Brands have a remarkable influence on our behavior and even our physical well-being. Companies are well aware that brands have a placebo effect. They employ various psychological tactics to manipulate our perception and influence our choices. Nowadays, brands go beyond just selling products; they aim to sell a sense of belonging to a particular group or community. They captivate us with clever branding and appealing designs. But how exactly do they achieve this? And is it a positive phenomenon? Or is it all just manipulative nonsense?
Take Tylenol and its generic store brand counterpart, for example. Despite having the exact same ingredients, they somehow don’t work the same. Surprisingly, if one of these pills costs more, it tends to be more effective. It’s fascinating how even the color and packaging of a pill can determine its effectiveness. This phenomenon is not limited to Tylenol alone; it extends to various other products. Have you ever noticed that wine tastes better when poured from a heavier bottle? Similarly, food appears more appetizing when beautifully plated. It’s astonishing how the mere presence of a Mastercard logo can entice customers to spend 30% more than they typically would. The power of branding and design truly knows no bounds.
Throughout my career in design, I have pondered these questions for over a decade. I have delved into numerous books in search of answers. The truth is, it’s a complex matter. To help navigate through this complexity, I have developed a spectrum to measure the intensity of branding BS, inspired by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. On one end, we have a slight drizzle of creative freedom, still rooted in reality. On the other end, we encounter a category five storm of deceit, where companies abandon truth in favor of boosting sales, creating a significant gap between marketing claims and actual reality.
Embarking on this journey to unravel the secrets of branding will provide you with a profound understanding of human psychology and how design taps into our primal instincts and desires. So, let’s progress along this continuum.
The most fundamental form of branding is simply labeling a product, a practice that dates back to at least 2000 BC. Craftsmen would imprint symbols on their goods to indicate their origin. While this may not appear significant, it plays a crucial role in protecting consumers.
The Soviet Union learned this lesson the hard way. They believed that brand names were anti-communist, so they simply labeled bread as “bread”. It didn’t matter which company produced the bread, the packaging labels were all the same. If you happened to bite into stale or moldy bread, you had no way of knowing which company to avoid. Producers were not held accountable, resulting in the poor quality of many products. This issue extended beyond bread to even the smallest components like rivets, which held ships together. Unbranded rivets were churned out by factories and mixed together in a central facility, making it impossible to trace their origins. As a result, there was no incentive for companies to produce good rivets. This lack of accountability became a serious problem when ships started to develop leaks and sink.
Eventually, the Soviets realized the importance of branding and began stamping their brand names onto their products. This led to an improvement in quality as producers became accountable and customers could trust specific brands. That’s when Gorbachev came into the picture. Sometimes, nothing brings people together like enjoying a delicious hot pizza from Pizza Hut.
Branding plays a crucial role in addressing a problem called information asymmetry. This occurs when sellers possess extensive knowledge about their products while buyers have limited information. When you purchase from a well-established brand, there is a wealth of information and inherent trust associated with that transaction. So, branding isn’t always about manipulating people into buying unnecessary items.
Without brands, companies have a greater incentive to create cheaper, lower quality products as they can maximize their profits without facing any reputational consequences. This is one of the key reasons why branding is important. However, designers and marketers understand that branding is ultimately about influencing people emotionally. This power can be used for both positive and negative purposes. For instance, we don’t primarily brush our teeth for health reasons alone.
Sure, that’s definitely a significant aspect, but for most individuals, it’s not the primary reason. If it were, we would brush after every meal. However, think about it for a moment, when do you typically brush? Usually before an important meeting or a date, often before we eat. Nobody vigorously brushes after secretly devouring that chocolate bar while binge-watching Netflix. Brushing your teeth is about feeling confident and getting rid of stains or bad breath. And that’s why toothpaste is usually mint flavored. It gives your mouth a fresh sensation. The mint doesn’t provide any practical health benefits.
We may believe that we do things for logical reasons, but emotions often guide us. Many people consider emotions to be unreliable, but they are actually essential evolutionary shortcuts that assist us. For instance, our strong aversion to dirty or decaying things isn’t based on a logical understanding of germs. Our caveman ancestors who stayed away from rotting things lived longer, so we developed a negative emotional response to it, thousands or even millions of years ago, long before we knew about germs.
