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Prisoners of brands

In a world where getting noticed or ‘likes’ on the social media is driving the consumer behavior, more and more brands are becoming a part of our day-to day life.

OP Srivastava | Mumbai |

We are living in the times, where we see ‘branded’ people all around us. I mean, the people, who are loaded with branded stuff from head – to- toe – branded apparels and accessories like the suit, goggles, neck- tie, branded watch, branded handbags, branded deodorants, branded shoes, branded inner wear, branded perfumes, branded jewelry etc. In a world where getting noticed or ‘likes’ on the social media is driving the consumer behavior, more and more brands are becoming a part of our day-to day life.

Given a chance, these consumers of branded items would like to flaunt their branded at every visible opportunity- online as well as off-line. To them the branded stuff they carry is the best way to show off their wealth and the social status and there is a growing population of new millionaires around the world, who like showing off.

It is partly a generational issue also.

The new generation especially the millennial and the postmillennial love to build their lifestyle around these ‘brands’, whereas the people belonging to generation X or generation Y are not so enamored by the brand-phobia.

Objective of branding

The basic objective of branding is to create an imaginary exalted socio- economic status for its user. It makes the user noticeable so as to get extra-attention and appreciation sometimes extending to the level of envy. The bigger is the brand, the greater is the envy quotientit generates in the eyes and the hearts of the onlooker. The psychologists define ‘Envy’ as the emotion held by the spectators. The circumstance in which envy is generated involves a social comparison or competition between the user of the brand and another person, who is not in possession of the respective brand. Such comparison and competition with the others are a part of the yardstick by which the user of the brand measures him or her as against those unfortunate souls, who are bereft of these branded items and thus are devoid of the reflected glory of the brand. The emotion of envy generates a reaction that is secretly enjoyed by the user of the brand.

However, the fact of the matter is that an emotion like ‘envy’ is triggered only when one feels short of ‘something’.

Envy is basically related to competition and social comparison between yourself and others that are part of your self-evaluation.

Envy also has to do with ‘feeling unhappy’ about the success of someone else or about what they have and, at the same time, secretly feeling inferior yourself. Instead of finding success yourself or improving yourself, you may be get envious and want what another person has or find yourself wishing that the other person would lose that quality or possession in order to make things seem fair.

If you are envious of someone, you may want to put him or her down, as though this will raise you up or lower everyone else’s opinion of him or her. The brand engineers use this feeling of ‘short of something’ to create a brand proposition, whose objective is to neutralize this emotional gap in the potential brand user using all kinds of devices. The emotion of envy drives the user to keep coming back again and again to measure self-worth against that of the people he or she is surrounded with.

Brand hierarchy

Brand hierarchy is a means of summarizing brand strategy. Like the different socio-economic classes in our society, the brands also have categorization based on the price and the user segment they are meant for.

For example, in the area of men’s apparels, there are brands, which are no-no for an ultra-rich but okay for an on- the –up kind of a human being. Some brands represent the people who party on a yatch in the pacific ocean and some of the brands represent status of the party animals of Bollywood, whereas few other announce on a megaphone that the user belongs to an elite class, where entry is permitted only after checking in user’s Swiss bank credentials.

Brand invasion

Besides the developed world, the brands have successfully invaded on-the-rise economies like China, India, Middle East and the South East Asian countries.

Rambourg had created a brand pyramid to show how major brands range in accessibility from everyday luxuries like Starbucks to ultra-high-end luxury like Graff diamonds.

The brands also have categories meant for ordinary class of people . Many wealthy Chinese people for instance consider Louis Vuitton a brand for secretaries.

The well-off consumers prefer Chanel or Bottega Veneta. These are considered to be more exclusive. Gucci is similarly suffering from a reputation problem, while bespoke goods and less-well-known European labels are soaring. High net worth consumers are particularly hungry for obscure luxury brands.

Exercise of branding

The exercise of branding essentially tries to envelop around the user various invisible hallo rings, which supposedly differentiate the user from the ordinary folks. So while building the brand of a product, the brand engineers work towards creating an‘imagery’, which communicate the tangible and intangible benefits of its brand using a number of devices.

Using various off –the –balance sheet and on-the balance sheet items, various types of verbal, non-verbal, direct & indirect cues, the brand users and the less fortunate non-users are guided, glided, goaded and coaxed, cajoled and convinced to accept and acknowledge the exalted status of the brand user vis –a –vis the status of the competitor.

Brand personality

Brand personality is a set of human characteristics that are attributed to a brand name.

A product’s brand personality elicits an emotional response in a specific consumer segment with the intention of inciting positive actions and reactions that benefit the consumer.

Each brand is built around certain human personality traits and aims at making the user achieve that exalted traits through the display or the use of the branded item. An effective brand generates a consistent set of traits that a specific consumer segment enjoys. This personality is the qualitative value-add that a brand provides to its consumer in addition to its functional benefits, if any.

