Debbie Millman | Dialogues

Obsessive Branding Disorder II

©2004 Funnypart.com

The current discipline and practice of branding is both obsessively fascinating and shamelessly polarizing. Because our lives are so entwined with brands, it has become difficult to distinguish between our beliefs and our brand preferences. From Apple to Starbucks, from Rachel Ray to Tiger Woods, corporations and individuals alike are immersed in a brand ethos. As a result, branding has become one of the most significant influences on both public consciousness and the contemporary visual environment and it is a fiercely debated subject.

Brands embody allegiances, affiliations and identities, and they have become ambiguous totems: They allow us to connect with others and, at the same time, to differentiate ourselves from others. Critics such as the writer Naomi Klein, the de facto leader of the anti-branders, think that the brand mentality and everything it entails — the economics required to sustain it; the advertising necessary to propagate it — have an insidious influence on global society, the environment, and the quality of human life. Lucas Conley, a writer for the magazine Fast Company and author of the book, Obsessive Branding Disorder, believes that “branding offers a unique example of a business philosophy that has jumped the tracks, barreling through popular culture unchecked.” He also states, “Somewhere between the grocery aisle and gross absurdity, branding has become an epidemic — a mirage turned miracle cure. In the global community in which new media and increasingly fickle stockbrokers demand immediate results, today’s corporations have taken comfort in branding’s soothing, vague idealism.”

Oh, if only it were that simple! 100 years ago, building a brand was rather straightforward. A logo was a telegraphic guarantee of quality and consistency, or it was a signal that a product was something new. For that, consumers were prepared to pay a premium. Brands were also the first piece of consumer protection. You knew where to go if you had a complaint. Brands also helped consumers to buy efficiently. Today, consumers also buy brands based on how that particular brand makes them feel. This positively infuriates Conley. “Experiences represent multi-sensory gold mines for brands, trapdoors into our most deeply held beliefs and values,” Conley states in the chapter “Buying Our Way Into Being.” “For most of us,” he continues, “the idea of a branded object eclipsing the bonds of family, friendship, work, or spirituality is ludicrous. But branding’s most fervent gurus celebrate the best brands for their capacity to establish themselves firmly in our hearts and minds. Our relationships with our dearest brands, they argue, ought to resonate on a spiritual level. To this end, one branding strategy that has gained momentum in the past few years is the concept of “the brand church” — places of “worship” for brand tribes to gather.”

In this example, and throughout Obsessive Branding Disorder, Conley overstates the power and capacity of brands. Yes, brands can assert moods, tastes and affiliations. Yes, brands can create deeply intimate worlds we can understand and where we may feel as though we belong. Yes, brands create tribes. In this regard, most people like the way their favorite brands make them feel. When we covet a brand, we covet the feeling that that we hope that brand will produce as a result. But Conley believes that brands not only provide these feelings, they usurp all others, and because of brands, we now feel isolated, lonely, and that “we are living in relationships brokered by brands (which are) by and large superficial.”

Conley continually makes unsubstantiated claims as to the virulent evil of brands and all those who work in the discipline. Without providing evidence, Conley states: “in the name of brand, any idea can be defended as valid and any crackpot can assume the status of guru” and “A brand is something to be controlled rather than any expression of authenticity.” Further, he asserts that companies utilizing branding techniques are “banking on illusion, not innovation, to stay alive” and “Many branders have a hard time proving the impact of their work.”

While Conley puts forth grandiose, broad generalizations about the base depravation that is branding, he fails to consider how brands create and sustain momentum by developing an honest and compelling emotional connection with the people who buy into the brand. Ironically, it is precisely this visceral and amorphous quality of “the brand” that confounds and challenges brand consultants, cultural anthropologists, marketers, researchers, and designers. Rather than see branding as an art within the broad spectrum of business disciplines, Conley claims that “reaching beyond reason, branding throws off business’s true north. Disoriented, obsessed with surface and sentiment over substance, companies apply their ingenuity to the disingenuous, perfecting names and nuances instead of responding to consumer needs.” Yet Conley never defines what he means by the statement “business’s true north,” nor does he prove how these same disoriented companies repeatedly fail to respond to consumer needs, yet somehow manage to successfully sell these same products to unsuspecting shoppers.