Emotions tap into a biological and intuitive need without requiring extensive processing. And skilled designers are well aware of this emotional alchemy. It’s similar to buying a Tesla. The buyer might claim that it’s because they want to care for the environment, but it’s more likely that it’s just enjoyable to drive and serves as a status symbol. Otherwise, they would simply drive a Nissan Leaf or something.
So, in any case, these branding examples are all relatively harmless, but things will worsen as the BS continuum continues to rise.
The next stage of the continuum focuses on visual shorthand. Let me give you a simple illustration. Take toothpaste stripes, for instance. Now, this will be the final mention of toothpaste in the video, I promise. But have you ever wondered why there are stripes in toothpaste? After all, once you start brushing, everything blends together. The stripes don’t serve a logical purpose, but they do look cool and visually demonstrate that the toothpaste offers multiple benefits, such as fighting cavities and freshening breath. People appreciate the effort put into visually enhancing a product. If you were to simply claim that it’s an improved toothpaste formula without any visual cues, it wouldn’t be as convincing. However, by adding something like stripes, it becomes much more believable.
Including visuals to highlight genuine benefits seems reasonable, but things become murkier when designers incorporate elements that don’t accurately represent the product’s advantages. Car companies, for example, sometimes add fake vents to their car designs. Many car enthusiasts complain about this because it gives the impression that the car is more powerful than it actually is. It can feel a bit dishonest. Now, this might be a controversial opinion, but I personally don’t rate this example very highly. Cars are designed to exude power and agility, and designers employ various visual tricks to convey that. So why draw the line at fake vents? What about the sleek styling lines or fancy rims? They’re all visual shorthand, just like the vents, and yet no one seems to have an issue with them. Imagine if we removed any visual element from a car that wasn’t primarily functional. A Lamborghini would end up resembling a 1996 Camry.
Looking back at the Tylenol example mentioned earlier in the video, it’s clear that appearances can truly influence our perception and even the effectiveness of products. Perhaps those fake vents or stylish rims act as placebos that enhance our driving experience. At the very least, they add an element of interest. However, it becomes problematic when brands use visual shorthand to highlight something that is completely fake. Take, for instance, speakers that claim to have two drivers but only have one. When you purchase speakers with fake drivers, it undermines the main reason you bought them – sound quality. You may have even paid more, assuming the extra driver was real. On the other hand, fake vents don’t significantly impact the performance of a car.
When it comes to buying things, we don’t always have the time to meticulously analyze every single detail. For most purchases, we rely on quick judgments based on a few indicators. Imagine having to analyze and compare price, specifications, materials, and quality for every item on your grocery list. It would drive you crazy. That’s why visual shorthand is valuable.
Branding and design help convey the positive aspects of a product without burdening us with all the research. There are situations where we make more calculated decisions, especially when there’s a lot at stake. However, most buying decisions aren’t that critical. Most of the time, you’ll make the right choice, but sometimes you’ll be wrong. The real problem arises when companies intentionally deceive us. This type of visual signaling goes beyond the product design itself. We don’t just buy a product based on its features; we also consider the trustworthiness and reputation of the seller. Attractive packaging and storefronts serve as signals that these businesses are reliable and aim to build long-term relationships with their customers.
A company that takes the time to ensure your satisfaction even after you’ve made a purchase is more likely to be reliable. This is especially true when compared to a company that simply disappears once they have your money. That’s why Sephora goes the extra mile by providing you with those lovely little bags with rope handles. It may be an additional expense for them, but it shows that they genuinely care about your long-term experience and can be trusted.
Furthermore, the more a seller has at stake in terms of their reputation, the more confident you can be in the quality of their products. That’s why it’s better to buy sandwiches from established sandwich shops with proper storefronts and employees, rather than from some random guy selling $5 footlongs out of his van by the river. The sandwich shop has a lot to lose if their food makes you sick. They have a whole business and legal obligations to uphold. On the other hand, the guy in the van will probably disappear without a trace the next day.
It’s important to remember that our purchasing decisions are not solely based on the trustworthiness and reputation of the seller. Sometimes, we underestimate the influence these factors have on us.
During a project where I was designing food packaging, I observed that when the packaging made the food look more appetizing, people consistently reported that the food tasted better as well. These subtle cues truly impact our perception. That’s why reputable brands focus on how their products make us feel and the actions they inspire, rather than solely relying on what people say.
