In The Atlantic last week Staff writer Adam Serwer explored the psychology of brands. He doesn’t refer to it in these terms, but that’s nonetheless what he is talking about.

Brands are communities of people who share values and beliefs. They work because, as a species, we are attracted to groups. Like so many apparent contemporary human traits, it’s a primal instinct with its origins in a time when groups represented safety, protection from attack and success in hunting. These days our communities are built around products, organisations, sports teams, rock groups, religions and more. We join them because we feel comfortable with them, we buy their products and wear their logos as symbols of belonging. We might favour one brand, but those of us with diverse character traits or complex values and beliefs might join numerous brand communities, thereby creating a unique formula. The problem emerges when people find it difficult to relate to any groups.

Michel Mafesoli referred to brands as “tribes” and Seth Godin took up this idea and developed it further. Generally brands are valuable assets, but they also have a dark side, which is revealed more frequently in recent years in groups with alternative agendas.

Like anything else that is inclusive, strong brands are by definition equally exclusive. It’s how they should be of course. The more defined their promise the more “Marmite” they become. Relationships with starkly defined brands are usually deeper and more powerful, but a strong brand is black and white, you either love it or not. The down side of this, of course, is there are sections of society that find it difficult to identify with any of these communities and these disaffected people become susceptible to the propositions of communities with ulterior agendas.

In his article Adam Serwer uses the Trump phenomenon as an illustration of this and we in Europe might consider Brexit to be an outcome of such a policy – remember Boris’ £350 million a week”? – but there are others. Political parties identify disaffected voters and develop policies or campaigns that accommodate them. You may consider this cynical enough, but the still-darker side of branding emerges when terrorist groups gain their support from those who are marginalised by mainstream society. The need to belong is a powerful motivator and reaching out to minority groups provides potentially powerful bonds that are difficult to break.

This doesn’t mean that politicians and world leaders really think in terms of branding, often their strategies are more instinctive than considered, but if they did maybe they might tackle terrorism by creating more benign or constructive communities as alternatives to the supporters of terrorist groups. I’m particularly interested in place branding. If you are engaged by and committed to a place you are hardly going to pursue its destruction. I wonder if statistics reveal a correlation between strong national brands and low-levels of terrorism. I’m sure some researcher out there could find evidence. If so, I hope you’ll let me know.

Phil Darby
October 11, 2018

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