The last time you bought a pair of headphones, were you combing through the technical specs and assessing the quality of each product’s engineering?
You were most likely looking for something more subjective, like imagining your friends’ envy when they saw your latest purchase or picturing how cool you’d feel riding the subway. That’s the power of good branding. It bypasses the most logical part of your brain and hits you right in the feels.
Good branding is almost impossible to ignore. If you see golden arches while driving down the street, you know the establishment right below them. If you spot a white laptop in your coworking space, you don’t need to ask which company made it. But just because branding is so effective doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
That’s why we recruited two experts in the field to give us a tutorial. The first, Matt Johnson, has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Princeton and specializes in the application of neuroscience to marketing. His latest book is Branding that Means Business: How to Build Enduring Bonds between Brands, Consumers and Markets.
The second is Marcus Collins, an award-winning marketer and cultural translator who’s the head of strategy at global advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy and also a clinical assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. His latest book is For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be.
In their interview, Johnson and Collins discuss what branding is, why it’s inseparable from culture, and how come you’ll never find a logo on the front of a Birkin bag.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
PublicAffairs: First, let’s start off at a really basic level. Matt, what is branding?
Matt Johnson: So the company is not the brand. The brand is a tool of the company, and it has three big functions. One is to differentiate it from similar competitors, one is to identify its offerings, and one is to add distinct value above and beyond the products themselves. So, for example, you’ll run faster in generic shoes if you’re told that they’re Nikes. Or, if you’re drinking some fizzy brown liquid, it’ll taste better if you’re told that it’s Coca Cola because that company has built this incredible set of emotional associations with its product, which really enhances the experience of the consumer. And that’s why branding is so powerful.
Marcus Collins: That’s amazing. I love that definition, and I think about branding in two ways, too: as a noun and a verb. “To brand” is a way of permanently marking something as a mark of ownership. The first brands were branding irons for cattle. But then we think about the cognitive and affective processes that take place with these marks of ownership. In that way, “brand” as a noun evolves from this functional use of ownership demarcation to being a signifier that evokes emotions.
MJ: Yes, and what I love about your book is that it emphasizes how much of this value exchange is mediated by culture. There are specific brands that really had a tacit set of associations and added incredible value to consumers, but when the cultural zeitgeist shifted, then the brand lost its tether and lost its sense of value. Harley Davidson is one example. It was Americana, life on the open road, the Hell’s Angels, the boomer generation. But now, as that generation is getting older, and the culture has started to shift and those consumers are no longer operating in the marketplace, it’s really struggling to maintain its relevance.
MC: 1,000%. The meaning associated with Harley Davidson at one time was congruent with the identity projects that people wanted to pursue based on the cultural context in which they’re operating today. Today, that brand may no longer be representative of who I want to be and how I see the world, which is why we can’t separate culture from cognition.
MJ: Along those lines, I’m super curious what your take is on this fragmented media landscape we’re all living in right now. Like, we’re all getting our news in different places, and we don’t know what the social norms are anymore, which makes it much more difficult to build a brand with broad appeal.
MC: Right, the most powerful brands today are those that act as identity marks. They signal to the world who I am based on my cultural subscription. And the natural progression of brand, then, is that it’s going to be a community mark. It’s not just who I am. It’s who we are. And I believe that today’s technology is actually facilitating that thing, that community building. We spend more time in our group chats than we do arguing on Twitter, you know? And if we go back to the pre-Industrial Revolution, we were in small communities. That’s what we were meant to do. And even when we go to major metropolises to look for work, we go find people like ourselves. So we’re tribal by nature.
MJ: Absolutely. I remember when the Wall Street Bets thing was popping off. It was basically a phenomenon completely created by Reddit that had its own very unique language. So if a Wall Street Bro had a big win in the stock market, that’s a tendie. So, KFC came in and they started doing these fun little commercials, like $5 off of tendies. Like, nobody else knew what that meant, but this niche community knew exactly what it meant. So a big brand that’s part of monoculture really took the extra step to speak in this specific language.
MC: Yes. Your brain is a pattern-making machine. It looks for recognition, and we’re able to assess who we can trust and who we can’t based on people who are like us.
MJ: You really see this in luxury brands. The more exclusive and more rarefied a luxury brand is, the less ostentatious they are about their logo. Think about the Birkin bag, the most exclusive bag there is. It doesn’t have “Birkin” on the cover. It doesn’t have any brand. It doesn’t have any inner stitching. If you know it’s a Birkin, you know it’s a Birkin, which allows for this complex social signaling. If you walk down the streets of Paris with a Birkin, and somebody looks at it in admiration, you know something about them.
MC: Absolutely. When I’m traveling, especially internationally, if I see someone with a block “M,” I go “Go blue” and they go “Go blue,” and I feel connected, right? Whereas, I could be here on Michigan’s campus, where I am now. Everyone’s wearing a block “M,” but I’m not talking to everybody because of course you’re one of us. So maybe I look for someone who was in my fraternity or someone who has a Ross logo on because I’m in the business school. These small, nuanced things have such significant meanings in our minds that this isn’t just a bag. This isn’t just a jacket. These are expressive receipts of my identity.
MJ: It makes me think about Beats by Dre. I remember listening to an interview with Jimmy Iovine, and he was like, “Yeah, Bose is fantastic. It’s well respected. It’s great sound quality. But in terms of associations, it’s the fall-asleep-on-airplane headphones.” So he was like, let’s create a great headphone brand that’s more than that, and it became basically digital jewelry.
MC: I once asked a classroom full of students which product was better: Beats or Bose. They always go “Bose.” If you look at the specs, Bose outperforms Beats by Dre. But then I asked which one they wanted to buy, and Beats beat Bose all day long. Why? Because it makes them look cool. Why is that? Because what it means in the minds of people. So even if your product is at least perceived inferior, they will fill the gap with what the brand signals in their mind.
MJ: A good counter-example is tech, which has historically deprioritized brand building and focused more on delivering product value. Think about OpenAI, a company that does zero branding effectively. If OpenAI asked you why they should invest in branding, what would you say?
MC: Well, we know OpenAI’s product, ChatGPT, and ChatGPT has been associated with the entire category. I’ve seen people go, “This is a ChatGPT app,” and I’m like, “Oh, OpenAI has an app?” No they don’t. It’s just an AI product from a different brand. So while they were able to usher in a new product, which is awesome, but as more competitors come into the market, I think they may find themselves in trouble. There’s no mark of ownership.
MJ: Yes, and that’s what makes it such a challenging environment now. In order for a brand to really deliver value, they have to be excellent. It has to be at, like, the Lululemon level because if it doesn’t meet that threshold, then I’m going to type the first thing into Google. And if I don’t see any brands in the category that really draw me in, that really signal to me something about myself, that I trust or that I have a bond with, then I’m going to buy the first one that I see. If you can’t deliver real value, then you’re nothing.
MC: Absolutely. Twenty-five percent more fluoride in toothpaste isn’t going to cut it anymore.