Notes from Debbie Millman’s talk, “Why We Brand, Why We Buy”

Debbie Millman presented her talk Why We Brand, Why We Buy on Friday night at The Art Institute of CA in Orange County. In her talk, Ms. Millman, partner and President of the Design Group at Sterling Brands, pieced together neurological influences on human proclivity to (buying into) brands, a history of the brand from industrialized society to the information era, and the consumer’s shifting expectations of brands during each of five periods of history. Here are my notes, followed by a short video of the last moments of her talk:

There are now 45,000 brands in an average supermarket, including 100 brands of water. Starbucks offers over 19 million different ways in which you can order a beverage. This alone seems outrageous. So, why do we do this?

In part, it is a result of the evolution of our brains, guiding our behavior:

Since evolution is driven by natural selection and mutation, our brains have transformed over the last 50,000 years. Mammals have a limbic cortex that accounts for emotional responses and play. During the great leap forward (about 50,000 years ago) cultural universals including language, art, music, cooking, and self-decoration emerged in human societies.This is when making and marking first appeared. The first cave markings date shortly after the great leap forward, 32,000 years ago.

Cave paintings at Lascaux

Cave paintings at Lascaux

During that time there were no logos on clothes or medicines, but there were marks on religious symbols, crests and shields, and flags. The noun brond (as in destruction by fire) was first introduced in Beowulf.

Branding was first used in the beginning of the 19th Century to mark cattle with a hot iron, declaring ownership.

The first branded item was Bass ale.

Bass was the first branded product to be trademarked.

Brands as we know them emerged in packaged goods following the 1875 trademarks registration act, which took effect on Jan 1, 1876. Thus begins the 5 waves of modern brand evolution.

Wave 1: 1875-1920
In the beginning, building a brand was straight forward. The logo was a direct signal and the brand justified paying a higher price for the product.

Brands helped consumers buy efficiently because they represented the production of a consistent line of products. Consumers expected that brands would work, as brands represented the guarantee of consistency.

Wave 2: 1920-1965
The original Foods and Drug Act was passed by congress in June of 1906. In response to the first wave, the brand and product producer was legally obligated to ensure that the consumer experience would be safe. Brands of this period represented the guarantee of quality. The consumer of leading brands of this time expected (consistency, still, and) a safe experience with the brand. Leaders of branding included Morton’s Salt and Kellogg’s Rice Krispies with the snap, crackle, pop characters.


Aside: The Morton’s Salts slogan, “When it rains, it pours” is an imaginative (in its branding execution) and direct solution to the common challenge of pouring salt when the weather is wet. A scientist developed a salt crystal for Morton that would ensure the salt would pour even when it rains. The slogan can be modified, “When it rains, [Morton’s Salt] pours.” Branding begins to become graphic, imaginative, and associative.

Wave 3: 1965-1985
The brand acts as an expressive statement and consumers believed that the brand would provide the status. It is at once a telegraphic method of identifying like-minded political beings.

We know this face without the graphic or brand reminder. The man is the brand.

We know this face without the graphic or brand reminder. The man is the brand.

The leaders of this era are The Marlboro Man, The VW (noted for the Lemon and Think Small campaigns), Levi’s jeans (first worn by gold miners working in water), and Nike.

Wave 4: 1985 – 2000
The brand signifies an ultimate experience. The consumer expects something emotionally. The leader: (I Want My) MTV.

Wave 5: Limbic Brands 2000-present
The most pervasive pack organization that humans belong to is the family. Survival of the fittest creates a need to organize. Attachment theory accounts for a dramatically high level of emotional attachment, seen in a study where given the choice, a baby would choose the connection to its mother over food. See John Bowlby, Attachment: Second Edition (Attachment and Loss Series, Vol 1) and Harry Harlow, From Learning to Love: The Selected Papers of H.F. Harlow (Centennial Psychology Series).

We are in the midst of a revolution in our ability to connect with each other. Since 1950 there has been an increase in divorce each decade. 30% of today’s (American) children live with one parent. Single person households are more prevalent than married people with kids. 1 in 3 households are comprised of 1 person (by comparison, 1 in 10 in the 1950s).

In the information era, brands guarantee connection.

Kids spend an average of 8 hours a day in front of a screen while not in school. Our society has developed constructs in which humans can connect in a networked environment.

We are increasingly buying and participating in more of the same things faster. In order to reach 150 million consumers (or users) of the TV it took 35 years. It took only 7 years for the cell phone to reach a user base of 150 million. It has only taken Twitter 3 years to reach 150 million users.

In conclusion…

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