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Jakarta Post

Analysis: The tyranny of brands

  • Debnath Guharoy

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Tue, June 11, 2013   /  11:54 am
Analysis: The tyranny of brands

We live in a world full of brands. Whether it'€™s a car or a deodorant, a bank or an antacid, a religious leader or a president, marketing and media are shaping the choices we make and the opinions we form every day. Could we live in a world without logos? Would the planet stop if there was no advertising?

There was a time long ago when a brand, its logo and its message represented an assurance of quality. With a multitude of brands in the same category, the need for differentiation redefined the word '€œimage'€. Today, our personal image is embellished if not represented by the brands we use, consume, display. For too many brand-conscious people, self-confidence would be undermined without logos. It would be all too painful to imagine life without the badge on the car, the wrist-watch, the mobile phone, the T-shirt.

This is the fear that brands thrive on. Marketers will put a positive spin on this state-of-mind and promote the joy of ownership, association and experience with their particular brand. So successful is their massaging of the brain that we conjure a sense of satisfaction that the average consumer cannot explain intelligently. That'€™s simply because a 50-dollar handbag sold with a 2000-dollar price-tag defies logic. Such a difference between the cost of production and price at point of sale cannot be explained, especially in a world where half the human race lives in varying degrees of pain. One in eight of our fellow human beings are hungry every day. The average garment factory worker in Bangladesh and the child worker in Ghana'€™s cocoa plantations earn less than 100 dollars a month. Yet, the owners of several major global brands have failed to sign pledges or keep their promises, for years
on end.

Nowadays, it can be a real challenge to tell the difference between a good copy and the original brand, whether it'€™s a wallet, a wrist-watch, a perfume. Manufacturing standards have risen so sharply around the world that it is no longer necessary to '€œreassure'€ yesterday'€™s consumer, only to '€œdifferentiate'€ for today'€™s brand-conscious. That'€™s where the fiction of '€œimage'€ overcame the need for any semblance of truth in advertising. Many years ago, in my advertising days, I helped sell a lot shampoo in this country that never had any of the aloe vera it promised. That'€™s just one of many pieces of fiction I perpetrated for many of the biggest brands in the Asia Pacific region. I know better now, because I am listening more than I ever have. I urge you to do the same.

US President Obama is a brand. America is a brand. In the country that champions democracy and free-market capitalism, it now costs a billion dollars to run a presidential campaign to sell '€˜the best person for the job'€™. Does that make sense? We often forget that the champion has championed as many dictatorships as it has helped create free societies. But the whitewash from global media would like us all to believe that all things American are good. Supposedly, the West is always a force for good. That is the kind of power a brand has, whether it be a country or its leader. It enabled George W. Bush, to proclaim '€œyou are either with us or against us'€. Even in recent history, the Mujahedeen were good, then bad. Saddam was good, then bad. The list is long. Within the bastion of democracy, Private Bradley Manning has been demonised by its own media and held for months without charge for leaking documents to Wikileaks. Now, an old draconian law is being used by US national security authorities to stifle whistle-blowers and journalists while extracting recorded data from Google, Facebook, Apple and YouTube, global brands we all trust without thinking twice.

What co-operation would these global brands give to the national security authorities of China? In a major irony that is a sign of our changing times, ex-CIA operative now-NSA contractor Edward Snowden has fled to Hong Kong after disclosing the undemocratic, illegal and unlimited ways US authorities spy on people anywhere and everywhere. How does that make you feel about Brand America today? Or Brand China? For the record, I am neither anti-American nor pro-Chinese. I have no reason to be either.

Nobody would argue against the positive value that a brand represents. But we do need to make our choices more consciously, more intelligently than we probably do on a daily basis. We need to question the facts before us. The Internet is setting us free, empowering us to make those decisions with better access to information than ever before. Marketers are recognising the changing environment, globally and locally. More than ever, it is time to build brands based on the truth, not dreams, not fiction, not images. The global advertising agency used to say it well in their slogan, '€œTruth well told'€. The consumer will demand the truth, with increasing intensity.

The evidence is here. Eight out of ten Indonesians '€œtry to buy Indonesian-made products as often as possible'€. Half the country still thinks '€œsome TV advertising is devious'€. But as much as a third now say '€œquite often I find TV advertising more entertaining than the programs'€. There is hope for us all: marketers, media owners and consumers. The closer we stick to the truth, the more we bring smiles to people'€™s faces, the greater the rewards. Equally, our politicians and leaders should also take note of the changing landscape.

My opinions are influenced by the country'€™s biggest syndicated consumer study. More than 2000 consumers are interviewed month after month from across the country. The data is projected to represent the views of 87 percent of the population, 14 years of age and over.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

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