Understanding the role of branding in society requires an understanding of the transition to modernism and postmodernism. With this transition, community institutions outside of the capitalist accumulation process like religious services and extended family had to be attacked and degraded to create room for the ascendancy of the nuclear family, consumerism, and identity-through-commodities.
By reducing the individual from a member of a community to a supposedly independent unit, it makes them far more manipulable, less likely to resist the paradigm shoved on them, and subservient to the stranglehold of capitalism.
Forcing people to seek identity through what they buy is a product of reducing their ability to establish an identity based on community. The differences between brands of magazines, newspapers, and periodicals have far less to do with differentiation in content, but are instead a method of dividing up consumers into different income brackets.
One of the best examples today is Stratfor. It exists entirely as a magazine that is meant for wealthy people to acquire a self-identity as “wealthy”, the analysis inside of it is not markedly different from that found in other establishment magazines.
Identity-through-commodities is the driving force of postmodernist capitalism, and it achieves this through branding. Branding is the ultimate result of the contradictions between art and capitalism. Art’s goals are two-fold; to create emotions in the audience and express the desires, feelings, and emotions of the artist. The latter has to be suppressed to fulfill capitalism’s only goal: expansion. Expansion through the creation of desire is the foundation of advertising, and branding is how it tells people what to feel.
Brands have become our most famous forms of art. In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock interviews first graders, and they immediately recognize fast food icons like Ronald McDonald but have trouble recognizing the Europeanized version of Jesus.
Branding is designed to smash the barriers between needs outside of the capitalist accumulation process and needs that can be fulfilled through consuming. Olive Garden’s slogan, “when you’re here, you’re family” is part of capitalism’s drive to degrade familial bonds, and literally sell people the feeling of family. What used to be a part of everyday life is something that people feel they must pay for. They aren’t just buying shitty Italian fast food, they’re buying an experience of intergenerational bonding that existed before the implementation of the nuclear family.
Real life is becoming inseparable from what we see in advertisements. Our relationships with others are merely seen as an emotional tie to be manipulated. Take this 90s McDonald’s ad as an example
These advertisements instruct people how to behave. Ride BMX! Drive with your friends! but if you want to have a good time doing it, you better be going to the Golden Arches
It is instructing kids that they are supposed to take the tray, they are supposed to be happy when they do it, and that McDonald’s is their favorite place.
But brands don’t always push emotions on the audience, they sometimes force the audience to push their emotions on the advertising itself. Hello Kitty, which is basically advertising for the huge number of Hello Kitty products, doesn’t have a mouth for this specific reason. Spokespeople for Sanrio have said that Hello Kitty does not have a mouth because they want people to “project their feelings onto the character” and “be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty.”
They’re selling every emotion to their consumers, they’re selling friendship, they’re selling the feeling of identifying with another person.
It’s important to recognize that this is only possible because of the constant degradation of familial and community ties as well as the degradation of community-based identity. In our hyper-individualistic society, people replace family with food, they replace deep emotional friendship with toys, and they use these products to create an identity.