Do You ‘Speak Brand’?

Marketers and Anthropologists alike consider brands to be meaning systems. The brands we choose to display, wear or just call our own say a lot about who we are.  While it’s a stretch to say ‘we are the sum of our brand choices‘, it’s not as far fetched as you might think.

One of my favorite branding books is “The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers” by Douglas Atkin. The book explores the relationship between brand choice and identity. Atkins concludes that brand choice is about individual expression, not conforming. Atkin calls this the ‘central paradox of cult belonging‘.

“The common belief is that people join cults to conform.  Actually, the very opposite is true. They join to become more individual. At the heart of the desire to join a cult, in fact any community to which you will become committed, is a paradox….As one cult member unequivocally put it, ‘Belonging allows the individual to become more himself.” – The Culting of Brands, page 4

Millennials know that the brands they choose to associate with telegraph who they are.  As cultural ‘artifacts’, brands form a clear ‘language’ for Gen Y. It’s a language they understand and accept.

In November, Jason Potteiger wrote a post for The Next Great Generation Blog, titled, “15 Ways Millennials Think About Brands”. He begins with this observation: “For our entire lives brands have been everywhere and everything. The device of branding has become so pervasive in our lives that we now filter most things through that framework”. The last five ‘ways’ he lists speak directly to the symbolic meaning of brands and the importance of that meaning to the Millennial ‘subculture’. It could be right out of Atkin’s book:

10. My brand associations are important to me, but ultimately a just one of many variables in my daily life/ equation of personal meaning and value. I dislike brands that do not understand their place in this equation.

11. Brands are used to self identify and create personal meaning. We seek out brands that represent who we are, or wish to be.

12. Individuals and groups identify similar people via their similar brand associations; this commonality creates a de facto community.

13. We are fluent in brands. We know the symbols, their messages, and the communities associated with them.

14. We speak a language of brands, we can easily construct other and larger meanings through the combination and layering of brands. (eg. Someone wearing a Red Sox hat, Converse shoes, North Face jacket, Starbucks coffee – add or subtract any element here and their brand equation or association map changes, and so does my understanding of them).

Marketers who want to appeal to Millennials need to ask themselves if they ‘Speak Brand’? This means more than just understanding image attributes; it means decoding the symbolic language of a generation.

To relate to Millennials, marketers need to be ‘culture sleuths’. Is your brand a cult? What does belonging to that cult mean to the participants? Do you understand  how Millennials relate to brands in general. Do you understand how your brand and its strategic associations (celebrities, music, media, retailers) fit into this entire constellation?