Now here’s the catch, scam companies are well aware that legitimate and honest companies use these types of signaling devices as well. So, they try to imitate their behavior in order to deceive and cheat you. I’ll delve deeper into this topic later in the video. However, generally speaking, if scammers are looking for a quick scam, they won’t invest too much in high-quality branding and design. These tactics can be exploited, but they tend to be quite effective overall.
As we delve further into the issue, though, things go from being slightly questionable to becoming a complete disaster.
There was a fascinating study conducted where a company aimed to raise donations for a charity, ironically enough, for hurricane relief. They mailed out millions of envelopes, some of which were different from the others. Can you guess which ones raised the most money?
- 1. 100,000 envelopes were personally delivered by volunteers.
- 2. 100,000 envelopes were designed to open in portrait format.
- 3. 100,000 envelopes were of higher quality.
- 4. 100,000 envelopes encouraged people to fill out a form that offered a 25% tax rebate.
Logically, one would assume that the envelopes offering a 25% tax rebate would raise the most money. After all, if you donate a dollar, you get $0.25 back. The other factors shouldn’t matter, right? Who cares about a fancy envelope? Why does it make a difference if it’s hand-delivered? However, as you’ve probably already learned from this video, logic doesn’t always play a significant role in human decision-making.
The 25% tax rebate didn’t perform well compared to the other options. Surprisingly, it resulted in 30% fewer donations. On the other hand, the other options saw an increase in donations of more than 10%. Additionally, using higher quality paper seemed to encourage people to make larger donations of over $100. So, what’s the reason behind all of this?
Well, a significant factor is visual signaling, as we mentioned earlier. However, another possible explanation for the success of the nicer envelopes is the rule of reciprocation. When someone goes out of their way to hand-deliver an envelope to you, you feel obligated to return the favor. We dislike feeling indebted or beholden to others, so we often take actions to alleviate that sense of obligation.
Companies also take advantage of this by offering free samples, knowing that customers will feel compelled to make a purchase. In a study conducted at a candy shop in California, customers were 42% more likely to buy something when they received free samples. Interestingly, it wasn’t necessarily because they liked the specific product they sampled. They usually ended up purchasing other types of candies instead.
Lastly, we tend to associate effort with quality. When we perceive that a higher level of effort has been put into something, we assume it’s valuable. For example, if I tell you that I wrote this video in just one day, you might not think much of it. However, if I mention that I spent months researching and have 100 pages of additional notes, you would likely have more confidence in the information I’m providing. When companies go the extra mile, we appreciate it and feel more inclined to support them. By the way, if you’d like access to the full script with around 80 pages of additional notes and want to support the channel, you can find my Patreon link below.
The concept of reciprocation can sometimes be manipulative, but now we’re entering the danger zone of the BS spectrum. In his book “Influence,” Robert Cialdini shares an interesting example of a Beijing restaurant chain that wanted to increase profits without any additional effort or cost. They didn’t want to improve their ingredients, recipes, or invest in advertising. It may sound impossible, but they found a solution. While labeling menu items as chef’s specials or house recommendations had limited success, using two magical words made a significant difference. By labeling menu items with these words, their most popular sales increased by 13 to 20% without any other changes. This phenomenon is what is known as social proof. Social proof is when we rely on others’ opinions to make decisions, especially when we lack sufficient information. That’s why marketers focus on highlighting the highest-rated or best-selling products. They don’t need to convince you that a product is good; they just need to show you that other people think it’s good. If you’ve ever read Amazon reviews or chosen a popular show on Netflix, you’ve experienced social proof.
Speaking of social proof, you should consider subscribing to my channel, or do whatever you want. It’s entirely up to you. By the way, social proof falls into category two on the BS continuum, so let’s discuss how it can be manipulative or unethical.
First and foremost, it’s incredibly simple for companies to deceive others in this manner. Fake online reviews are quite common, as are fake testimonials. Additionally, you’re putting your trust in someone else to conduct the research for you, which can be extremely risky. Take a look at Tom Brady, for example. He’s considered one of the greatest football players of all time, and yet he endorsed FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange that turned out to be a massive fraud, or so it’s alleged. I’m not sure if it’s been proven yet, but many investors suffered losses. Everything involving Brady serves as a classic form of social proof. However, let’s examine the tactics being used here. Yeah, count me in. Yeah, sounds good. I’m in, I’m in. Hey, Arthur, I’m quitting. Even if Tom Brady doesn’t convince you, there are countless others saying, “I’m in.” Line cooks, surgeons, plumbers, women, men, people from various ethnicities and backgrounds. This is all very deliberate.