What Conley fails to consider is that consumers are not that stupid or that gullible. He claims, “Like a pesticide working its way up the food chain, branding reaches the American consumer at many entry points and in heady doses. We’re contaminated by the products we buy, the offices in which we work, the advertisements around us and the news and entertainment we absorb.” But brands are not as all-powerful as Conley alleges, nor is the public as easily manipulated. The reality is more complicated. When considering the pesticide analogy, I prefer to agree with Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum of Kirshenbaum/Bond who believe that “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).

Conley constantly contradicts himself in Obsessive Branding Disorder. “With so many schools of thought about branding, it’s often difficult to determine what, if anything, separates good from bad branding,” he states in one chapter, but in another he claims, “In most cases, guerrilla, viral and buzz marketing campaigns are harmless and largely ineffective.” Obsessive Branding Disorder would have been a far more convincing book had Conley delved more seriously into the reasons behind the behavior he describes. For instance, though he asserts that brands have replaced religion, he doesn't explain why. Yet answering this question is essential if we are to understand and critique the influence of branding. Why have we replaced our spiritual beliefs with products that provide social confidence or happiness? Why do more and more of us affiliate with consumer tribes and not with churches, temples, communities — or each other (if that is indeed the case)? Conley rigorously (if illogically, along with copious amounts of snark) articulates the many ramifications of branding but never investigates its history or its many failures.

Brand consultants are not the only targets of Conley’s derision. Designers come under attack as well. Conley states, “If brands are here to help us align our values, then the role of the modern branding professional is to amplify those aspirational values in the design and packaging of the product. The better things look — be they packs of gum or luxury sedans — the more people will desire them. Designers love this axiom because it implies that, if the design is good enough, the product is less important in the overall equation.” In Conley’s world, brand consultants, designers, market research professionals and advertisers all behave in one way and that one way is very, very bad.

In the last chapter of Obsessive Branding Disorder, Conley considers the future of branding. He admits that “people might be too clever” to let branding get under their skin and admits that as he was finishing the book, his colleagues at Fast Company were “quick to inform me that as a writer, I had a brand to maintain and that I ought to market myself by setting up a website and a blog.” Which Conley has subsequently accomplished. One of the great ironies of both the No Logo contingents and now the Obsessive Branding Disorder crowd is how willingly they employ the very tenets of branding they so obviously disdain.


For another interpretation of Lucas Conley's book, see the essay previously posted on Design Observer by Adrian Shaughnessy, Obsessive Branding Disorder I.

Posted in: Business

Comments [29]

i think one of conley's main points, was the fact that branding isn't about the brand anymore. as consumers we are buying into something, but it's more a facade then a brand. "back in the day" i think there were more instances where you could actually buy into something that always paid homage to their core beliefs, via the product. now branding comes off more as, how much can i get my logo in your face. branding a company is more times than not, how can appeal to the most amount people in a "positive" way. rather than turning out a quality product that people can believe in, and showing that to people everyday in a productive manner. most advertising has very little informational qualities. its more about focus groups and what is going to turn your mind and sub-concious on. i think one thing that i always think about, is the fact that mcdonalds still advertises. they have no need to advertise anymore. they're not going to go out of business. we know what they are and do, its just all about new fun ways to make even more money (and contrived commercials.) i bet more people would eat there if they advertised based on the core belief of the original idea behind mcdonalds. things to me these days, are more about sacrificing quality for quantity.

Well could it be that the reason why "we know what they are and do" is because of their constant advertising and branding techniques?

