Sunday, April 24, 2011

Journal 11: Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman is the host of the podcast, "Design Matters," and writes these great blogposts on Design Observer on different subjects on design or design inspiration, from an interview with massimo vignelli, to The Art of Poetry, she critiques and expresses her opinions about different works by design intellectuals or just elaborates on some interviews with designers. Either way, she's the partner and president of the design division of one of the leading brand identity firms in the country, Sterling Brands. Which is precisely why I read her post, Obsessive Branding Disorder II, which has this cheerful looking baby plastered with different brand identities' trademarks:

Millman basically is critiquing this book by Lucas Conley called "Obsessive Branding Disorder," who, through the voice of Millman, has this semi-paranoid, conspiracy theory-esque deep-rooted emotions about how the normal consumer are zombies to the brands of today. We're talking about Nike and McDonald's, Miller Lite, and Apple, and whatnot. How we've come to place where it's difficult to distinguish between our beliefs and our brand preferences, that branding has become this epidemic, how there is a new phenomena of the brand church, where brands are so established in our hearts that they resonate with us on a spiritual level. Etc. etc.

So, a few weeks or so ago, my boyfriend Alexander made me watch this really horribly directed film about something along the lines of "Masters of Manipulation" or something equally scary sounding, to be honest, I'm not entirely remembering the title because it felt like the longest twenty five minutes of my life, watching this one guy talking about his anti religious, paranoid, and super "I hate the Man" beliefs. Just him though. Oh, and clips of movies to offer supporting material for his argument. Nonetheless, I was super grumpy afterwards. And Alexander was grump that I couldn't even give the guy a chance. Here's the dealio though, there was one part of the movie that I found super enlightening.

It was about how the brand identity team of this car corporation researched the interaction and devotion of cult members and their particular group-think beliefs in order to research how to create a brand that would influence their consumer enough for them to buy, buy, and keep buying. Just like cult behavior, brand identity is all about belonging. Branding is more about the consumer, and their perception of the brand than what the company does to brand itself. Granted, obviously there's a lot of research that is done about what a corporation wants its brand to be interpreted as, but a lot of it is the personal, intimate interaction between consumer and brand. In that sense, Conley's idea of a brand church and a brand tribe should honestly be replaced with the idea of a brand cult.

This reading also reminded me of the documentary that I watched last night, State of Mind, which is a documentary of North Korea's 2003 Mass Games, which is the world's largest annual gymnastics performance. The movie was an incredibly interesting look into the socialistic culture of North Korea, how in an "equal" society of three different but equal classes of the peasants, workers, and intellectuals, governed not by capitalistic brands and consumerism perspectives but by the state. Where people are given rations and there is only one channel of state propaganda, one radio station, and there is no concept of brand or brand affiliation. It was so bizarre because it was culturally unlike anything I could have ever imagined. Identity that was formed not even by one's own individuality (which is how many people form from the brands they most connect with), but group identity as a North Korean, as a socialist, as a daughter or son of the Great President or The General (Kim II Sung).

There are definitely brands that I favor over others, I love my Apple products to an unhealthy sense I do sort of associate that with my identity of being a design. I do judge people who wear Reebok or those ShapeUp shoes and myself prefer Underarmour and Puma the most. I trust in Kitchenaid because I feel like it has the same homely aura of a 1950's, pearls-wearing housewife. And if I could only drive Toyota cars, I would because they are loyal and practical like me. And honestly, I don't care. I don't care about what that says about me as a consumer, I think that everyone has come to that point. I agree with Millman in the sense that even though I might currently have some sort of emotional attachment to my MacBook Pro because it is an Apple product, or my Kitchenaid Stand Mixer in persimmon, I am still in charge of what I do and do not buy. If Apple or Kitchenaid released bad products, my brand loyalty would obviously not outweigh my desire for quality products. The comment that Millman cites in her post sums it all up for me:

“Consumers are like roaches. We spray them with marketing and for a time, it works. Then, inevitably, they develop an immunity, a resistance.” Consumers are still in charge of what they buy and don’t buy (and what they buy or don’t buy into).

Come on, Conley, give us some credit.

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