Everywhere we look today, we see brands. Companies have humanized themselves into living breathing entities anthropomorphized on social media platforms and have ingrained themselves into the deepest recesses of our collective psyche. Reality has almost become a virtual Time Square of “brand positioning,” “presence,” and “communication,” companies trying to convince us, the consumers, that they’re just like us.
And it isn’t only companies who are hyper fixated on how they are perceived in the public sphere, how they are being consumed psychologically. Your favorite celebrity, popular travel destinations, or job applicant all have their hands in crafting a brand around what they offer the world. The word “brand” has embedded itself into our daily vernacular, with phrases like “not my brand” and “so on-brand” coming into popularity, and new companies throwing the word around when looking for a logo and color palette.
But what does branding really mean today? Is the oversaturation of “brands” leading down a path of ultimate irrelevancy? Where is our consumerist hellscape trending and what does it mean for the future of companies looking to land a significant market share?
Once upon a time, before the golden age of advertising, products had exclusively functional benefits they offered to consumers: they either worked well or they didn’t and that was that. The products themselves were cast as heroes in any communication effort, often blowing smoke up their own you-know-whats about how great they were. Consumers had little variety to choose from during this time as well so there was little need for more sophisticated approaches.
As what happens in any free market, however, the competition began to increase as more and more products were created, and thus, the brand was born. Using the dark arts of how to hack our own psychological mechanisms, marketing paved the way for companies to create emotional connections to their end-users via their brand. Now, instead of solely having products on the market for sale, companies began an evolution of humanizing themselves in efforts to differentiate their offering in their respective categories.
But as technology advanced, so did the savviness of consumers. Televisions became household objects and the number of available channels increased from 3 to hundreds, which meant even more advertising opportunities. The internet then gave rise to yet another advertising platform and people soon began spending a significant amount of their daily lives being exposed to advertisements. Not only this but with the rise of social media came the breaking down of previous barriers consumers had to brands and did so in a very public manner. Now, if a consumer had an issue with a brand they could post a viral tweet about it, exposing the company to the masses, marching for the guillotine.
Brands slowly began shifting away from casting themselves as heroes and begain casting the end-user as the hero of their stories, eliciting emotional connections and moving about as if they were human themselves. And the more exposure consumers had to brands, the more brands ingrained themselves into our daily lives, the more the Brand Beast proliferated into what it is today, normalized to the point of humans branding ourselves in attempts to be...more...human.
In an absolutely shocking plot twist, what is happening now is not working. What was initially intended as a differentiation strategy is now being used by every single company in existence, therefore nobody is really standing out anymore. Consumers have also evolved to the point of being savvy to brand strategy, calling bullshit on messaging and social media efforts when they know Jeff Bezos is exploiting his workers. We have heard all the things and now its all whitenoise. So where do we go from here?
Ironically, as much as the “humanization” of brands today isn’t working anymore, the next phase of evolution will require an even deeper human experience: authenticity. This word “Authenticity” has been so grossly overused in branding and marketing circles alike and is nowhere close to where we are headed next. The truth is, the rawness consumers are demanding is so far out of reach for bigger brands today, but it is the next wave, and small businesses in particular will have an advantage. Enter, the Anti-Brand.
The concept of the Anti-Brand is perfectly summed up with the example of Instagram vs. TikTok. Consumers are over the perfectly curated, stylized, and edited photos of shiny Instagram influencers with millions of followers. It’s “bad vibes” in the words of the newest spenders in our economy, Gen-Z, and no longer resonating. They are taking their attention over to TikTok, where most of the viral content involves creators bare-faced, living their very mundane lives, speaking off the cuff, and being clever, creative, and funny. Not pretty or sterile. Small businesses are experiencing explosive growth by showing their product creation process and “underdog” success stories. Consumers as a collective are gravitating toward actual humans, real experiences they can feel a connection to and feel good supporting.
Brands of tomorrow will find their success by deconstructing everything they think they know about branding and landing their stake in the Anti-Brand space. By becoming less about what palatable face they are showing to the public, and more about what is really going on behind the scenes with their staff, their growth, and what causes they mind. It will be about niching down instead of appealing to everyone in the mainstream. It will be about fearlessly doing things differently, even if this assumes risk.
Consumers are bored. They see through the BS and know when they’re being manipulated. The future involves lifting the veil of the brand facade and sinking into the actual humanity behind your company: the raw, ugly, funny, cringey truth of it all.
Starting a podcast sounds fun. Until the silence rolls in. Let's unravel where I went right and where I went so so wrong.