Such imaginary status or the exalted personality is carefully crafted using a number of devices on and off the product.

Lot of research goes into the development, designing and devising the verbal, non-verbal, visual and the audio-visual communication strategy for a ‘brand’.

Brand experience

Each brand aims at providing to its user the perceived image or the status and /or an exotic experience. The brand engineers use various devices to create that particular imagery for its product or the service. We are repeatedly reminded if we use that particular brand we will be perceived in a particular way. This is what they call the brand experience. We are reminded again and again that if one is using a particular brand of deodorant, the good-looking girls will turn around and will swoon on the user. Similarly, if the user is drinking a particular bottle of drink, he or she can fly over mountains & valleys or dive deep into the sea and people will be waiting to clap for him or her heroic deed.

Brand imagery

The most common device used to create the brand imagery is to associate the brand with a celebrity to give the user the perceived notion of living with the halo of fame, which the brand ambassador or the sponsoring celebrity has achieved.

Bringing an imaginary experience like making the user feel that he or she is drinking a cup of coffee sitting in the middle of a coffee planation in Kurg or drinking a cup of tea sitting in a tea plantation surrounded with the hills of Assam is yet another popular device of building a brand around an exotic experience.

Loads of logos

It is not uncommon to come across people, who make it a point to ensure that all they wear or all that they use is branded and branded. I wonder, besides money, how much of effort and time goes into ensuring that all their stuff is branded and branded well. I find it difficult to find a matching tie every time I decide to change the suit.

Being genuinely passionate about your favorite brands is one thing, but draping yourself in logos from head to toe is another, except when and if your are being invited for the Karan Johar’s chat show.

Now imagine a person, who is loaded with branded items from head to sole- the goggles are brand A, the suit is brand B, tie is Brand C, deodorant is brand D, leather belt is of brand E, handbag of brand F and sandals or the shoes are of brand G .Now all these branded items on his or her body evoke different cues as these are associated with different celebrities, which have been associated with the respective brands. Just for explanatory purpose, let us assume that the goggles remind us of Shah Rukh Khan, the suit reminds us of James Bond, the belt reminds us of Salman Khan, the deodorant reminds us of John Abraham, the watch reminds us of Roger Federer, the innerwear remind us of Akshay Kumar and the shoes draw your imagination towards the dancers of Italian dance Tarantela.

Since all these brands are creating different personality characteristics and emanate different cues, some of these signals may be complimentary and some may be conflicting. I wonder, what will be the aggregated image this load of logos or the user of multiple brands will project to the ordinary person of an ordinary intelligence or the ordinary social status.

What is the net-to-net image the poor common bloke, who is the target of all these brand signals, will receive? I am confused.

For a branding expert it would probably take an algorithm based App to decipher, what is the combined or the net take-away image for the people- on- the street or the people in a party, with whom the brand user is trying to get him or herself differentiated with.

For me it takes time to absorb these brand signals or the cues and reach to a logical conclusion to understand as to what this multiple brand user is trying to communicate. The only clear signal that I receive is that he or she is showing off that he or she has excess money.

And my mind, which is of course aging, gets too many such signals; it stops working and simply switches off.

Brand a shield?

Another challenge I face, while meeting these highly branded people relates to the intrinsic nature of human beings. My understanding or the belief is that no matter how many layers of ‘brands’, we wrap around us, to a mature eye, the basic human nature or the characteristics do sneak through these porous layers of brands and reveal themselves. All these external layering around us do not create an impregnable wall, which cannot be breached by a discerning eye and a mature mind.

To my mind, these branded items are like the layers or guards with whom we try to shield our true self or the real nature from the eyes of the people around us. But any experienced or mature human being will tell you that as we grow up and deal with more and more human beings, we acquire the ability, which is loosely referred to as the ability to see-through a person or size up a person.

This is an ability that all normal human being possess, albeit in varying quantity and quality. That is to say, that an old office boy may be able to size up the true personality of the Boss, in spite of the Boss wearing all the branded stuff. Besides, there are always going to be moments in our life, when we consciously or unconsciously lower our guards or the brand shields and let our true self be visible to the outside world.

Future of brands

Keeping in view the way the surplus income in our society is increasing and the growing love of the new generations for the brands, the future of the brands looks to be rosy. Besides, the number of aging cynics like me will slowly dwindle and the world will move away from using native intelligence to Artificial Intelligence. The invasion of Artificial intelligence will also reduce the need to use our natural intelligence, thereby making our native intelligence gradually redundant. Technology will provide us Apps, which will process our user ID and guide the future generation, which brand to use when.

Technology using predictive analytics tools will also provide the brand engineers with an algorithm that will give answers to these multiple probabilities of consumer likes and dislikes and will help them create customized branded items for each user depending upon the specific emotional and functional needs of the consumer. Looking forward to the customized branded knots in a fabric called society.

(OP Srivastava is a banker-turned-filmmaker. His first feature documentary ‘Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli’ received the National Award 2015 for the Best Biopic.)