Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

How Politics Disproves “Death of Brands” Sensationalism

Having information isn’t the same thing as processing it. That means there will always be a place for brands, both in politics and in commerce — because the power of brands comes from helping people simplify their decision making.

Republicans failed to vanquish the Democratic brand in 2006 -- by getting spanked in that year's mid-term elections.

Republicans failed to vanquish the Democratic brand in 2006 — by getting spanked in that year’s mid-term elections.

Even so, you can always grab a few eyeballs by making a big, audacious claim about the end of brands. In 2006, the political world gave us books about Republican predictions that their party brand would vanquish the Democratic brand once and for all, leading to a Permanent Majority. Of course Democrats absolutely demolished Republicans in the mid-term elections that very year.

Right now, a new book called Absolute Value is making a pretty grand claim about the erosion of brands based on the ability of today’s technology to deliver more information to consumers about product attributes. As one of the authors told James Surowiecki, “Each product now has to prove itself on its own.”

It may be that it’s harder today to get away with making a shitty product just by slapping a strong brand name on it, but that’s not the same thing as brands becoming obsolete. As the world of politics shows, claims that brands don’t matter, even in information-rich environments, won’t ever live up to the hype.

The main issue is that brands aren’t just a replacement for information, as Absolute Value’s authors suggest. Brands are a shortcut for information *processing*.

Some information is easy to process — like snakes. Your brain processes visual data about snakes faster than just about anything else (we’re talking milliseconds), and you may even have special neurons dedicated solely to snakes. Why? Because for eons, snakes were a huge threat to your mammalian ancestors’ survival, so evolution made it easy and fast to react. Meanwhile, your brain also evolved to let you compare the costs and benefits of thousands of different kinds of sporting goods, for example — but that’s just a by-product of other things you evolved to be able to do. It still takes a lot of cognitive effort to weigh and compare so many complex variables. People don’t especially like to do it.

As branding guru David Aaker wrote in his take on this book,

Do a quick search for tennis rackets, golf clubs or ski boots — the hundreds of options are easily overwhelming. At the end of the day, many will go back to the brand as a ‘shortcut’ for information on key elements such as quality and innovation.

I would add that at some point, there’s just a diminishing utility to the consumer or voter from putting in a lot more information processing effort to get one decision a little more right.

Like consumer products information, political information has also become much easier to access. Innovations like the world wide web, product rating and comparison sites, and social media, cited by Absolute Value’s authors, are now ubiquitous in the political world, too:

  • Go to a candidate’s website, like www.sherrodbrown.com, and look at the issues section. Bingo, the candidate lays out detailed information about each issue he’s prioritizing.
  • Issue tracking websites serve the same function for politics as attribute comparison sites serve for commerce. Check out www.ontheissues.org/Hillary_Clinton.htm and look at the huge amount of information available on the positions potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has taken.
  • Or follow @politico for political news coverage and @PryorForSenate for tweets straight from the horse’s mouth in this year’s hotly contested Arkansas Senate race.

With all this information available in politics, why is partisanship still the best predictor of voter behavior? Even in politics, which will likely have a much more profound impact on the life of a given consumer than anything he or she ever buys? Because people generally don’t process political information by putting it on the metaphorical scales and weighing it carefully.

The pull of partisanship is so strong that even eminently sensible third-party candidates can rarely gain traction.

Instead, they process it through metaphors about family structure Moral Politics, through tribalist filters, or through misconceptions about the roles of luck and skill. Political brands are important because they collect and encapsulate these processing filters.

Likewise, commercial brands collect and encapsulate other processing filters that consumers use beyond product attributes — filters like expressive or identity benefits. So, who knows, maybe one day brands really will die, in politics or in commerce. But if they do, it won’t be because of the availability of information.

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