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"Why We Buy, Why We Brand" summary

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I attended "Why we buy, why we brand: a historical look at our relationship with brands" by Debbie Millman last night. Another great AIGA Toledo event. Glad I went, informative and inspirational talk, good to get out of the house and see some colleagues, good to be on the University of Toledo campus, and a great turn out on a Friday night.

Debbie is an "icon" in the design community, pun intended, with her books and radio show/podcast, and AIGA leadership. And of course, her work. Things we see every day, like a font for candy and wildly popular orange juice labels.

It was great to have her in town, as part of the Detroit/Toledo Design Re-View competition.

This talk (sometimes labeled the reverse, "Why we brand, why we buy") has been given before in Richmond, Harrisburg, Hartford, Providence, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, to list only a few. Alaska is a future stop. What a road show!

Here are the 2 best recaps of other versions of this talk (and then I do not have to repeat the details here):

You can also buy a Designcast of this talk from Print.

Now, my thoughts.

I think I was the only one tweeting the talk. I did not do many, but a few things jumped at me as Debbie was talking:

  • Big brain bang 50k years ago considered cultural universals. Making and marking things.
  • The brain likes to solve puzzles, creates different neural pathways when figuring out a logo
  • most popular brands now are those services that connect people. Brands as connectors, we are part of the pack

Debbie offered a free book to anyone in the audience who could name the first trademark. I knew it, since I was Googling things and drafting this blog entry while she was talking. I decided to stay quiet and see if anyone else knew it. Sorta feels like cheating when you use Google to win prizes.

The biggest chuckle from the crowd may have been when she showed the Evolution picture.

The history part was enjoyable. I actually enjoyed the "pre-history" - before 1875 - more.

I know that she had some quotes about the iPod, but she did not have any Apple-fan-girl stuff that I recall. That was a refreshing change.

She was honest that her presentation was kinda light on the "science" stuff - even saying that past audiences have told her that was the most boring part when she went more in depth on it. But that was the most interesting part to me. As such, I'd have to say her talk was more about the HOW WE BRAND and less on the WHY. It was still good, but it would have been better for me with more of the science and fewer examples. I realize I was not a typical audience member, tho. I will still have to rely on the Brain Lady as my source of helping me understand why people behave the way we do. (Sad that I will miss her next visit to the area, February 24, hosted by Michigan CHI.)

I think a few times she said "people buy the brand" which irks me sometimes. I feel like people buy products and services, influenced by the brand. And the brand influences them based on the sum of the experiences they have had with those products, services and the company overall. Something to debate over drinks.

As is often the case, I do not think of good questions until I am driving home. One would have been about "place branding". Her examples were almost all products, a few services, but I did not recall any branding examples centered on geographic areas. She touched on this in her pre-history (how flags have evolved to represent nations) but not later. It would be nice to find place branding examples and try to fit them into her 5 waves. I guess my question would have been if she has tried this and if not, does she think that place branding even fits into the waves. Some might say that place branding is "behind the times" of product branding, not as mature. I dunno. Place branding for the Toledo region is actively underway, so it would have been good to try to connect those dots.

Another good question might have been about the future. When does Wave 6 start and what will it be about? I like to put speakers on the spot and make them predict the future sometimes.

So, net, it was a good talk, glad I went, I hope others enjoy it too.


Thanks for introducing me to Debbie Millman's work and thinking, Keith.

Wave 6 is already starting, I believe. It's the proactive, programmatic mining of preference: targeted messages, offers, realities—based on increasingly sophisticated modeling of who we are. Increasingly, we are going to feel as if more and more things have been pre-selected for us.

In the dystopian fork on this road, we find ourselves feeling claustrophobic, desperately wanting to escape our marketing doppelgangers. We might even feel intensifying new pressures arising from the need to "feed" fresh information to our personas so they are at all times "fashionably current". This is already starting to happen—consider people concerned with their Klout. For a good fictional take on this, check out Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story.

In the utopian fork on this road, we find ourselves appreciative that in a world so perfectly prepared for us that we don't even feel the need to "choose" it. Our tribe knows us, we know our tribe.

There's some talk these days about the "end" of branding as we become better able to get at "the facts" behind products and no longer need to be "marketed to". I don't see that happening, exactly. Consumers will become more discriminating, sure. And some will become more activist. And producers will become more accountable. But some of the things that are hardwired into our brains that Debbie Millman talks about simply can't be rationalized away.

The other thing to keep in mind is that successive waves of branded reality assume abundant markets and plugged-in populations. We're in for a pretty weird ride: On one hand, we will be increasingly interconnected at all times—probably through our mobile phones. On the other, we're in for waves of scarcity that will create wild shifts in patterns of value and demand. How these interact will be...interesting.

I hope we always favor touch, smell and face to face interaction whenever we can.

Hi Keith,
Thanks for the commentary. It's really great to get some insight into the audience's perspective! I am glad you enjoyed it. I am interested in the 6th wave too! Personally, I try to remove most of the branding when I get something into my home because I feel so visually overwhelmed. -Amy