The book currently on everybody’s lips is “Sapiens”, by Yuval Noah Harari. It tells a short story of humanity and explores what makes us humans, human. Furthermore, the book poses a question: what helped Sapiens (that’s us!) beat back the Neanderthals who we once shared the earth with into the garbage-bin of history, even though they were stronger and had bigger brains?
Harari’s answer is straightforward: we beat the Neanderthals because we Sapiens could organize ourselves. It’s not that we created to-do lists and project management charts 20.000 years BC, but something allowed us to get together as a large group and make plans. Neanderthals lived in nifty tribes of fifty people – at maximum – where everyone knew each other personally. But we Sapiens could show up in time for sundowners on a bank holiday with a host of five-hundred people, all united by an action plan, then beat Neanderthal back from his berry bushes and rabbit rich neighborhood. Bang.
So why could we organize ourselves, but Neanderthal could not?
Because we had a language, says Harari, that allowed us to describe fiction. Neanderthal was smart. He knew his environment, and his language was good enough to say: “The blue berries taste pretty good. But man, really stay away from the red ones, they will give you the runs”. Sapiens could say that too. However, Sapiens could also say: “If we eat the sacred blue berries when the moon is full, then our tribe will gain the magic power of the gods, and we will be invincible”. That made all the difference. This ability could easily give the five-hundred shit-scared Sapiens the guts to beat the hell out of fifty towering Neanderthal. This is funny when you consider that “magic”, “gods”, and “tribe” are total fiction.
When I say they are “fiction”, I mean they do not have a material existence. This does not mean these concepts do not exist at all. Fictions existed for our gang of Sapien thugs, because everyone agreed that they did, and so the group behaved accordingly.
Humanity, ever since the demise of the Neanderthal, has thrived on fiction.
We share visions, values, ideas. We can agree on how we imagine the future and work to make it happen. We have defined nations, communities, clubs, corporations and laws which have no material existence whatsoever. They are all fiction, but we use them to organize the work of millions of people and change the world. Fiction is powerful enough to create political systems, religious beliefs, Bollywood, Spring/Summer collections and many more things that we can agree are really cool. Fiction is powerful enough to convince millions of people that a hysterical half-wit is legitimately entitled to choose whether or not to nuke North Korea next week. The power of fictions lies in the fact that we all agree to believe in them. Their power is consequently not inherent, but generated by the agreement between us all to believe in them.
This is really important for marketers, because brands are also fictions.
Brands do not exist for real, only because of the meaning we agree to give them. Just as the idea of “law” does not exist in reality – but still keeps people safe because we all agree to abide by its principles – American Express, Axe or Nike do not really exist but have value we collectively assign them. We all agree that a swoosh means “power”. We all agree that a shoe with a swoosh will impart the runner with (just a little) of the power of the gods (or the goddesses!) so they can run faster, or at the very least feel empowered to “just do” what they want to do. We can all agree that this is worth more money than a shoe without a swoosh.
If we do not load brands with meaning, they have no value. This meaning needs to be created between us – not at an individual level. No one ever believed in the power of the swoosh on their own. We all began to understand this power when we witnessed each other believe in it.
Brands, in a way, are the ultimate human construct. That’s why human sense is critical if you want to make business sense. When we go back to people, look at their cultures and exchanges and aspirations, we understand how they create meaning between them – and then we can impart some of that meaning to our brands.
Neanderthal could not have branded a cool stone tool or a juicy apple. A really smart Neanderthal possibly flashed how pointy his arrow stone or juicy or his apple was – to get cool Neanderthal chicks to think he was really cool too. On the other hand, inventing the iApple, or the iArrow, was beyond his skills! To achieve this, you would need an ability to share fictions that Neanderthal did not have. Branding is a Sapiens skill – and that’s why we won. The iArrow, so to speak, killed the Neanderthal. Some of us, of course, wonder if the iArrow did any good, and if brand fictions made us any better.
Branding sounds very manipulative, and it can be. Many understand that human beings, collectively, also see value in finding solutions to the issues of our planet, so they create brands that reflect this aspiration. If we can turn a brand into a tool for social domination, we can also make it a tool for integration. We can use a brand as tool to express our attachment to a cause. We can use it as tool to experience contributions to the betterment of our environment, of our social fabric, of our communities. As such, more of us buy expensive Tesla cars and expensive organic milk, because we all agree it’s a pretty smart thing to do. And undoubtedly it is, for all of us.
Many still build brands that offer a simpler proposition. Brands that just say“I clean better”, or “I taste better”, or “I drive faster”. Brands that serve the Neanderthal in us. This is okay. After all, many of us carry a significant amount of Neanderthal DNA in our genes. Still, is that Neanderthal branding not a waste of the power that shared fictions give us?