Here’s a fun exercise: find an object near you and ask yourself why it was created precisely the way it was.
Some things are obvious. A mug has a handle so you can safely hold warm liquids. A bottle has a narrow neck so you can still pour it when full. Some things are less obvious: why is the screw in my chair on the left side and not the right?
Some things are random - the screw had to be somewhere, so they picked a side. But the vast majority of things in our lives encode hidden wisdom. At some point in history, someone had a perspective on the world that led them to try and solve something fundamental for society. And trying to recreate the intent behind these products can unlock wisdom that was subsequently lost to time and memory.
When I first started working in the ads space I just accepted that brands existed. It seemed to me as if they always had. I held what are pretty widespread views that brands are tools of corporations to manipulate our emotions and thus something to treat with healthy skepticism. But looking back now to the creation of the first brands, I’ve come to realize something important.
Brands were created to solve real human needs, much like any other innovation.
My colleague Sam Lessin wrote a great speech once about how odd it was that, for a brief period of human history, atoms could move as fast as bits. Before the age of planes, trains, and automobiles, most people spent most of their lives in a very small geographic area. News travels fast in small communities and people likely knew every cobbler and barkeep. But when someone could get on a train and quickly find themselves thousands of miles away they had a new set of problems. Where could they get shoes mended? Where could they get a drink and, when they got there, what would they order? Atoms moved faster than the bits of information required to help people navigate the world around them.
Brands were an invention crafted to help solve these problems. Brands provided one of the things humans value most: consistently meeting expectations. Our traveler could confidently order a Bass Ale or a Coca Cola and be assured a delicious beverage no matter their locale. Brands helped people navigate a world that had gotten way bigger than they could deal with way faster than they could cope. Brands became a proxy for trust.
Fast forward to today. Bits have forever outpaced atoms, and it is impossible for us to physically move faster than information. To navigate the world we have great tools like Google, TripAdvisor, and, yes, our friends on Facebook. Does that mean brands are irrelevant?
On the contrary, today brands are even more valuable. Information is now so freely available that it’s hard to navigate. When I step off a train in New York City today I’m not struggling to choose from the bars on the street, I’m struggling to choose from all the bars in the entire city. It turns out having too much information is as great a challenge as too little. Brands and advertising (especially coupled with our favorite social platforms, ahem) remain incredibly valuable and will only get more so over time as the floodgates of information grow wider.
If you look back at the challenges our traveler faced, they weren’t entirely answered by the brands of yesteryear. He still needed to find a cobbler and a respectable tavern. These are fundamentally local questions as these businesses didn’t scale with the industrial revolution the way consumer packaged goods did. The solutions we came up with for those questions were things like the yellow pages, which weren’t nearly as convenient as brands. But with new technologies, we can. With the internet, social networks and mobile phones, every person is carrying around the power of brands inside their pocket.
To be clear: I’m not proposing that we blindly trust brands. Having built trust, they can abuse it. Simply being able to effectively get a message out doesn’t make it true. The skepticism with which we treat any given bit of advertising is fair and human. But automatic skepticism of the value of advertising in general is misguided. Brands are tools to help humanity scale - and that power is more important now than ever before.