Brands are all consuming. They hugely influence our lives, not just what we consume. They can shape how we think, what we think and they can define our attitudes and values. Brands are a force, they are a meaning system and much like the other meaning systems humanity has created, such as the great religions, they can be manipulated to either be a force for good or indeed a force for bad.

In this chapter we look at both how a brand can contribute to our unhappiness, low self-esteem and even death or conversely nourish our happiness, our society and our life.

Brands operate by creating an aspirational concept that we want to reflect. They operate in an extremely competitive world, each piece of communication attempting to differentiate their concept and optimise their vision. The result is a race to perfection.

Every blemish and imperfection is quite literally airbrushed out of existence. In my experience it would not be an overstatement to say virtually every ad that you see in a magazine has been airbrushed in some way. This creates a reality gap.

The consumer connects to the concept without realising it is a concept not based in reality. The consumer thinks that the vision is attainable when in the reality of life it is not. Not knowing up front that the image before them is in fact a kind airbrushed cartoon that started out as a photo creates a reality vacuum, which in turn generates low self-esteem. Worse, it can create unrealistic expectations and drive the consumer to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of a perfection that is impossible to achieve.

Here are the lies, depression, eating disorders and obsession.

As brand professionals we have a duty of care not to create these “reality vacuums”.

Our work should inspire outward positivity and not create inward negativity. The demands of the market will continue to fuel airbrushed concepts. It is now down to international politics to move to ensure that (just like cigarettes) every airbrushed image should by law have come with a government health warning. “This is an airbrushed image, the consumption of which can lead to anxiety, depression, obsession and eating disorders”. Only then can we hope to change this negative aspect of our work.

Another aspect of branding that inspires derision is discrimination. Brands pivot off their differences. It is a brands’ difference that makes us choose a brand over another alternative. The drive to differentiate however can take a sinister twist.

Abercrombie & Fitch have a “look policy”. This policy determines the “look” of the people who work in their stores. In 2009 this A&F were accused of “hiding” a sales assistant in a stockroom at a London outlet because her prosthetic arm didn’t fit the “look policy”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out just how outrageous such differentiation or discrimination is. On a positive note, brands are the ultimate democracy and the consumer can vote with their feet. Having knowledge of this they can either invest in discrimination or move to an alternative brand with a more self-confident “look policy” or better, one with no “look policy” at all.

The 20th Century brand model goes something like this. The brand pitch is delivered though aspiration. Typically in sportswear this will be an endorser such as Federer or Rooney. In fashion it will be a model such as Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. On the high street more often than not the aspiration is delivered via the celebrity mechanic.

This investment in image has to be funded via product margin. These people don’t come cheap. Product margin is driven by the market price and the product costs. The product costs are comprised of sourcing and manufacturing costs. The drive to reduce costs therefore directly and indirectly leads to the developing economies and ultimately, in the worse cases, to sweatshops and exploitation. Simplistically, the well-being and lives of the manufacturing workforce are being used to subsidise the fees required to drive the image of some of our best known brands.

A building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 killed over 1000, mostly female, garment workers working in a factory that manufactured products for Benetton, Primark, Matalan, Mango and other major brands.

Brands can therefore not only damage your health, but they can kill people too.

In the future we can redress this by making the welfare of a brands’ people (that is all the people, not just HQ but all those in the process, including all suppliers and sub-contractors) a core part of the brand model. The welfare of all the brands’ people should nourish the image of the brand in as potent a way as a celebrity endorsement. As consumers we want to aspire and we want to buy from a global marketplace but we want to do it with a clear conscience.

So are brands the scourge of the 21st century human condition. No. Like humanity, there are good humans and bad humans and it is the same with brands. There are brands for good and brands for bad. Like the human condition, the fact that more of the world lives in peace than not means that there are more good humans than bad humans. Therefore there could be more brands for good than brands for bad.

Here are some of the good ones.

Coca-Cola. Yes the product is brown sugar water but the brand is a force for good. In the seventies, at the height of the Vietnam War, it was Coke who helped shift public opinion against the war and contributed to bringing it to an end with their iconic, “Teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony”.

In the ad, atop a hill, a choir of peoples from all around the world sing “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love”. It was one of the most iconic ads of its time. This in turn led the way for campaigns such as Benetton’s “United Colours” in the 80s and 90s, which whilst to many were shocking, to most they preached the virtues of tolerance and education.

It was also Coke that helped ease racial tension in 80’s America when it aired the Mean Joe Greene ad during the Super Bowl. In the spot, Mean Joe Greene, one of the most formidable defensemen in NFL history became possibly the first black male to appear in a national brand campaign. In the ad, Greene limps to the locker room after suffering an injury when a star struck white kid offers him a Coca-Cola. After initially declining the offer, Greene accepts and downs the coke in a single gulp before continuing down the tunnel. Just when it looks like the boy will walk away heartbroken and empty handed, Greene, his hero tosses over his #75 jersey and delivers the now famous line, “Hey kid, catch!”

The ad reshaped Greene’s public persona and went some way to reshape the relationship between white and black America.

I recent years there have been many examples less subtle but equally effective campaigns that have worked for “Good”

Oliviero Toscani’s “Nolita – No Anorexia” campaign, which speaks for itself and in doing so redresses the debate about the unattainable reality gap in beauty.

Arc’teryx “capes for the homeless” leverages their product credentials to deliver waterproofing for the homeless who live in the one of the most precipitous regions on the planet, British Columbia.

Toms, a footwear brand started in 2006 is the living manifestation of the 21st century brand model where the welfare of brands’ people nourishes the brands image. In the Toms’ model if you buy a pair of shoes in the developed world, a person gets a pair of shoes in the developing world. Genius.

There are many brands for good and some for bad. Some ebb and flow between. Benetton had products being made in the Bangladesh building collapse but then have also been a force for tolerance around the world.

One thing is certain, the more good brands there are the better the planet will be. And there will be more good brands. There are two forces driving this eventuality.

One, consumers want to purchase with a clear conscience and two, growth.

As we are reconciled to the fact that with a growing population – we live on a finite planet. The debate around perpetual growth will polarise. Currently most of the measures of corporate and national success are presented in terms of growth; growth in market share, growth in output, growth in GDP etc. However the finite nature of the planet’s resources means that we cant all grow all the time. The argument will evolve and pivot on good growth versus bad growth.

Good growth will be seen as growth that nurtures the planet and bad growth will be seen as growth that exploits the planet. As such, good brands will also be seen as brands that nurture the planet and bad brands will be seen as brands that exploit the planet. The positive is that as consumers it is us who will decide who wins.

We will get the world we deserve and we will get the brands we deserve, it up to us to decide and we decide every time we by something.

We buy something, conscious or not, every hour of every day. If we shape our brands, we can shape our world.

The most influential shapers of brands are not creative directors and brand managers, the most influential shapers of brands are consumers.

It is up to us.