The arms race we call branding is reaching its logical conclusion. From searing flesh to shaping language, and reframing reality, branding has always been a colonialistic venture. Today, every thought, action, activity, and identity is branded to an almost unfathomable degree, making it nearly impossible to have an autonomous sense of self outside of someone else’s narrative. Society is dominated by an uncountable hoard of heavily outfitted brands hellbent on defending their space and interjecting their often absurdly concocted perspectives into the most vital moments of our lives. Over the last few weeks, the question posed to me by Brandingmag, “What is the perfect future for branding?” has left me with only one honest answer: less branding.

“With no identifiable moral impetus, imperative, or ideology, brands dictate the very fabric of our society based solely on their ability to own it.”

Reaching the end of this arms race didn’t happen overnight. The creative spirit of the industrial revolution gave way to the information age, and cultural curators took the place of creators. Today, riding on a tsunami of data, curators have been similarly eclipsed by a new age of optimization. Insatiable in its desire to leverage and maximize every interaction for the greatest profitable result, optimization has not only supercharged marketing, but it’s also turned every moment of life into a branding opportunity. Mantras and manifestos are still written with the poetry of words like authenticity, transparency, ethics, and ethos, but today the bottom line is every bit as simple and universal as it’s always been – “How do we get more?”.

The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Lyle’s Golden Syrup as the first brand, dating back to 1885 London. There are claims of brands dating back to the 1500s, but by and large, before Lyle’s, branding was a symbol of ownership seared into the flesh of another living being.

Today, many of us spend an incredible amount of money, time, and effort to align ourselves with brands. With no identifiable moral impetus, imperative, or ideology, brands dictate the very fabric of our society based solely on their ability to own it. And we love them for it. Instead of having to be creative, or even be curators anymore, brands allow us to optimize our equity and broadcast a vision of our identity to the world. Rather than seeing where life leads, we can manufacture a destination. Why learn what you can access? Why write what you can interject yourself in? We live in a time when the go-to advice is that brands need to work on being more human, and that humans need to work on their personal brand. But what does living by your brand narrative really mean in society?

A brand narrative isn’t reality

In 2008’s Role Models, Paul Rudd goes on a beautiful rant at a barista who insists that he use their branded language to buy a large coffee. Rudd explains that venti means twenty, and that tall is large, and grande is Spanish for large, and that venti is in fact the only one that doesn’t mean large. “Congratulations, you’re stupid in three languages” he concludes. The scene is hilarious, but it points towards a bigger truth, branded language isn’t truthful, accurate, or even useful. It’s just branded.

We’ve all heard the benefits of a strong, ownable, and defendable brand narrative. How we need to create a story that inspires action. This proselytism isn’t new, but it’s worth clarifying that a brand narrative isn’t truth in any Platonian sense of the word – although it may contain some. Even the best, most earnest brand narratives are one part truth, two parts folktale, and three parts sales pitch. So, why are we identifying ourselves in someone else’s brand narrative like it’s some kind of divine proverb?

These narratives are everywhere. They are in our breakfast cereal, our sneakers, in our dental floss, and in every pocket of our blue jeans. Branded items demand allegiance. They create narratives that we diminish ourselves, and our humanity, to be part of. It’s not just as benign as shaping one choice today. There are long-lasting ramifications.

When information, truth, and facts are all branded, it crowds out discovery, growth, and curiosity because the conclusion of said pursuit is already written into the process of pursuing. Meaning, how the information will serve to cultivate an ownable and defensible place in culture is already baked into the decision to explore said information. In the hyper-branded world that we now live in, every activity and every action is building or diminishing your brand consistency. And if you think that is hyperbolic, I respectfully challenge you to name one activity that you regularly participate in that a data analyst or strategist wouldn’t be able to weave into a consumer segmentation that a narrative strategist couldn’t target you with.

