Fotograaf MAFFITI

Can brands Have
Good Or Bad Impact
On The World?

Merily Lillevälja


There’s been a lot of controversy about whether branding is good or bad. Does it have a positive impact or a negative? What kind of power lies beneath branding? Let’s just say this – everything has its good and bad sides, its yin and yang, the black and white. But it’s not that simple. It’s the gray area that we’re talking about. It’s about the possibilities and opportunities. People ask why I’m passionate about branding. I believe it’s more than just a trademark/logo/label – it’s a mark of promise. And nowadays it matters more than you can expect.

Branding is one of the most essential cores of your business. It can either help you make it or break it. Imagine a human body – one of the most important parts for movement is the core. Train it, develop it, keep it safe and you will be stronger than the person who doesn’t. Building a strong core will take time, patience and persistence, just like a brand will. It is based on a strong idea. In the long perspective a brand will provide your business with stability, growth potential, loyalty and longevity.

These are like mechanisms for decision making and action taking. Nowadays one of our most important assets is time, and yet there’s so much information clutter, the white noise, that it’s getting harder to make decisions within limited time. Brands therefore are like shortcuts – especially the ones that have positive feedback from its users. We tend to choose the brand that is recognizable, relateable and something that our best friend recommended rather than an unknown brand that we’ve never heard of. And this is where the marketers come out to play with cognitive psychology and neuroscience – the place where science meets psychology and creativity.

Grant Tudor, the founder and CEO of Populist (a non-profit marketing group), wrote an amazing article (Using Brands For Impact) about what kind of power do brands have over the consumers:

“We (marketers) can tweak important experiences; create ingrained impressions with advertising; imbue associative sensory and semantic cues; and design distinctive assets with color, language and shapes. We can pull a lot of levers to build and refresh the memory structures that ensure brands are mentally available and easily retrieved. /—/ Brands influence how we much we pay for a product, the ways in which we talk about it – even how we actually  experience it. /—/ Companies often use these biases to exploit and manipulate, like giving us permission to pay exorbitantly for a cup of coffee. Our brains ask us to pay for a brand, not just a product. That power – like commanding a price premium – can be a good thing.” – Grant Tudor, 2015

Unfortunately multinational, big brands will challenge smaller local brands who are just starting off. It will feel like an unfair game.

“Multinationals can drive valued and traditional local brands out of business simply because these lack the capital and aggressive management to defend their market. The governments, driven by politics, tend to look after the jobs and revenues of the big deals, and let small owners of local brands languish.” – Matthew Healey, “What is Branding”, 2008

In that case it is hard for new and potentially good local brands to start out with their business or simply stay alive. Nowadays it is already challenging to successfully position a brand in the market without good marketing “know-how” knowledge.

But then again, at times an advanced multinational brand will maintain or revitalize a local brand, perhaps even years after it was last seen on the market. Until the fall of communism, beer of Pilsen was hard to get outside of Czechoslovakia and Eastern Bloc. In 1999 it was acquired by the multinational brewer SABMiller. With only minor upgrades to their products and brand management (including sales, marketing and distribution), it saw global exports skyrocket to unprecedented levels.

However, success doesn’t always come when foreigners take over.

Success comes when
opportunity meets preparation.

“The maker of Kofola, a Czech soft drink, disappeared after the end of communism, but the brand was brought back in the late 1990s by a group of local managers who had gained experience in marketing for multinationals and started a new venture to revive the once-popular cola.” (Matthew Healey, “What Is Branding”, 2008)

In this case Preparation was that the brand was there, the product itself was good and the local managers gained knowledge. Then came Opportunity – the local managers took a risk to start again. Even though globalization seems unstoppable, there’s a huge yet simple value in local brands: they form a part of the local culture and win over local, loyal customers. Local brands may languish under pressure from global brands, but with skillful management they can be brought back to life and even transcend their borders aka go global.

It’s amazing how great branding strategy can bring something big into life or just keep it alive. And that’s why I am passionate about branding – making an impact, something that will matter one day and will leave a mark for centuries.

People might often say that branding is a huge con, a scheme, to make people choose your brand over the less popular one. They say that “brands confuse people”. But is it really so? From one perspective – of course! Some brands will, because it’s business. People behind the brand need to make a living and at times they do what is not exactly fair. But then again, from the other perspective – will the brand, with bad feedback from its clients, survive?

So here’s the catch: nowadays branding can be good. This is the ultimate opportunity behind the bittersweet reality.

We, the people, the consumers,
have a choice and the possibility
to make noise.

