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The value of branding: Part 1

We all know what branding is, don’t we? Of course we do! It’s that logo or that typeface… Simple. But if that’s all it is, then why is it so powerful?

We’ve seen branding change the perceptions and behaviours of large groups of people, we’ve seen them take political stances and spread political messages. For example, see Airbnb’s Superbowl campaign in support of multiculturalism or Obama’s Hope campaign that contributed to him winning the 2008 Presidential election.

Perhaps we need to analyse “Branding” a little more closely to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. Let’s take a look at some of its earliest memories…

Our story begins in the late 19th Century, in the now-disappeared Austro-Hungarian Empire, with an almost-forgotten character called Edward Louis Bernays who would go on to influence the 20th Century in surprising ways, using the powerful ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud.

Soon after baby Edward was born, the Bernays family emigrated to the United States. Edward excelled and in 1912, he graduated from Cornell with a degree in Agriculture. However, declining to follow in his father’s footsteps, he chose instead a career in journalism.

In 1914, as Austria-Hungary was dragging Europe towards the First World War, Bernays was gaining experience as a magazine editor and press agent in the US. The President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, was keen to get the US involved in the war but the public was set against it – and so Bernays was hired by the Committee on Public Information and tasked with convincing the American public that entering this horrific war was actually a really good idea.

Bernays proved extremely skilful at this. So skilful in fact that, after the war, he accompanied the President to the Paris Peace Conference. As he watched Wilson’s reception in Paris, he noted the dramatic effect that his propaganda had had on the perception of Wilson in Europe. Having portrayed Wilson as the liberator of Europe and the saviour of Democracy, they had made him a hero in the eyes of the people. Bernays got to thinking whether it might be possible to do the same type of mass persuasion, but in peacetime.

Christening this new idea “Public Relations”, Bernays set up office in New York and got to work.

Having studied Freud’s General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Bernays was fascinated by Freud’s notions about the hidden irrational forces inside human beings; the idea that just below the surface of our public apperances, we are all driven by animal desires. Bernays wondered whether he might help corporations (and himself) make mountains of cash by manipulating our subconscious to convince us to buy stuff.

One of his most successful campaigns was for Lucky Strike cigarettes. The aim was to remove the stigma that then existed around women smoking in public. Applying uncle Sigmund’s ideas, Bernays decided that the cigarette represented male power (think about it…) and that women could use them as a symbol to challenge male oppression.

Bernays arranged for a group of young women to join the procession of the 1929 Easter Sunday parade in New York, dramatically lighting their cigarettes and defiantly smoking in public. He then informed the press that he had heard that a group of Sufragettes were planning a protest by lighting up what they were calling “Torches of Freedom”.

The tip-off to the press ensured that the cameras were rolling at the all-important moment, and Bernays had his contacts in the press amplify the message by tying the image to the Statue of Liberty and her Torch, summoning deeply felt subconscious notions of American identity. Needless to say, it worked. Women were now free to smoke carcinogenic cigarettes too. Whoopee.

Bernays showed American corporations, for the first time, how they could make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires.

No longer would a car be sold based on dry factual information such as how many miles to the gallon it could do. No no, from now on, cars would represent a life of freedom, diet soft drinks would titillate and chewing gum would help you pick up chicks. Everyone knew that none of these things would actually happen just because they bought the product in question, but deep in their subconscious, it struck a chord.

Over time, the name “Public Relations” was changed to “Branding” and has gone on to take over the world. In fact, we’re so immersed in it today that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine a time when brands didn’t guide our choices and behaviours to some degree.

The new breed of consumer that was created by this phenomenon (that’s us) buys things based not on what they need, but as a way of expressing a sense of their inner self to others. You have a Mac laptop? Oh I see, you must be creative. You collect limited edition Nike runners? You must be sooo cool. Your house is full of IKEA furniture? You must be stylish and smart (but so modest). You love Airbnb? You must be young and savvy and believe in multiculturalism.

So you’ve been thinking about buying a new phone have you? Really? That one? Oh I see… Okay then… hmm… No, nothing. I didn’t say a thing…

Kieron Farrell is a Senior Designer at McCann Dublin.

Image sources:

1. Coca Cola Logo published in

2. Starbucks Logo published on

3. McDonalds Logo published on

4. Samsung Logo published on

5. Apple Logo published on

6. Android Logo published on