On the word 'Brand'

Branding is a major part of the effort to combat the Covid pandemic as well as the BLM movement. Where does it come in to play with each and should we ever stop paying attention?

(Your author in Wilson, KS.)

Whether it’s two people speaking, or a commercial, every new interaction is the transmission of one brand to another and each subsequent interaction is an iteration on the established dynamic. Branding lets us know what to expect from something or someone and in most cases, gives us enough information to tell us how to engage back. Continued exchanges serve to update the dynamic. The most timeless example is The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The boy begins with a trusted brand; people believe his claim that there is a wolf eating the sheep. After repeatedly raising false alarms about the wolf though, the protagonist’s brand evolves to one that merits a response of indifference, which ultimately becomes his undoing.

With the above in mind, every utterance – written or otherwise – is at a minimum, an ask for attention. Often times, the ask is greater – a response or the provision of money. One side makes an expression and the other is given the opportunity to decide what to do next. In this sense, communication of any sort is an exchange. The first to communicate makes an offering, and the other side reciprocates, though not necessarily commensurate with the opening bid. So, the thought of writing begs the question “is what I’m offering worth of what’s being asked in return?” In this case, I’m asking you to read my newsletter each week. My hope is you will, but the resulting statistics (open rate, link clicks, un-subscribes, etc.) will be the ultimate judge. This dynamic is what can sometimes make communication exhausting and the task of expression, especially to a group of people, daunting.

The Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have given rise to two of the more notorious ways to broadcast a brand and both have made me feel exhausted in different ways. In case you haven’t noticed, this week’s newsletter has been a bit light on supporting facts or hyperlinks. That’s because I’ve spent most of the week driving cross-country from Myrtle Beach to Denver with friends, without desktop internet. Along the way, we made dozens of stops, and these two channels for expression branded each place we visited by way of the prevalence or scarcity or each’s supporting paraphernalia. At one gas station in rural Kentucky, I was immediately asked where I was visiting from and only after leaving the store did I realize it was because I was the only person inside wearing a mask.

Because branding and communication are an exchange, consideration must be taken in advance in order to anticipate the audience’s reaction. In most cases, this consideration lends itself to a tacit conscientiousness of the audience’s feelings and their current circumstances. Charmin uses cutesy cartoon bears to advertise its toilet paper because to varying degrees, we’re ashamed of the sounds and smells our bodies make. If the brand wrought shame upon us by pointing out our propensity to make stinks while scrolling twitter for ten minutes, people likely would take their business elsewhere. Charmin coddles our egos and sensibilities by personifying the bears and averting our attention from the very act its product exists to clean up.

At their cores, the BLM movement and the wearing of a mask are about consideration for others. BLM challenges us to combat racism so that the law can be applied equally and justly and so that all of us, not just a lucky few, can live unencumbered by systems of oppression and prejudiced modes of thought. We wear masks not only because we don’t want to get infected, but also because we don’t want those around us to get infected. Nobody is upset that bathroom doors exist, nor is anyone upset that FAA regulation covers all airline passengers equally. It’s an unfortunate irony that expressions of support for these two issues, whose genesis is rooted in the desire for each of us to live the best life possible, is that they elicit such polarizing opposing reactions.   

This is what makes understanding the opposing sides of pandemic suppression and BLM so difficult. Not taking the pandemic seriously and not advocating for equality establishes your brand as one that doesn’t believe we’re all deserving of an equal shot to make the most of our lives. It’s one thing make a misstep, perhaps by making a thoughtless generalization, and offer contrition later. It’s another to set out in the world each day sans mask, or to feel threatened by people asking for universality in the application of the law. In a more just world, branding yourself so selfishly would eventually lead you to a similar fate as the boy in Aesop’s parable, and people would just ignore you all together.

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***Song of the post, in honor of our great American interstates. RIP Scott Weiland, don’t do heroin:

Postscript: My first two posts for this newsletter haven’t used the word ‘brand’, the center of the title, once. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing for the sake of it for over a decade, and easily my biggest trepidation was the impact it would have on other people’s perception of me.

I’m cynical; it’s hard to buy the earnestness of companies, most politicians, or any public-facing entity when couched in each message is one of those entities asking for something from me. If it’s difficult to believe in much, there doesn’t seem like a lot of reason to believe myself in this arena either. This is part of my brand, but is also a self-created impediment that stopped me for so long from getting to this monumental place of a third newsletter.