Social proof has an even greater impact on us when the individuals endorsing the product are similar to us. When we see people who resemble us engaging in a certain activity, it not only suggests that it’s a good idea, but also that it’s attainable for us. It feels more within reach. It’s akin to when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes. Bannister dedicated years of training to achieve that goal, but once he did it, other runners followed suit just a few weeks later.
Social proof manipulation can occur in various subtle ways. Take, for example, the advertisement featuring Selena Gomez and her makeup line. Have you noticed the carefully crafted setting? This is a renowned brand that generates around $60 million annually, and Selena Gomez is a highly acclaimed celebrity. Can you believe that she wouldn’t be able to afford a high-quality microphone and proper lighting? Just take a look at this ad. Do you think it was a mere coincidence that the ruffled blanket was left on the couch? Absolutely not. It’s all part of a deliberate strategy. They are capitalizing on Selena’s star power and influence, while also aiming to make her appear relatable to you. Once again, social proof is most effective when the individuals endorsing a product resemble our peers. That’s why it’s crucial to approach unrehearsed testimonials, ads, and tutorials with skepticism. So, yes, social proof can be manipulative, but it’s not always negative.
Verified online reviews and testimonials can be incredibly valuable. When a respected celebrity endorses a product, their reputation is on the line. Selena Gomez genuinely believes in her products, and as someone with a following, reputation is everything. For instance, when I choose a sponsor for my videos, I often seek the opinions of my friends. As a product design teacher, I start each semester by asking my students to bring in their favorite products. One of my top students recently showcased this Exeter wallet, which he has owned for three years and it still looks brand new. So, when Exeter approached me to sponsor a video, I felt confident endorsing their product. The wallet’s build quality is solid, securely holding cards in place. What’s really impressive is how the cards fan out with a simple push of a button. Additionally, the slim profile is a great feature. Just compare it to this bulky wallet in my pocket. If you need more than 5 or 6 cards, you can also attach the super slim clip to the wallet. Everything is clean, secure, and well-organized. To get your own Exeter wallet, click the link in the description below and use Code Design at checkout for a 25% discount.
Anyway, I categorized this tactic as number two. It can definitely be misused or serve as a helpful shortcut, but there are larger issues on the horizon as we delve deeper into the BS continuum. This is where things become real.
Designers and brand managers frequently utilize the influence of authority in their messaging, both in obvious and subtle ways. In the 80s, there was an incredibly successful advertisement for cough medicine. A confident man, Doctor Rick Webber from the popular TV show General Hospital, assures you that Vicks Formula 44 will cure your cough. Although the actor admits he’s not a real doctor, his portrayal on TV makes him appear convincing. In Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence,” he highlights this advertisement as a fascinating example of authority in advertising. Despite the actor’s lack of medical expertise, viewers associated him with his TV doctor character, and the ad became a massive success that ran for years. This demonstrates the immense power of authority in influencing our decisions. You don’t necessarily have to be a genuine authority figure; simply exuding an aura of authority is enough for people to follow you. Now, using fake authority figures to promote cough medicine is quite unethical, but it only gets worse from there.
Medical professionals began to establish a link between smoking and lung cancer as early as the 1930s. To counter this growing awareness, camel cigarettes devised a clever advertisement in 1946 featuring doctors. Their tagline, which would surely baffle fact-checkers today, was “More doctors smoke camels.” Can you believe it? Not only did they make a bold claim, but they also employed various tactics to portray doctors as trustworthy figures of authority. The ad showcased a multitude of doctors in white coats, stethoscopes dangling, puffing away on cigarettes. This seemingly harmless display of authority, however, concealed a deliberate attempt to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Now, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a touch of creativity. Remember those fake vents we saw earlier in the video? But when it veers completely away from reality, that’s when it becomes problematic. Especially when people’s lives are at stake. These explicit demonstrations of authority are just the tip of the iceberg; often, the manipulation is much more subtle.
