Debbie Millman on Why We Brand, Why We Buy

Branding Talk at Museum of Design Atlanta

Last week I attended an amazing talk at MODA in Atlanta by very influential designer Debbie Millman. She gave an interesting talk on Why We Brand and Why We Buy. She believes there are scientific and sociological reasons as to why we brand and buy things.

What I didn't expect to learn though, is how much power brands have over our overall happiness.

Humans have always been either making things or marking, no matter what culture you look at. Branding was a way that we marked things, although that early branding was in the form of marking a rancher's seal onto the cattle they owned.

Over the years branding has evolved and appeared in 5 different 'waves' with different characteristics defining each period.

WAVE 1: 1875–1920: Brands start to guarantee quality and consistency. People started buying food and goods that were packaged and had labels. They were perceived as being safer and buyers would pay a premium for extra safety and convenience.

Brands start to guarantee quality and consistency.

WAVE 2: 1920–1965: Brands become anthropomorphized. Brands created characters to go on their packaging, which people could related to. Examples are: the Morten salt girl, Aunt Jemima, and Betty Crocker. By looking into the eyes or face of a person, consumers make more of a connection. One eerie example Millman points out is that on all cereal packaging that have characters, the eyes of the cartoons are all looking down. She guesses that this is because they can look eye to eye with small children on the cereal aisle...since kids are their primary targets.

WAVE 3: 1965–1985: Brands become self-expressive statements. Brands start to mean something about who you are. By wearing a certain brand of clothing that is perceived as 'being cool' you are projecting an image of who you want to be by what brands you buy.

For the first time a brand could provide status.

WAVE 4: 1986–2005: Brands become about an experience. It's no longer just about the product. Examples are Apple and Starbucks. Starbucks as a brand experience is not just about the product, but the customer service and pleasing environment that you interact with.

WAVE 5: 2005–present: Leading up to the fifth wave, Millman highlights certain characteristics about humans that explains how the way we live our lives today is in direct opposition to our true nature. Humans organize in groups, all belong to some kind of family, have a need to be close to others, and we are happiest when we have secure feelings of attachment to others. But an interesting thing has been happening in society...more and more people are living alone.

1 in 3 people live alone now compared to 1950, when it was 1 in 10.

More and more people are on their own and withdraw into their private spaces spending hours online. The invention of the iPod in 2001 also encouraged people to become more isolated, even in public spaces when they were listening to music, shutting out others around them.

As a result of the direction we're heading in during the fifth wave, brands have started becoming connectors. They have given us different ways to connect and share everything, trying to fix our feelings of isolation and lack of human connection. The problem is that brands FAIL in our expectations...they spew false promises that we'll feel better if we buy this or that. Humans also process our purchases really fast...the high you get from buying something new wears off faster than it ever has. We're always left wanting more and never satisfied.

Additionally, as a result of social media and technology, we are now tracking everything we do. From the number of friends we have online, to how many steps we took in a day, we are constantly measuring ourselves against others with stats that we have given too much importance. It's easy to forget that what you see on social media isn't always real...people only post the positive moments in their lives, not the negative ones.

Millman theorizes that this is having a detrimental effect on our youth today. The children of Generation Z have a nickname...Generation D: D for depressed. This was really sad to hear. More and more teenagers are depressed and have mental health issues than ever before, and they are the first generation to grow up in social media where everything is a competition. They don't feel good about themselves and they aren't lucky like older generations to realize that your own worth cannot be measured by online stats.

This is a pretty scary revelation.

So the question is: how do we fix this? What can brands do to encourage authentic connection and actually improve our lives?

Millman says the best brands of today should be:

  • helping people feel connected
  • inspiring people to feel okay as they are right now
  • aiming to make a difference in the lives of consumers

She also believes that designers are the people best equipped to created these experiences to elevate the world. So if you are a brand or a business owner, I encourage you to think about these suggestions and incorporate them into your company's values. If you really want to make a difference in the world and add value to your brand, focus on how you can make the lives of your customers, just a little bit better.

To hear more wisdom from Debbie Millman, check out her podcast Design Matters.


Thanks, hope you enjoyed the long recap...I found it really fascinating!