And what is the "core belief of the original idea behind [McDonald's]"? Is it not give the public fast food?

I think people are confusing identity with brain-washing. Drop the conspiracy theory.

And, really, McDonald's is in business because of the American lifestyle: "Gimme gimme. I want it cheap, and I want it ten minutes ago." They're providing the supply to that demand.

So don't blame the entrepreneur. Fix the problem, in this example America's impatience and gluttony.
Geoff Thibeau

i mean i agree with what you're saying, but i'm sure when mcdonalds was started by the man, woman, who ever, didn't picture this. they are what they are, because of the idea; but have become what they have become due to the advertising and how they can connect with what's cool and new. losing what they strived to be along the way. they have definitely had a hand in what the country is. "gimme, gimme, fast". which is why they don't need to advertise anymore. the american people didn't create it. because they didn't know about fast food before it was created.

Main article: History of McDonald's
The business began in 1940, with a restaurant opened by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California. Their introduction of the "Speedee Service System" in 1948 established the principles of the modern fast-food restaurant. The original mascot of McDonald's was a man with a chef's hat on top of a hamburger shaped head whose name was "Speedee." Speedee was eventually replaced with Ronald McDonald in 1963.
The present corporation dates its founding to the opening of a franchised restaurant by Ray Kroc, in Des Plaines, Illinois on April 15, 1955[6] , the ninth McDonald's restaurant overall. Kroc later purchased the McDonald brothers' equity in the company and led its worldwide expansion and the company became listed on the public stock markets in 1965[7]. Kroc was also noted for aggressive business practices, compelling the McDonald's brothers to leave the fast food industry. The McDonald's brothers and Kroc feuded over control of the business, as documented in both Kroc's autobiography and in the McDonald brothers autobiography. The site of the McDonald brothers' original restaurant is now a monument.[8]
With the expansion of McDonald's into many international markets, the company has become a symbol of globalization and the spread of the American way of life. Its prominence has also made it a frequent topic of public debates about obesity, corporate ethics and consumer responsibility.

Taken from Wikipedia

Debbie this is a complex subject and I would love to hear you interview Lucas Conley on Design Matters. Lucas Conley was great on The Colbert Report and his book was very entertaining, but I think his book OBD promotes a myth about R&D spending. That R&D spending is somehow a better investment than Branding. It is implied that R&D spending produces patents and Branding produces nothing more than a mirage.

Do patents really increase innovation and profits?
The answer, according to a new study, is NO.
Check out Keith Sawyer's Blog.
Carl W. Smith

The trouble with a golden goose like 'brand' is that once it found a place as a legitimate business tool the charlatans and wannabes jump on board and taint it with buzzwords and rhetoric to make a buck.

And now it seems a buck is to be made by being totally anti-brand and fueling a backlash.

Eventually the hysteria will die down, many of the frauds will hopefully be purged and the real designers and brand consultants can get on with the job of communicating to people.
Matthew Black

I believe branding can be defined as a process which, when executed fully, should result in consistent communication with ones constituents. This includes visual identity, verbal "style", and strategic points and methods of communication. And I believe this is true for an individual as much as it is for a multinational multi-billion-dollar organization, a country, or a grass-roots effort.

The difference between pervasive branding has, more often than not, to do with money. Not that strategy can't help to promote a brand (and let's not leave out luck, either), but that the brands that are top-of-mind – be they Apple, Walmart, Martha Stewart, or McDonald's – are brands that consistently communicate a particular message in a particular manner with a backing of a serious budget. They are ubiquitous now because of an early background perhaps hard work, luck (or opportunity) and successful thinking that lead to the availability of serious cash to back it all up and push it forward.

But people are not stupid. While a high school student might believe that a particular pair of jeans will help solve all their popularity problems, most adults are not so naive. AOL is a fraction of the business it used to be, because what it promised and what it delivered were not the same thing. A company cannot succeed on branding alone.

