Signposts and Enablers of Choice: Isn’t it time to give consumers more credit?
Naomi Klein’s contentious book “No-Logo: Taking Aim against the Brand Bullies” claims that consumers are unwittingly, through the insidious power of brands, buying into a lifestyle, and its attendant aspirations and emotions, rather than choosing a product that satisfies a practical and therefore, honourable, need. She also claims that global Corporates are becoming more powerful than governments, extending their tentacles across borders and, in the infamous Nike case study of sweatshops, exploiting powerless people for their own ends. ‘Enough’ she and her many supporters cry, claiming that ‘this generation wants their brain back’ – and that one of the key ways to achieve this is banish Brands and their negative influence from our lives.
Before agreeing or disagreeing with Klein, why not take some time to consider the role that Brands play in consumers’ lives?
We at Added Value believe in demand-led growth and the creation of new offerings, based on true consumer insight. Within this context, well, we obviously therefore believe in Brands! Most importantly, however, due to our extensive consumer insight expertise, we believe that consumers think: they debate the merits of and respond to the plethora of Brands on offer. Consumers, in our experience, are certainly not an easily influenced bunch who ‘need their brains back’! Rather, they are discerning critics who seek out offerings that give them what they are looking for, on both a practical and, more importantly, an emotional level.
“Brands” exists in consumers’ minds whether you design them or not. People – and consumers are just people – need ways of grouping and classifying things: it’s one of the ways we as humans synthesise information and make sense of the world. Different Brands have different attributes and make different promises – thus setting the stage for a relationship with consumers.
The role of Branding is to empower consumers to differentiate between products they can trust and ones they should not. Indeed having a Brand name to focus on gives consumers enormous power. If the Brand Nike (and the corporation behind it) didn’t exist, how would consumers have been able to express their disgust with Nike’s exploitation of child labour? And if Nike was not such a known and visible Brand, it would not have been pressured to clean up its labour policies.
It is because consumers have such an intimate and powerful relationship with their Brand of choice that Corporates, manufacturers and suppliers are actually pressured into taking responsibility for their products and their actions -consumers choose right from wrong, and in their choice, determine whether a Brand lives or dies. This suggests that the reality is that Brands are owned by consumers, not by manufacturers.
A well-executed boycott by consumers can kill a Brand. Seeing consumers as victims of exploitative Brands is selling them short: consumers are not being tricked or exploited by Brands. Rather, Brands are offering themselves up for consumers’ appraisal. And if the Brand chosen does not deliver on consumer’s expectations or disappoints consumers in the Brand relationship, the Brand will be rejected by consumers and will not survive.
So what is a Brand actually and what do Brands do in consumers’ lives? We believe that a Brand is a known and trusted bundle of emotional and physical attributes that appeal to consumers’ minds and hearts. Brands offer them a way of understanding what’s on offer – they simplify choice and guarantee quality: think here of a poor person buying a premium quality and priced washing powder that they know and trust, rather than buying a no-brand, but cheaper product because they cannot afford to take the risk of being wrong in their choice.
Brands determine how service is delivered and guide innovation and are often a mark of pride, both for the people who manufacture or deliver the product or service as well as for the people who choose it. But pride implies respect -which must be earned and kept, and can easily be lost through broken promises or bad practises. Brands are associated with a specific personality and human-like values and consumers have a relationship with a Brand and experience it through the service they receive. In short, a Brand is a promise made to a consumer – and any Brand that fails to live up to its promise will be dismissed and destroyed. Imagine having that much control and influence over your own, elected government!
More and more South African Brands are realising that the only way to get true connection with consumers is to develop real, long term relationships with them, built on trust and mutual benefit. Companies are becoming increasingly socially responsible and this affects their Brand image. Successful brands develop and thrive because they offer consumers something that they want and need, something that is beneficial and relevant to consumers’ lives. Something that they are prepared to choose over and above whatever else is on offer.
And Branding itself has had many beneficial spin offs: many new forms of media, new art forms and contemporary culture have developed due to Brands – suggesting that Brands bring something more than a simple practical element to consumers, indeed, Brands seem to benefit consumers in a broader, more emotional sense too.
But even as passionate defenders of the Brands, we can see how some Brands’ behaviour has provoked Klein’s wrath. Because not all Brands are good Brands – just as not all people are people with whom you’d chose to have a relationship! Much of what Klein says about the negative effects of Brands has an element of truth to it: there are Brands that do invade consumers’ lives, just as there are Brands that are bullies. That said, consumers are not passive recipients of ‘bad’ Brands. Yes, some Brands do push uninvited into people lives, but there again, there are many more successful Brands that pull consumers into a relationship with them, by offering consumers what they need. The question to ask is – how sustainable is the exploitation of the Brand Bullies? And what about the argument that Brands command unrealistic premiums – well consumers will only pay what they consider the value of the Brand to be.
And consumers demand innovation and progress, which is often funded through these premiums, as consumers realise.
Certainly we agree that in general, there is disillusionment with institutions and Corporations in the Western world. However, recent work that we have done in the area of Brands shows that this hasn’t translated into disillusionment with Brands in developing countries. To the contrary, many consumers in developing markets increasingly use Brands as a means of self-expression – making the relationship stronger than ever!!
So what are the alternatives to Brands? A basic, what-you-need product and no more? That would take away all choice from consumers and would surely be an insult to people’s intelligence! Better watch dogging of Brands and Corporates – well, vigilante consumerism seems to be forcing brands to account for themselves far better than any legislation could ever do – and face it, Governments don’t exactly have independent interests either. Consumers hold Brands accountable and Brands offer consumers choice and options: all in all a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship.
But coming back to Naomi Klein: perhaps the gist of Klein’s argument is a critique of capitalism itself – a comment on rampant consumerism and corporate greed and lack of integrity. Fair enough to question these areas, fair enough to question capitalism as being the best thing for the most people. However, Klein is using Brands as the “logo” for capitalistic corporations, a form of simplistic short-hand, and this is neither a fair nor an accurate comment on the role that Brands can and do play in many discerning consumers’ lives.
Deputy Managing Director
Christine achieved honours in Marketing and Market Research with her Business Science degree from UCT – these two areas since becoming her passion within businesses spanning several leading brands in FMCG, E-Commerce, Financial Services and Retail.
Christine joined Added Value in April 2000. Driving several branding projects, she has built her Identity/Country Branding expertise. Her involvement with Brand SA further amplified her true South African’ness where she had the pleasure of working with top international teams on developing the international positioning for SA Tourism South Africa, Joint Marketing Initiative in the Western Cape and is in the process of working with DTI South Africa (Department of Trade and Industry) on developing the brand positioning for South Africa Business.