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Our Brands, Ourselves

Summer 2012

Our Brands, OurselvestcbrPDF normal

The power of attachment.

By Laurence Vincent

Laurence Vincent is head of The Brand Studio at United Talent Agency. Adapted from Brand Real: How Smart Companies Live Their Brand Promise and Inspire Fierce Customer Loyalty (AMACOM). ©2012

You’d never guess that the green-eyed teenager in the photo was a fugitive. The boy in the self-portrait that buzzed around the world’s media that day in 2009 stared up at you wearing Apple earbuds, resting his head on a knapsack in a patch of brush. You could have easily mistaken him for a Boy Scout. This was Colton Harris-Moore, an 18-year-old runaway who eluded authorities for over two years when he embarked on an adventurous crime spree that resulted in over one hundred cases of theft, burglary, and criminal trespassing. The world knew him as “the Barefoot Bandit,” a name he earned after a surveillance video caught him pilfering without shoes. He must have approved of the brand name because he began drawing chalk footprints on the floors of his victims.

Like many people, I became fascinated with the Barefoot Bandit because his story seemed like something only Hollywood could invent. He ran away from home, survived on his own in the woods for weeks at a time, burglarized affluent communities, flaunted legal authorities using a catchy alter ego, and stole a few planes to venture from the remotest corner of the Pacific Northwest to a tropical island in the Caribbean. But not everyone loved Harris-Moore. The residents of the towns and communities where he committed his crimes despised him. Harris-Moore damaged property, robbed people of their valuables, and
violated a lot of people’s sense of security. Some who knew him when he was young pitied him, describing him as a socially challenged kid from a battered home who loved animals and was infatuated with airplanes.

Then there were the millions of people around the world who made the Barefoot Bandit into a folk hero. A Facebook fan page created about him attracted nearly fifty thousand followers, with fans likening him to a modern-day Jesse James. “He’s the right criminal at the right time,” said Zack Sestak, the self-appointed head of Harris-Moore’s fan club. “Executives are getting billion-dollar bonuses, and . . . the normal people, everyday people, people who are struggling to pay their bills—they see someone like Colton taking on the system, and they say ‘All right!’”

I found it a little odd that so many people identified with Harris-Moore. A cottage business developed with entrepreneurs selling T-shirts and novelty items bearing his likeness. Music videos appeared on YouTube celebrating his adventure and urging him to “fly on.” It seemed especially odd because there was no indication that Harris-Moore would have approved of any of it. After he was captured, he refused to grant interviews, appeared shy in front of news cameras, and frequently asked the media to go away. He is said to have sold the rights to his life story only as a means to repay his victims.

Brand attachment measures how much consumers (or any members of a brand audience, for that matter) view the brand as an extension of themselves.

It struck me that the Barefoot Bandit was an interesting example of a force that gives branding so much potential power: attachment. When people become attached to brands, their attachment changes their behavior. Though I can’t say for sure that Colton Harris-Moore began his life of crime because he was attached to brands, his story is littered with some of the most prestigious brands in our culture.

There’s more to it than that, however. The story of the Barefoot Bandit provides a compelling glimpse at why there’s a growing backlash against brands. Looking at Harris-Moore and the people who were drawn to his story during his run from the law, it’s tempting to suggest that branding has led us completely astray from moral values. Indeed, this has been the central argument of Adbusters, the anticonsumerist organization of activists who stage demonstrations and mount campaigns to convince the public to reject advertising and media because they lead people to focus too much on using external rewards to develop a sense of personal identity. I believe there is ample truth in their argument: Branding, marketing, and media are often misused in irresponsible and unsustainable ways—ways that overpromise on the value that can actually be delivered; ways that manipulate by appealing to our most shallow, image-driven vulnerabilities; and ways that define brands as substitutes for human relationships.

That said, I believe that brands can play a valuable role in our culture—and that those of us who have the privilege of guiding brands have a responsibility to understand the impact they can exert on a consumer’s individual identity.

How J. Crew Do You Look?

Brand attachment measures how much consumers (or any members of a brand audience, for that matter) view the brand as an extension of themselves. This differs quite a bit from measures of brand attitudes. When we measure attitudes, we mostly aim to gauge how much people like a brand. In contrast, attachment measures how much people will say that a brand is like them—they identify with a brand because it reflects their values and resembles the way they see themselves.

Harley-Davidson loyalists wouldn’t be caught dead on another bike. While they’ll certainly tell you they like the Harley brand, their loyalty runs deeper than their attitudes. They’re loyal because Harley is as much a part of their identity as their body—maybe more so.

I’ve known Hollywood agents who don’t feel they’re legitimate until they own a genuine Armani suit and drive a luxury German car. There are guitar players who will sacrifice all their worldly possessions in pursuit of becoming a rock star, except for one: their Gibson Les Paul solid-body guitar. I’ve met auto mechanics who don’t feel they can do their job as well without access to Snap-on tools, and chefs who carry their own Wüsthof knives from job to job. In each instance, the possessions and the brands that make them special are part of the consumer’s self-concept.

We can measure brand attachment in two ways. First, we can measure the degree to which a brand reflects a person’s self-concept, whether it’s “like me” or “the opposite of me.” You have to measure more than self-concept, though. After all, even though a particular brand skews toward my sense of self, it might not be relevant to me at this moment in time. For example, I might tell you that a TAG Heuer watch is a lot like me, but I don’t think about TAG Heuer watches much. I don’t own one, and I don’t intend to buy one anytime soon. Although I find the watches beautiful and I’m inspired by their craftsmanship, I’m in no hurry to spend that much money on a timepiece. It’s not as relevant as other needs.

Relevance, then, determines how much your audience actually has use for your brand. It determines how prominent the brand is in daily life. When you hear someone say, “I want to look very J. Crew tomorrow,” the brand is being employed in speech in a way that makes it useful and instrumental to our thinking. These are the prominent brands.

The brands that are truly extensions of us are the most relevant and the most connected to our self-concept; we go to great lengths to keep them in our lives. In contrast, there are brands for which we have nothing but disdain; instead of being sacred, these brands are profane. I had a colleague who could not stand Ed Hardy apparel. What I found ironic about his behavior was how often he referenced Ed Hardy in his conversations. If we met someone on the street who seemed a little too flashy, my friend would say something like, “Can you believe that Ed Hardy hipster?” The brand even showed up in a client presentation he delivered about what not to do with a brand. Ed Hardy was so prominent in my friend’s thoughts that he regularly introduced it as a point of reference even though it was the antithesis of his identity.

And most brands—including many of those we come across daily—just don’t factor into our decision process much. We neither think of them all that much nor do we really see them as a reflection of ourselves. Our behavior around them is mostly a force of habit, a consequence of price sensitivities, or a matter of convenience.

It’s worth our time to understand how consumers collectively attach a brand to their self-concept because that attachment proves to be one of the best drivers of relevance. Relevance is strongly correlated to brand preference. While it’s commonplace for companies to measure preference—how much consumers prefer their brand to competitive alternatives—they should invest as much energy explaining why consumers prefer their brand.

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