How we as designers fit into this is determined by our own decisions to align our abilities and our time with the organizations or "brands" in question. In this respect, not all designers are guilty of bad behavior.
Andrew Twigg

Hi Debbie, interesting piece. However, two points.

1) I disagree with how you've interpreted his writing on 'modern brand professionals' - he is not talking about all and every designer as a monolithic group, but rather a particular set of 'brand designer', though the passage you quoted is admittedly ambiguous. It would be an uncharitable reading of Conley's argument to think he indicts all and every designer and related profession.

2) Klein, Conley (and others?) do engage in branding, but I'm not sure how you could say they do so 'willingly' given the substance of their arguments. They engage in it, yes, but it seems to me they do so rather unwillingly. Thus, their engagement with branding is not ironic, as though it contradicted their points, but rather supports them: branding is not something we can even opt out of anymore, it is something larger than an individual's desire and we participate in it whether we like it or not.

I bought a copy of No Logo a few years ago. I tried to get through it but found it a too little over the top. Or maybe I just enjoy the physical forms (of logos) too much. Her latest book (listen to her talk about it here), however, seems to make more interesting points. I even heard talk of it being picked up by a studio. Kudos to Klein.
felix sockwell


Insightful observations. Here are two more:

Coke v Pepsi and Children and Advertising.

Salesmen will try to sell "brand" and all that it entails because it benefits their bottom line — because it's the newest "idea." Just as some will try to hawk "innovation" as the new buzzword when selling.

Can't we agree that good designers are trying to help their clients? No buzzwords or allusions?

If not, then what the hell are they/we doing?

Joe Moran

From the Sterling Brands web-site, where Debbie is President:

"Marketing is positioning. We might talk about branding, but there’s really no such thing. Brand is a noun. Brand is a prize. The verb is positioning."


It's interesting to me that someone who may believe that "branding" doesn't really exist is putting so much effort into defending the concept.

I don't necessarily agree with everything Conley has to say on this subject, but his criticism is, in my opinion, nothing that needs to be reacted to so strongly.

If one is practicing in a socially-responsible manner, then who cares about a bit of criticism of our field? I think we can take it just fine.
Paul Nini

i agree. we should be criticized as a field just as much as any other.
we live in a bubble as profession.

no matter what the subject, there will always be someone opposed to it.

what Conley seems to be missing is that the pervasive and "pesticide"-like branding is, in some cases, not even accomplished by the brand company itself, but by its users/audience. people see other people wearing logos or using products so they have to have it themselves.

to give a facetious, over-simplified example: say some rapper is wearing a brand in his hip new video on the mtv . . . now all the cool kids need to buy that brand, regardless of whether they have ever seen an "official" ad for said brand.

and what is this "brand church" all about? i don't get it.

also, the point of branding (or "brand positioning," if you will) is to create a public opinion of your product/company/brand/etc. granted, down the line, that does sell product, but if every brand said/represented/made the same thing, what would be the point to having more than one company in any industry? if everything was the same, we would have no use for choice. hence, "branding your product," making it stand out from the rest.

it is the audience and culture that elevate a brand to cult-like status. the brand does not do this by itself.


She spells her name Rachael Ray. I guess that one wasn't branded well enough for the author.
tacony palmyra

Hey, that said, guys do you know that Mcdonald's is hiring a designer?
Check it out yo!

my fiance babysits for parents who have attempted to shield their two children from the perils of advertising and obsessive branding:


Not watching television and not shopping at brand stores is an internal solution. This is where branding replaced religion - at home. Branding can be good for economies and society, but it has to be balanced by the morals and decisions of the market. In a culture in which divorce rates are extremely high broken families populate America at an alarming rate. Branding started poking its finger at this and the situation started to come apart at the seams. More parents like Amy and Marc Vachon need to teach their children in the value of family, then the tide of branding will subside.
Jason Wharff

awww, that poor baby. That's what I would call obsessive. There comes a time when advertising should just stop. Ha ha
logo designs

Of course brands are an insidious, conspiratorial brainwashing sorts, we all know this.