And in the animal kingdom, size matters. It’s a common strategy for animals to inflate themselves to avoid confrontation. Mammals raise their fur, fish expand their fins, and birds puff up their feathers. The aim is to appear larger and more dominant, rather than risking everything in a fight. Many animals use optical illusions to enhance their size and assert their authority. Our human instincts aren’t so different. We are wired to associate size with status and power. Have you ever been amazed by an Apple product launch or visited a store with merchandise displayed in glass cases? Brands are also using their own version of puffing up their feathers. In these cases, they create illusions of grandeur and strength. However, it’s important to see beyond the facade. As Cialdini mentions in his book, just like fur, fins, and feathers, these surface-level elements skillfully project an image of substance and importance that may not actually be real. The bottom line is, the next time you witness a company flaunting its authority, take a closer look. Is there genuine substance or is it all just fluff? Now, of course, not all expert opinions hold authority. Figures can be misleading. Sometimes, all you need to do is ask yourself two questions. First, is the person truly an authority figure in this field? And second, what do they gain by convincing us of this information? Now, let’s delve into a more serious topic.
Category four. And a multitude of hurricanes. This is a De Tomaso Pantera. It was purchased for $2,500 in 1976, but within just two years, its value skyrocketed to an astonishing $300,000. But why?
The car was incredibly unreliable, endured a great deal of damage, and what fascinated people the most were the bullet holes that pierced the steering wheel. How is it possible for a used car with bullet holes to be sold for over 100 times its original price? The answer to this lies in its rarity. Elvis Presley, the legendary King of rock and roll, had a heated argument with his girlfriend, Linda Thompson, before she left. In a fit of anger, Elvis got into the car, hoping to make a dramatic exit from the parking lot. However, the car refused to start. Fueled by passion, he grabbed his Colt 45 and fired shots at the steering wheel. Those bullet holes are a direct reflection of Elvis’s fiery soul. This is where the principle of scarcity comes into play. The bullet holes act as his autograph, symbolizing Elvis’s wild and untamed spirit forever embedded in the car’s steel. There will never be another Elvis Presley. Therefore, this Pantera is no longer just an ordinary car. It has become a canvas that captures a moment in the King’s life. It is a testament to how scarcity can transform something ordinary into something extraordinary. Special thanks to my friend Rafi for sharing this incredible story with me.
Collectible items like coins, limited edition Pokemon cards, and rare stamps often follow the principle of scarcity. However, it’s not just limited to these items. Design and branding teams also utilize scarcity to sell various products. For instance, when Booking.com initially displayed a limited number of hotel rooms at a specific price, customers rushed to book them, leading customer service to believe there was a system error. The increase in sales was actually due to the limited supply. Even shoppers who were hesitant about booking a room quickly became buyers. Sometimes, the competition for certain items can be so intense that people have to wait for days to get their hands on a new pair of Nike shoes or the latest iPhone. It’s no secret that we desire what we can’t easily obtain. The scarcity of an item not only increases its appeal but also intensifies our desire when we’re competing for it. This phenomenon is commonly known as the fear of missing out. While genuine scarcity due to supply chain or manufacturing issues is understandable, in many cases, companies like Apple or fashion brands intentionally create a limited supply of products to generate artificial scarcity. Unfortunately, this artificial scarcity often brings out our worst tendencies, where logic takes a backseat and greed becomes the driving force.
Just like how animals instinctively puff up their feathers to show dominance, big, authoritative branding flexes do the same. Artificial scarcity triggers a primal feeding frenzy mindset in us. The simple premise that things that are hard to get are often better than things that are easy to get holds true most of the time. This is why scarcity tactics are incredibly effective. It’s also why many retail stores only display a few items at a time in their storefront. By not showing all the items in stock, it creates uncertainty about availability. Additionally, you might feel obligated to reciprocate with a store clerk who went out of their way to find the item for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy. However, the best way to combat this is to ask yourself if you truly want something because it’s rare or if you simply need it for its functionality. If it’s the latter, there’s no need to get worked up. If it’s the former, take a moment to assess your desire more calmly.
Scarcity and loss aversion are incredibly effective design and marketing tactics because they have a strong emotional impact. However, there is an even more powerful technique that takes it to the next level. Enter the category five fecal tempest, a force to be reckoned with. Let’s shift gears and discuss the memorable Nike barbecue of 2018. It was a blazing inferno of sneakers and corporate principles. Nike made the bold decision to partner with Colin Kaepernick for an ad campaign. Kaepernick, a talented American football player, gained notoriety for taking a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness about racial injustice and police brutality. Nike chose Kaepernick as their spokesperson and crafted the tagline – “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The aftermath of these events left us questioning whether Kaepernick was blacklisted by the NFL or if he left on his own terms. One thing is certain, he was a highly controversial figure.