We have the almighty internet and social media. Brands with good reviews and feedback from its customers will survive. Brands that have a big fan community can make a big change in the world. They can use the masses of people to make a positive difference in the world (cultural movement strategy). For example, The Body Shop, established in the 1980s, was one of the first brands to show that a concern for the environment and/or animal welfare could propel a brand for success. But this kind of chivalry hasn’t always seen bright days.

“The cynical observer will quickly bring down any effort by a big-brand corporation to support a worthy cause, whether it’s fighting disease, helping the poor, or protecting the environment. The cynic says it’s all a PR gimmic to hide a guilty conscience or a questionable record. There’s no doubt that corporate support for worthy causes does benefit the needier elements of society; it provides billions in funding and countless hours of donated employee time annually. And arguably, the corporations do benefit from the additional goodwill that the publicity surrounding their giving brings. Customers too benefit – if indirectly.” – Matthew Healey, What is Branding, 2008.

And truthfully, I’m not surprised of people being cynical. A century ago the world was less noisy, when it comes to advertising. There were less ads and salesmen screaming into your face “buy this! /buy that!” without realizing whether what they were selling is actually good or bad for people, animals and/or the environment. The market is “filled with heartless commercialism” and bad brands. This video sums it up pretty well:

Each and every day there’s something new. A new product, a new brand, a new life. The population grows with an unstoppable speed and the resources become ever more scarce. It’s frightening, yet John Tuomey sees a light in the end of the tunnel:

“People used to worry that the global would destroy the local, but in fact, the global helps the local to untrap itself.” – John Tuomey, The New York Times, 2006

A brand can have a huge impact on its company, organization, start-up, person, country and, let’s face it, also on the world. Products have a shorter lifeline than brands. Throughout the time they will fade in the midst of other rivals, but brands are the ones to survive – that is, if they are strong, persistent and “keep their  brand promise(s)”. If people believe in the brand and gain value from it, beautiful things can happen. Scott Goodson sums it up in his article (Why Branding Is Important) brilliantly:

“ Brands can activate a passionate group of people to do something like changing the world. Products can’t really do that. /—/ I believe that building brands now requires a cultural movement strategy as opposed to simply a brand building strategy. A cultural movement strategy can accelerate your brand’s rise to dominance. Once you have cultural movement, you can do anything in a fragmenting media environment, maximizing the power of social media and technology. /—/ In a movement strategy, brands have a purpose that people can get behind. Brands can inspire millions of people to join a community. Brands can rally people for or against something.”

Matthew Healey brings out an innovative example of brands using their power for good, for example the (PRODUCT)RED initiative. It’s a licensed brand that seeks to engage the private sector in raising awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in Africa. It’s unusual unusual to be applied as a co-brand with other major brands like Armani, Motorola, Converse and others. Even though the brands benefit from the cause, the cause also benefits from them. It is business.

It’s hard to fight a huge cause alone and at times brands can really help along, even if they benefit from it. Maybe it is even sad to admit that at times we need big brands to help and fight against the causes.

As said before – brands are like mechanisms to influence end-users, the consumers, and guide their behaviour. The notion of it is uncomfortable for many since it seems to be out of our control and so there are few who know how to appreciate it. Branding is not just black and white – it’s gray and colorful. It can be put into amazing use by impacting the right people in the right direction. It all lies beneath the attitude we take towards it.

We have to start seeing
the opportunities and possibilities
behind what is obvious.

Grant Tudor raises a question that I have as well: what if social innovation had the access to the world’s greatest marketing minds, knowledge and tools? Couldn’t we tackle some global problems by connecting companies, people and brands?

“We turn to brands for behavioral guidance. As the social sector innovates, increasingly transforming itself into a manufacturer, distributor, and marketer of critical goods and services, leaving the brand discussion on the sidelines only disserves its missions of impact.” – Grant Tudor

One of the very reasons I keep writing articles about branding is to show how brands can positively influence the world and how YOU can do it, too. I want to give value to the people who see the brands the way I do – an opportunity to move masses of people to do something amazing, life changing, impactful. I’m a person who sees the glass half full while realizing how beautiful the glass itself is. So this is why I am on the side that brands CAN have a positive impact in the world. And even though there are people who will come and say that branding is bad, I’m not going to argue with it. We are all human and we all have the right for our own opinion.

Some more reading for anyone who’s interested:

Populist brings world-class marketers and social innovators together. They help organizations sell critical products and services to underserved populations by tapping the creative problem solving of marketers. Check out what they’ve done:

International creative organization D&AD and Advertising Week today announced a new global award show that recognizes companies and brands that are making the world a better place. The global awards are open to any agency, studio, media owner, publisher, social enterprise, start-up or brand that has contributed towards a better, fairer, more sustainable future and is focused squarely on the role that businesses and brands play within society, the economy, the environment and broader cultural arena.

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