There's always someone who's going to tell Joe Blo what he's going to be doing...

But who decides, and who decides who the deciders are?

This is supposed to be a democracy, we need a new name for where we are now.

What about the idea that capitalism is to blame? Is it not?

It seems strange to me to be a designer and loathe capitalism all at once. No capitalism, no competing products, therefore no need for brands.

How's that working out in countries with no capitalism? They must be really enlightened. Their minds free to think about family and spirituality and food. Oh, and only one brand- government.

Humans crave a fearless leader, so perhaps our free governments could give us something to look up to? Branding is replacing more than religion in the current state of zero leadership. What was that about "not delivering what the brand promises..."? People look elsewhere for the leadership they crave.

My last two weeks have been a study in my own interaction with brands and the prejudices and loyalties I had.

My first visit to the supermarket after moving from Atlanta to London was completely disorienting. I have certain products that I chose because of what they do and have used them for many, many, years.

Now I stand in front of a group of products that I know nothing about. Do these designs decorate a detergent that will leave my clothes clean and soft from the clothes processor. Where did my landlord find the Purina ONE that she had waiting on us—the brand Sparkie has eaten since day one? Will anything get the grease off my dishes like Dawn? Who the %#*^ embraces "Fairy" detergent products?

I swore I would NEVER go to McDonald's in Europe, but ended up there, trying to choke down a cheeseburger, in order to use the free Wi-Fi. It was beautifully decorated, but still had the same cardboard food and I won't go back.

Sure, we sometimes believe that we have immunity to media-messaging/branding because of our positions in the industry, but when you are really tested, you find out new things about yourself.

After my second visit, I purchased the one brand name, if not the familiar design, I recognized on the laundry shelf. Maybe the liquid will work better next time…and Sparkie has not turned down the other food.

Bring Tobasco when you come to visit.
Michelle French

I think this was a fine article, as we can see by the response it has elicited. I tend to agree with the author that Conley, while trying to make a point, greatly overstates and over simplifies. I don’t care how amazing your “branding” is, without a product to support it you have nothing. Also, a point to be remembered is that we are not always looking to buy a “quality” product. Quite regularly we are looking for an inferior product, that is cheaper, maybe doesn’t taste as good, isn’t made as well but still satisfies its goals. I am not looking for a fancy gourmet meal when I have a half hour lunch break and five dollars in my wallet… McDonald’s will do nicely.

The product must fill a place in the market to be successful. When we brand products we are attempting to create a familiarity that is artificial (i.e. most people ask for a Band-Aid and not an adhesive bandage) but the effects of this are difficult to calculate, henceforth, an ad campaign at best can generate excitement for a product but not give it true sustainability. It just seems to me that Conley is speaking only about the lowest common denominator in the marketplace and doesn’t take into account personal responsibility in a capitalist economy.

Also, whoever pulled up the language of the authors company… Seriously? Come on, they aren’t running for political office and I would guess their objectives for running their business and starting positive conversation on a blog are not the same. Cheers!

Byron Blocker

I—like anyone concerned with socially responsibility—am bothered by overconsumption, selfishness, replacing substance with surface, etc. But if you want to have a chance of dealing with a problem, you need to examine its complexity and history. I felt that Millman’s article was not “pro-branding” or a defensive how-dare-you-criticize-design stance, but a criticism of oversimplification, unsubstantiated claims, and generalizations such as the leap from, “Yes, branding creates tribes and makes us a feel a certain way,” to, “Therefore bands replace all other forms of social connection.” Designers participate in branding, and thus its consequences, but we do not single handedly create social problems.
Miriam Martincic

If anyone saw The Daily Show last week, they had a satirical rebranding of the GOP, and used an example of Phillip Morris having the option of taking an introspective look at what their business was doing (simply put: stop killing people) when faced with the discovery that their product killed people; or, they could continue killing people under a new name (simply put: rebranding)... They chose rebranding.

