDING

(Editor’s pick when published originally in the Branding Magazine)

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” While this shorthand definition is convenient, it completely misses the inextricable mental associations and emotional linkages that consumers create when valuing brands.

On the continuum from cave paintings to social media updates, symbols have created an infinite sensory palette of visual and verbal expression which instantaneously produces the intended perceptual recognition – belonging, love, respect, loyalty and advocacy.

Brand identity elements, from names to tags to designs, are only the material markers completely devoid of meaning. It is often the case not what the brand stands for, but what consumers perceive the brand stands for. If a consumer is intimately attached to a symbol, close examination divulges that there is actually less to the symbol than meets the eye. A wedding ring does not mean a marriage has occurred. For instance, the bride from the Syrian Christian communities of Kerala wears minnu (a pendant) to signal marital union. Should we apply principles of cultural anthropology to advance branding from mere material symbols to the realm of symbolism, a collective understanding of the plots and metaphors that spur customers’ imaginations and mental associations begin to be defined.

Symbolism is a culturally-determined activity, more as a totality than as the arithmetic sum of a group of symbols. In branding, the object of symbolism is the enhancement of the importance of what is symbolized. This enrichment to symbolic meaning occurs when brand stories are recited by various authors: Company, culture intermediaries, critics, retail sales personnel and customers.

I spent three years pursuing a ‘going native’ type of interpretive ethnographic research on customer evangelists who pompously wore a brand logo as a tattoo. Harley Davidson loyalists don’t care about the torque generated by the engine; rather, it is the Harley brand values espoused by sociocultural, symbolic, and ideological aspects that transform the casual biker into a Harley loyalist. In fact, many car buyers ignore and/or are completely ignorant of product attributes and technical specifications, such as a multi-point fuel injection system, the engine compression ratio, etc. None of the brands are found in lists of attributes, nor sets of form and function. Instead, brands can be known only by the unfolding of their unique stories within the context of the symbolic perception they create and manage for long periods of time.

When we look at brands through a cultural anthropological lens, it becomes more discernible as to why consumers tattoo themselves with the Harley Davidson or Nike logo in permanent ink to proudly claim membership of a tribe; sprinkle the rim of a Corona bottle with sea salt and insert a lime wedge to flavor the beer; never mind paying $2.59 for a cup of Starbucks when they can brew coffee at home for $0.07/cup. As we move into the consideration of symbolic perception, our concern with fields, organizations, and relationships shifts our framework of brand discourse to approach brands as vessels of symbolic meanings that evoke personalities and emotion through myth, rituals, symbolism and ethos.

Brand is a noun. It is a verb. It may be about what we do. But, overall, it is all about what is in the mind – the mind of the consumer and the mind of the employee. Regrettably, most books, articles, and practices (like AMA’s imprecise definition of a brand) approach, analyze and articulate brand as a mere material marker from a business economic perspective. It is about time that we start examining brands and branding from a cultural perspective. And anthropology can amply help.


BRAND ENGINEERING

How do you look at the world?  The world is just the same; it does not change.  Do you see it from down here, like a frog, as Spengler said, or up above, like an eagle.  Branding is the management of perceptions in the consumer ecosystem.


WHAT IS BRANDING?

THE POWER OF brands is undeniable. The moment we decide to buy soda, we know what brand of soda we’d purchase even before we leave our apartments to the corner store. Brands create unmatched loyalty and boundless profits for corporations. What’s it about brands that transforms people’s emotions and behavior? Why should a pair of jeans from True Religion inspire such an emotional response and commitment. Why should MBAs who graduate from Thunderbird or bikers who ride a Harley ink the logo of the brand to claim membership to an exclusive clique?

In 2007, I embarked on a journey to find out the answer(s) how brands create devotion strictly from the consumer’s perceptive. My journey took me to ashrams in India, secret consumer tribe conventions, Sturgis and Daytona motorcycle rallies, Apple stores, tattoo parlors across the length and breadth of the US, and many other exciting places. I am still collecting valuable data with plans of publishing my findings. This keynote presentation uses four iconic brands: Coca-Cola, Apple, Thunderbird, and Motorhead. I hope this set of slides helps unlock some of the secrets of how brands build emotional connections, and why branding is important.


LIZARD BRAIN: THE KEY TO BRAND SUCCESS

Rationality does not cut any ice with the lizard brain.  You appeal to it at a deeper level, and when you do, the keys to brand success are found.

We have only just scratched the surface of our potential – like icebergs at least 98% of our emotional and intellectual awareness occurs ‘under the surface’ in the murky depths of the subconscious mind1.

It would be disingenuous to dismiss this when approaching the all-encompassing practice of Marketing Research; after all, an iceberg wouldn’t even reach the surface without this sturdy base below.

So why do market researchers only focus on that 2% rather than engaging with those core beliefs that keep that smaller percentage visible?

Here’s a lesson from my graduate school days: A friend of mine, fresh from his native country and in the US less than a week stumbled upon a way to earn a quick buck. He registered himself to take part in a focus group for consumers who loved to eat Mac and Cheese straight from the box.

