We’re living in a hyper-branded world. Our food, our clothes, our electronics, our software: everything is branded. Americans mention brands more than 3 billion times a day. Whether we are aware of it or not, brands are affecting our experience almost at all times.

What’s In A Brand

Once upon a time a brand used to be logo, a name: a simple tag. Nowadays, brands have become something much more intangible and emotional. Seth Godin defines brand as follows:

brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

The stronger these emotional ties to a brand are, the more a consumer is willing to pay. Companies are aware of this and spend billions of dollars to shove their brands into our faces at all times to constantly reinforce our emotional response.

In a sense, the brand experience is a kind of virtual reality, because our actual expectations and memories related to a particular brand quickly get entangled and overlayed with the prescribed expectations and memories that particular brand is trying to establish.

The experience of a Product

Mark Wilson wrote an interesting article on Co.Design about an Apple advertising spot. The advertising begins with the words: “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product.”

The rest of the (rather unimaginative spot) consists of people turning their attention away from the world around them to the shiny devices in their hands.

Wilson writes:

In what should be a warm, humanizing montage, people are constantly directing their attention away from one another and the real, panoramic world to soak in pixels. They’re choosing the experience of their products over the experience of other people several times in quick succession. And Apple has a warm voice in the background, goading us on.

The point Wilson is trying to make, is that Apple favors the “virtual” technology-enabled experience over the “real” physical experience, a criticism that is quickly dismantled with the Digital Dualism argument. However, he still has a point, because what this advertising really does is favor the virtual brand-enabled experience over the unbranded mundane experience.

To understand that, we’ll have to take a look at that opening line again: “This is what matters. The experience of a product.”

It’s not a mistake that they didn’t write “the experience of a person”, because ultimately this is not what brands are about.  People are secondary, we are just receptacles for the brand experience. In a world where increasingly “people are the product”, our experiences don’t belong to us anymore. They are assimilated into the brand and fed back to us through ads like the above.

The exact same thing can be seen in the Facebook Home ads, by the way: people turning away from a boring surrounding to their mobile devices. This is not about escaping into a digital world away from the real world, this is about feeding us back our own emotional brand responses.

The fact that people overlook this simple fact so often just proves how much we are affected by brands. We almost don’t notice them, they become invisible through their hyper-visibility, and yet they are subconsciously guiding our decisions and opinions. No matter what they might make us feel, brands are after all just carefully engineered complex corporate constructs with a simple function: to make us buy stuff.

Brands As Virtual  Reality

Brands make us feel things. They make us feel successful, creative, young and loved. The promise is always the same, that by participating in the brand experience we can own these emotions connected to the brand. To make these feelings our own, all we have to do is purchase the product. Brands don’t care about who we are, they care about who we want to be. It’s a make-belief world. Brands, in the end, despite all their emotional load are utterly self-referential.

Take Facebook for example. The brand here is all about warm and fuzzy feelings of “connecting people” and “making the world a better place”. These emotions are reinforced by advertising and through the way the product operates, and yet, in reality Facebook as a business is about one thing: trading personal data for advertisers’ money.

Brands tell us that we are unique, but in our belief of brand-enabled uniqueness we are all the same.

There is a brand for everyone, from corporate drones to anti-establishment occupiers, from wallflowers to vamps.

When we use brands to express ourselves, we are telling the world who we want to be. This is not self-expression, it’s wishful thinking.

In the end, maybe the Internet is (once again) not the problem. Talking to people through the Internet is not a “virtual” experience — somehow half or less real than a physical encounter.  There are of course varying degrees of intensity and modes of communication, but nobody would say that a phone call or a hand-written letter is “unreal”.

Perhaps our concern about the online world being artificial and unreal doesn’t stem from the technology, but from the way brands have infused these technologies with their perceived realities.

In that sense, maybe what we really need is not a “digital sabbatical”, but a brand detox, a time-out from constructed emotions that are ultimately as meaningless and nutrient-less as a whiff of vacuum …

img: Some rights reserved by somedesignerguy