The effects of a brand narrative

Branding is colonialism. It’s the act of taking ownership of something with perceived value. “Find the white space”, “aim for the blue water” – these metaphors are all pleasant colloquialisms for identifying under-protected real estate, taking it over, and building a tall fence around it. Once that space is conquered, brands set their sights on changing the language spoken and redefining the culture in their “new world”. Finally, they place themselves at the center of the narrative that now becomes the story they will use to replicate the process in a new area – or, in this case, market.

“As Winston Churchill said, ‘History is written by the victors’ and brands only tell the stories that they win.”

In today’s landscape, where every brand refuses to be “just a product” and instead insists on being a lifestyle, our world and reality are devolving into a series of branded statements. The truck you drive, the pants you wear, recycled toilet paper, and domestic beer, every single penny you spend is sowing into a brand narrative that is fighting with your humanity for resources. The perpetuation of lifestyle narratives over services, products, or tangible value propositions has reached such a fever pitch that “reframing” your narrative is the subject of billions of self-help books. Social media gurus are regularly praising the benefits of writing yourself a new narrative by changing your thinking – which is just rebranding for people.

So long brandkind, hello mankind

In its purest form, a brand is the aesthetic representation of an intrinsically valuable object or ideal. By this definition, a brand should be like the head of a body, unable to survive independent of that which it represents. The only way this is possible is if the community behind the service or product is not just present but driving brand decisions moving forward. This likely sounds nothing like your favorite brand, and that is precisely the issue.

“The solution maybe for a lot of the world’s problems is to turnaround and take a forward step. You can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work.”
–Yvon Chouinard (from 180 Degrees South)

Sometimes, progress is taking a step in a different direction. There aren’t many more things left to brand. How many more useless and needless products can you turn into lifestyles? How many more times can you attempt to define people as brands, pitting them against each other, and electrifying them with the feeling that they need to defend their place in culture? If brands are to be more human, and humans are to be better brands, the logical conclusion is a perfectly optimized train wreck. Any history book will tell you that, in commodification and colonialism, humanity and culture as a whole always lose. Whether this is starting to sound like a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare, the good news is that change is inevitable.

Unbrand the future

What if it’s as simple as ditching brandkind and rejoining mankind by serving the communities, cultures, and people groups that your business arose from, instead of attempting to leverage, package, and optimize them? A less-branded society provides the space that humans and their businesses need to grow, evolve, dream new ideas, find revolutionary solutions, and be of real value to their fellow citizens. It’s about being what you are rather than manufacturing who you think it’s most profitable to be.

“The only true cultural shifts are small fish, small ponds, after that, an honest movement is an organic snowballing effect, an idea spreads when its time has come.”
–Kristin Hersh (from the Greenlight Bookstore Interview)

The first step might not even make a small ripple. But, eventually, it could start restructuring companies. Small teams of highly invested people could work for businesses that they organically interact with and have a stake in – both fiscally and communally. Think of it like a co-op where the people served are making decisions about how to best serve.

“It’s about being what you are rather than manufacturing who you think it’s most profitable to be.”

To the business owners still reading, please believe that you don’t need to optimize and transform the business that you love into a lifestyle. You can be a service. You can be a product. You can be ‘Joe the shoemaker’ with a little shop downtown. You can be exactly what your community needs – all you have to do is listen to them. And your community will always be within earshot if you start employing them. Let’s turn and take a real step forward instead of stepping off the cliff. At the bottom of the ravine is nothing more than an Orwellian nightmare complete with rogue computers and disgruntled robots. Or, at the very least, it’s an ever-growing boneyard of brands who were so too busy commodifying culture to ever contribute to it.

In short, the future of branding will improve when we stop hiring colonialists to do a community-building job.

As Brandingmag reached its 10th anniversary this year, we’re putting together an original series that envisions a perfect future for branding. Ten articles will explore ten different sides of branding, each one through the eyes of an expert on the subject. Join our celebration and stay tuned for the next installment in the “Branding’s Perfect 10” series.

Previously: Alison Tilling on brand strategy
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – Strategy of the Imperfect)

Next: Daniela Maestres on brand architecture
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – Unique Brand Architecture)

Cover image source: Curology