Their caricature of branding and the purposes of rebranding were very simplistic, but at the same time, very demonizing. They interviewed a conservative pundit (sidenote: they also did a hilarious piece on pundits) who was asked: "if the GOP was a shit sandwich, how do you get people to eat it?" her response was to rebrand it by "dipping it in chocolate and telling people it's calorie free."

It worries me when The Daily Show is making such bad light of brands, even though I agree with what they are saying, about Phillip Morris, at least. They showed branding and agencies as totally out of touch with reality. I don't agree with that, but it is troubling.

Reagraham Lincool was pretty funny though.

Ed McKim

The article does a good job of pointing out that criticism of branding by simply calling it bad is not a valid argument. The one thing that I think the article misses is that it is not the branding that is causing the problem; it is the people who will blindly follow it. Branding is made to create certain emotions in people, and that is not a bad thing, it is the people who don't bother looking into a product, and simply buy it because it is popular, or trendy. If they are too stupid to evaluate what they are buying it is their fault if they are let down by a brand. Good brands represent good products, and the companies that hide poor quality products behind a trendy brand will eventually be discovered and people will hopefully be smart enough to avoid that brand. The problem is not in clever brands capitalizing on trends, the problem is people who are self absorbed and materialistic, always trying to have the new hot thing, even if it is not worth having.

I believe that branding is nothing more than a celebration of choice. I happen to like Mercedes Benz's. Why? Because they happen to be damn good cars. I have owned three. As material possesions go they satisfied on many levels but rest assured they did not take the place of Love or Faith or Truth. I am certain that the brand has a relationship with certain ideas and this is the thing-if the cars couldn't maintain these ideas then the brand would lose its' luster and place in the material world. Too much has been made of branding replacing spiritual ideas and i think those that see it that way had little spirituality to lose in the first place. When one confuses advertising and marketing techniques with the virtues of Divine Faith I think it is time for someone to take a nap.
david brantly

A star child is direct.

so clever. great image.

Very interesting article!

If you wanna know how brands replace religion and whos responsible, blame Freud's little nephew Eddie Bernays. His influence on the 21st century was nearly as great as his uncles because Bernays was the first person to take Freuds ideas and use it to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didnt need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires..

Bernays most dramatic experiment was to persuade women to smoke at a time when only men smoked.... Eddie had asked Freud for some information inexchange for a box of cigars.." What do cigerettes mean to women?"..Freud told his nephew that cigerettes symbolise the male penis. he then told Eddie that if you could find a way of challenging male power then women would smoke....From then onwards, he had made it socially acceptable for women to smoke with just one symbolic ad, which contained the strapline "Torches of freedom" he basically attached emotion(Statue of liberty, freedom) and memory to a product. In a ones mind this is a rational phrase that works in rational sense which then all comes together...
you'll find the sales of cigerettes to women around the world increased... What he had created was the idea that if a women smoked it made her more powerful and independent an idea that still persists today...

Soon Eddie realised that it was possible to persuade people to behave irrationally if you link products to there emotional desires and feelings...The idea that smoking made women freeier is completely irrational but it made them feel more independent,
it meant that irrelevent objects could become powerful emotional symbols on how you wanted to be seen buy others....

In a Nutshell, Eddie Barneys saw they way to sell products was not to sell it to your intellect that you ought to buy a automobile but that you would feel better if you have this automobile...
He originated that idea that they werent just purchasing something but they were engaging themselves emotionally or personally in the product or service.....Its not you think you need a new piece of clothing but you'll feel better with the piece of clothing, that was his contribution in a very real sense.. In truth, Eddie Barneys made capitalism and democracy go together hand in hand. Since 1960s business now responds to people inmost desires in away politicans could never do.

Jobs | May 18