building a brand

how do brands work?

Scott Bedbury, the person responsible for the explosive growth of the Nike and Starbucks brands in the 1990s, identified two important theories that shed light on the ways in which brands work on the human psyche, derived from classical philosophy and modern psychology.

The first theory is derived from Plato, that Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC who asserted that physical objects and earthly emotions like love are earthly reflections of a universal and unchangeable ideal. These ideals inform and confirm our recognition of an object. Hence we recognise a tree because we have a universal template for an ideal tree etched in the mind. A tree has to have certain features for us to recognise that it is a tree. You can see this process at work if you ask a child to draw a house, for example. Generally speaking, the child, even if he lives in a 12th storey high rise apartment, will draw a house with a pitched roof, four windows, and a garden. The sun will be shining. He is drawing the ideal house of the imagination, not the actual house he lives in.

We tend to build the same fixed concepts in our minds about brands. If we grow to like them, they are burned into the mind. We then become attached to them and get upset when brands stray from the idealised image we have created for them.

An example of this would be Volkswagen, which is still linked with the iconic VW beetle. The beetle was designed as ‘the people’s car’ in about 1938 – a cheap, sturdy and reliable car for the masses, with an innovative rear mounted engine, in a very unique and likeable body shell. It was in continuous production for over 65 years.


In the late 1990s, VW revived the Beetle with a modern interpretation of this iconic design. However, even though it looked similar to the original and was small and cute, it is an expensive, elitist car primarily appealing to yuppie females. It’s neither innovative, nor practical, nor for the masses. While it was successful financially speaking, arguably it undermined the VW brand, in particular the beetle product brand. Bearing that in mind, it’s significant to note how version 2 of the new beetle (which came out in 2012) acknowledges some of the brand failures of version 1. It has been restyled to look more like the original, and more masculine. But it is still off-brand, because it is still not ‘the people’s car’. That moniker has been stolen by the Golf, which in terms of sheer numbers is VW’s most successful car ever. Which just goes to show that a brand can spread across other very different-looking products, so long as those new products preserve the brand’s essential DNA.

The point to note here is that you have to understand not only what your brand’s DNA really is but also what it stands for in the consumer’s mind, and if it is good, don’t mess with it, simply find out how best you can respect and leverage this standing to the best advantage.

The second theory which helps to explain how brands work is from a 20th century psychologist called Abraham Maslow. From wide-ranging studies of people Maslow developed a theory that there is a “hierarchy of human needs”. This pyramid-shaped hierarchy puts our primary needs for food, shelter and sex at the bottom, and our increasingly more complex needs – for security, a sense of belonging, for love and self esteem – are ranked progressively higher.

It was his observation that, as our physical needs are met, so the higher needs are revealed and come into play. In other words when your needs for food, shelter and security are met, you will automatically think about higher needs, such as status or love. In fact, while the lower needs disappear once they are fulfilled (once you have eaten, you’re no longer hungry), the highest human need, for self-actualisation and spiritual fulfillment, simply grows – once we are able to focus on it.


What this teaches us is that the old branding goal of building ‘top of mind awareness’, i.e. unaided awareness of a brand, is completely inadequate. We might be aware of a hundred brands we would never buy because they haven’t addressed our needs, or we do not trust them. And this is where the higher needs Maslow identified come into play.

We see this hierarchy at work in the way commercial branding has itself evolved over the last 150 years. As basic needs have become met (food, health, security, education) and affluence spreads, so we have come to expect more out of our brands, not only in terms of how they make us feel, but also what values they represent. Brands that respect the ‘higher’ needs of consumers and develop brands that speak to these needs, will be able to differentiate themselves and rise above the competition. In other words, brands need to have a personality and even a conscience to succeed, as well as physical attributes which meet consumer needs. Nowadays brands can have ethical, ideological, national and even socio-economic dimensions to them.

Meanwhile, pulling together all these insights on how the human mind builds a brand, the balanced view is that the best brands work on several levels, both rational and emotional. While the softer side of a brand is becoming more important and product features are less of a differentiator than they used to be, if this rational property disappears (for example when companies neglect quality to drive down costs or boost profits), the brand will surely suffer. Witness the recent VW diesel test-rigging scandal, where a product performance failure and their attempts to deceive regulators and customers about it has damaged the VW brand across every dimension of its essence.

So, now we understand how brands work on the human psyche, how can you build a brand in the right way in consumer’s minds? In our next blog post we describe how to build a brand, in five steps.