Notes on “totalitarian” brands

[This is an updated version of a July 11, 2008 post called Totalitarian Brands.]

An article that every brand builder should read is Steven Heller’s  Branding Youth in the Totalitarian State in Design Observer. The article is based on Heller’s 2008 book: Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State. (The book is now in paperback.)

The article raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationships between propaganda and brands, and on the sometimes “totalitarian” nature of brands themselves. As I see it, the key questions are as follows:

  1. What is the “totalitarian” brand model?
  2. Are brands a form of propaganda? Do they follow its rules’?
  3. Do brands need “true believers?” How do true believers add value to the brand?
  4. What are the strategy downsides of brands conceived and executed as propaganda, or as “totalitarian?” What other brand models could disrupt them?

I’ve also discussed some of these elements in the various posts referenced  below.

Definition of “totalitarian” brand

For this discussion I define a “totalitarian” brand as follows: “A totalitarian brand is a brand that totally subsumes the customer into the brand, erasing the individual and the individual’s capacity for proactive, independent action.” In other words, in a totalitarian brand approach the brand wants to impose its will upon the customer. The customer becomes a tool, and a creature of the brand. The brand intends to “own” the customer—body, mind and soul. ((And wallet.) This is a model of domination instead of (for example) partnership.

The customer as “true believer”

I would also suggest that a totalitarian brand approach is one that wants customers to be “true believers.” The brand seeks mindless followers—perhaps because mindful followers might see through it. I would define “true believer” as a one-dimensional person fanatically devoted to a cause, an organization or to another person. A true believer is a follower with a capital “F.” In the eyes of the true believer, the leader can do no wrong. And thus, true believers add no value to the brand. They don’t interact with it to make it better. They don’t help it to adapt. In fact, they typically magnify its shortcomings. A brand with true believers typically doesn’t innovate, or innovates narrowly, and may be its own worst enemy. True believers are not strategic.

True believers and “yes” men

It seems to me that a brand of true believers may be just as ineffective as a company of “yes” men. By saying “Yeah!” (or “Yes!) to everything it won’t be productive strategically. There’s no creative interaction. No questions. No feedback. No alternate views. It may be that true believers are in fact the products of yes men, who are simply cloning themselves at a lower level. In contrast, a strong brand is strong because it’s in constant creative ferment, continuously questioning and testing itself to remain a step ahead of the world. Yes men and true believers only slow it down.

Two brand models: containment vs. liberation

As part of this discussion we can assess two different models of brands:  a persuasion or propaganda model, and a contrasting liberation model. A persuasion or propaganda model would try to shape customer thoughts and feelings so as to capture, contain and control customers, to keep them in place so they continue to be “loyal” to the brand and purchase the product at desired price points.

In contrast, a liberation model of brands aims to free customers to be more proactive for themselves, on the premise that greater sales will flow from a more proactive and productive customer culture, where customers are active players in product development rather than a passive audience. This model assumes that a company can gain market advantage via product and service innovations that create a more proactive culture, where customers leave behind old paradigms. It’s a method that uses customer initiative to disrupt competitors. Apple shows that it can be done, and quite profitably, too.

Customers as puppets—or proactive partners?

The “totalitarian” approach to brands might also be contrasted to an “innovation” brand approach. In other words, do we want customers as puppets (controlled in the totalitarian model) or as proactive partners who help move the brand forward? The drawback to the puppet approach is that puppets aren’t proactive. They simply play out the deficiencies of the puppet masters. Strategically, a brand of puppets locks the brand in place and rules out  the collaborative insights and innovations that could take customers to the next level, leaving competitors in the dust. When the next level appears—and it inevitably will—customers move on, and the brand is left holding the strings.

Brands of puppets

Brands that position their customers as puppets eventually become brands of puppets. In terms of “total customer control” that may be a totalitarian ideal, but it doesn’t hold much future for the brand. I discussed this issue in Position the customer, not the brand. In essence, the puppeteer shares his or her fate with the puppet. Creating brand dependencies often means that innovation is placed on the back burner, leaving the brand further exposed to disruption.

Social media and totalitarian brand strategy

How does social media affect the concept of a totalitarian brand? Good question. Social media is bottom-up, whereas totalitarian brands are classically top-down. It certainly looks hard for traditional propaganda to work in an open social media setting. But (closed) Facebook now has 500 million members, and is becoming an alternative to the (open) Web itself. However, the classic  “totalitarian” model may not fit Facebook at all. Facebook may simply aim to be an all-inclusive platform where advertisers can have total access to customer data. It may be that Facebook is just the barrel, and Facebook users are the fish.

Related posts

Some related posts:

See also the Youth under fascism site, which is the source of the poster above.
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