Brand Culture: If degrees were as ubiquitous as phones #feesmustfall
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) Brands and products have a rather intimate bond. When your brand says “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, you may not have the be the ultimate, but you will, somewhere in your range, have to manufacture a machine that can push you back in your seat, that can hug corners and can stop fast when it has to.
Yes, brands sell on beliefs, but you need to give the people who buy your items the ammunition to defend their decision. In my example, your drivers are up against Vorsprung Durch Technik and, if they have older friends, The Best or Nothing. They also have to feel that the beliefs are validated; they bought a car from someone who believes the same things about cars as they do. The religion of automobiles is established through pop culture and the commandments are etched in stone through advertising and Jeremy Clarkson.
When brands don’t live up
What happens when brands don’t live up to the experiences? What if the BMW does not beat the bends, or worse yet, the Benz?
When brands disappoint, that is to say, when the symbol and the meaning misalign, we do the very same thing we do when we use the wrong words: we feel silly, wave our hands around a bit and use another word. Best case, when a brand disappoints, is people buy something else; worse is when they bring it back for a refund; and the absolute worst is that they buy media space and tell everyone about their bad experience.
I’ve written a lot about how brands are not simply modern fads; they are not merely labels slapped on products. Instead, they are cultural artifacts that store and communicate meaning and complex messages. Our desire to buy into these is nothing new either: it is no different to law, language and religion — clouds of meaning that were here when we got here and that will be here after we leave.
Governments are peculiar brands
Governments are brands, too. But they are peculiar brands. I’ve been fortunate enough to do strategy for the Western Cape Government and what I found interesting was the approach you take when people have already bought the product. It’s not the usual process where you have to get people to consider, then buy and hopefully repeat. With government services, people have already paid and they are sort of forced to keep buying. Every few years, they can opt out but then incumbents tend to pull out all the stops and deliver amazing services for a month or so and then tell the world exactly how amazing they are.
But, as with products, not buying again is not your only option. And, as we’ve seen in the last week, people can drive their service delivery back to the store and demand a refund, a repair or a replacement. South Africans are far more brand-savvy than they are politics-savvy, so I’ll keep the parallel between brands and service delivery going.
The best example of demand-side economies of scale is in the communication world, ranging from cellphones to websites and platforms such as LinkedIn or Facebook. The value of the product increases as the number of users of that product increases. A cellphone or a Facebook account is somewhat useless if you are the only user. The reason that millennials would sacrifice their sense of smell instead of their cellphone is closely tied to the real value generated by its ubiquity.
Value higher in company
Similarly, if you have read a book, you might find the value of that book is a bit higher in company where other people also read it. So much more if you’ve read a whole bunch, sharpened your own thinking off that and developed your own new ideas.
The point, however, is not that we should be at ease with the riots because now the educated will enjoy their education more. If it were about enjoying education, you should wish a university degree upon every student as an end in itself. My point is that, as with cellphones, when it became ubiquitous, it shifted culture. The technology in everyone’s hands meant that dictatorships could be toppled, events could be shared as they happened and the crowd could act as one. This would not be possible if only one person had a phone.
Similarly, any individual’s education would be worth more if ideas at a university-level permeated our everyday discussion, but can you imagine the shift in our political and economic landscape if university degrees were as common and coveted as cellphones?
Disagreement vs understanding
But does this make the damage to property ok? No, not at all. In no way can we agree with this. But we can understand it. Take care to note next time how trendy Cape Town behaves when the coffee is supposedly burnt or when a waiter got an order wrong. We get furious when simple and, in reality, inconsequential products are under-delivered on. A cup of coffee is usually returned and replaced by simply pushing it back across the counter to the barista and asking for another.
Something more complicated was when I had to return a car to (what turned out to be) the stereotype of a second-hand car dealer. It was a more-complicated product — more money at stake with more-serious consequences.
Now imagine you have to take your government service delivery back to your government and demand it fixes it to the required standard, this when the particular fault with the product (education) is something that your government is not very serious about?
Many hours of national shame
The political analyst, Angelo Fick, referred to this as our hour of national shame. I disagree. What of the xenophobia, Eskom, police descending on parliament, police brutalities like those we’ve seen in Douglasdale or the horrific murders in Kensington that have left many South Africans speechless and in mourning? We have many hours of shame and this midnight of our modern history feels awfully long.
I complained in a restaurant once. Shortly afterwards, I had a brief discussion with the owner who was really interested in the complaint. His argument was that if people don’t send food back, he thinks everything is fine. The students, collectively, are those people who pick up their plates in a poor restaurant, walk into the kitchen and demand better food.
Terrifying as they might seem and dangerous as they are, the student riots are a bold and much-needed democratic step.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is lead strategist at Cape Town ad agency, FoxP2, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.
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