In his native country, breakfasts are as freshly cooked as they are varied – they didn’t even sell Mac and Cheese; however for his insights into this largely unknown delicacy he received a cool $100.  He even showed me the T-Shirts and CDs he brought with his Mac and Cheese money.

My friend displayed the basic human characteristics that we all take for granted; those impulses that lie above the surface.  We as a species, driven by a collective consciousness that elevates intelligence as a desirable quality, even in the lack of that quality, will strive to appear intelligent.

Such social performances can come in myriad forms – artful omissions, the provision of incomplete or misleading information, outright deception, faking, lying, carefully chosen words, persistence, bullshitting, and so on.

This deceptive behavior does not have any power; it is only when someone believes in the manipulation that its power manifests itself.  In an interview, Vasudevi Reddy of University of Portsmouth claims:

“Fake crying is one of the earliest forms of deception to emerge, and infants use it to get attention even though nothing was wrong.” 2

In this case, it’s a question of dignity: the infant knows the parameters in which it will be most successful. Now, think about adults; Do any of these responses sound familiar?

“Honey, you look perfect in that dress!”

“Oh, your e-mail must have ended up in my spam folder; that’s why I didn’t respond!”

“Your updates never show up on my Facebook newsfeed.”

Both women and men consciously fabricate these face-saving stories.  In one out of ten interactions, married couples lie to each other, and such made up incidents skyrocket to 80% in the context of spending. 3

Stepping back from spending for a moment;  I recently eavesdropped in on a conversation on my daily train ride to work.  A forty-something, suit-wearing professional was boasting to her companion about how she had hoodwinked a focus group that called for participants who were paid subscribers to Skype.  Just hours before she was due to take part in the market research study, she googled everything she need to know about the survey and lied through her teeth all her way to $300 in participation money.

My question here is:  What’s the use in spending tons of money in carrying out elaborate market research sessions – asking the neocortex or the rational mind, questions about irrational behaviour?

The logical side of our brain is only going to lie or act as if it were intelligent.  Truth is often the first casualty of any conflict, and there is no greater conflict than that between the consumer’s beliefs and their buying behavior.  Don’t believe me?  Keep reading:

The irrational buying behavior of the average consumer was put on display during recent consumer research for an 11powerN client.  Several New Yorkers were asked why they drove a SUV on the streets of Manhattan.  Oddly enough, the number one response was:  ‘What if I chose to go off the road?’  Keep in mind this is Manhattan.  Manhattan.  You remember: the financial and cultural nexus of the US?  Manhattan the island?  Off-road?  The more I probed, the weirder their responses got; “Oh it’s because I go off-roading at weekends.”

As amusing as those responses are even if consumers were downright truthful; how do they put their irrational buying behavior or the emotions they have for a product, service, or experience into words?

Today’s marketers recognize a very distinct “ebb and flow” of an emotional wave influencing the consumer’s choices; this recognition, however, does not extend to the identification of an emotional connection that can bridge the gap” and afford any sort of measurement of an association of that magnitude.  Given the existence of this reality and its attendant limitation, one must ask:  Is the expenditure of funds in extending this elaborate market research helping or hindering the marketer in understanding this emotional connection?  To what end should the marketer seek to find in asking the rational mind questions about irrational behavior?

If presented with rational thought and behavior, the neocortex will have no choice but to lie – that is, to “act out” as if it were intelligent.

Fish where fishes are.  Answers to subconsciously driven motives need to be sourced at the subconscious level.  Market researchers have a duty to extract the subconscious agents that make decisions, preferences, feelings, and beliefs by probing into the subconscious or ‘the lizard brain’ as I’d like to call it.

The lizard brain is not mutually exclusive; it pervades every dimension of our lives. It doesn’t shut down when we go to bed or go on vacation.  Every second, it is dictating how one should act, judge, think and feel.

Theologians, philosophers, and scientists have been studying the unconscious to know why we do what we do for several centuries.  Half a century ago, Ernest Dichter, the founder of motivational research, helped launch in-depth consumer interviews to explore non-rational motivations in consumers when marketers still believed in the homo economicus.

In the last decade or two, there have been a host of tools developed by social psychologists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and economists that have given marketers a peeping hole into this lizard brain or reptilian complex.

Lizard harbors vast riches in still largely unmapped areas immersed in deep emotions, traditions, values, and culture.  Marketers who see the advantage in wandering into this dimly-lit treasure trove will be richly rewarded with the keys to brand success.

References

  1. LeDoux, Joseph (1998). “The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life,” New York, NY: Simon and Schuster
  2. Gray, Richard (2007). “Babies not as Innocent as they Pretend,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3298979/Babies-not-as-innocent-as-they-pretend.html (retrieved on 8/5/2012)
  3. Villareal, Phil (2010).  “Survey:  80 Percent of Married Couples Lie about Spending,”  The Consumerist, http://consumerist.com/2010/07/survey-80-percent-of-married-couples-lie-about-spending.html (retrieved on 8/5/2012)

Illustration:  Mohan Raj