Now, why would Nike sponsor such a polarizing athlete, potentially risking the alienation of a significant portion of their audience? Nike aimed to foster a sense of unity with a specific segment of their audience who supported the Kaepernick ad campaign. This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, it’s an incredibly powerful technique.
In unified tribal groups, there is a fascinating merging of individual and collective identities. Neuroscientists have shed light on this intriguing phenomenon. It appears that when you are asked to imagine yourself and someone from your tribe, the same brain circuitry is activated. This intertwines your thoughts of self and your fellow tribe members, creating a beautiful tapestry of interconnected identities within your mind. Interestingly, this sense of unity is not experienced with individuals outside of your tribe.
Unified tribal groups tend to exhibit solidarity, showing support and trust towards one another. We naturally feel a stronger affinity towards our tribe members. This understanding is not lost on brands, who recognize that if they can establish themselves as part of your tribe, you are more likely to embrace their products. Take Nike, for example. It’s not just about the shoes or clothes they offer.
The iconic swoosh symbolizes a gathering point for the tribe advocating for racial equality and social justice. Nike has seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of this tribe, and as a result, everyone proudly wears Nike as a symbol of their commitment to social change. Purchasing a product becomes more than just a transaction; it becomes a ticket to a community. By buying a product, you are expressing your beliefs to yourself and the world around you. It becomes a powerful social signal. Even choosing to actively avoid participating in this tribe and its associated products sends its own message.
Driving a Tesla, wearing Patagonia, or even sporting a leather jacket can all be seen as signals of belonging to a certain group. It’s like saying, “Hey, I’m part of the young, ambitious, and wealthy tech crowd” or “I care about the environment.” Even my leather jacket has its own symbolism, representing my individuality and belief in personal freedom. It’s all about social signaling.
Now, let’s talk about those who disagreed with the ad campaign. It was like the Nike barbecue of 2018, with lots of people expressing their hatred for the ad on Twitter. But let’s be honest, Twitter isn’t always the place for rationality. Outrage tends to take the driver’s seat there. Some even went as far as boycotting Nike by burning shoes they had already paid for. But guess what? All that outrage actually gave Nike a ton of free publicity. And those who agreed with Nike’s views? They stood even stronger together, forming their own tribe.
This whole situation perfectly aligns with the unity principle. Attacking the brand is seen as a personal attack on the individuals who support it. And guess what? Nike ended up making a whopping $6 billion in profits. That’s the power of unity and tribalism.
But let’s not forget to question the genuineness of companies when they jump into social causes. After all, their main goal is to make profits. Sure, they might argue that they’re raising awareness for a cause, but I’m always skeptical. Nike, for example, doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to working conditions. And if sponsoring Kaepernick wasn’t profitable, they would find a way to drop him.
Nike is definitely not the only company that embraces the unity principle. There are other companies like Chick-fil-A, Gillette, Jeremy’s Chocolate Pepsi, Black Rifle Coffee Company, Dove Soap, and Patriot Mobile, each representing different ends of the political spectrum. Take Chick-fil-A restaurant for example. This fast food chain has been known for its stance on LGBTQ issues and its support for organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. However, due to public pressure, they announced in 2019 that they would no longer donate to these organizations.
Companies will only support a cause as long as it benefits them financially. Other companies have followed suit with varying degrees of success. Nike’s advertisement was relatively tasteful, unlike other ads that faced significant backlash and a sharp decline in sales. It becomes risky for a brand when they involve themselves in cultural, political, or environmental issues that are beyond their expertise and understanding. In such cases, companies must approach it with great tact, as it can easily be seen as an advertisement solely aimed at selling a product. However, most of the time, companies that embrace the unity principle do so in a more subtle manner. In fact, it often has nothing to do with politics at all. Let’s take another look at the Selena Gomez makeup ad. It goes beyond just social proof; it strategically employs the unity principle to create a connection that makes you feel like you and Selena belong to the same tribe.
Check out the intro! Papa, I pranked you in my video. It’s like she’s just hanging out with her family, in a cozy setting that reflects the everyday lives of her audience. Later on, she even says, “I wanted to create a line for people like me.” It couldn’t be any clearer than that. Selena wants you to feel like she’s just like us. It’s a much more subtle approach compared to those politically charged ads. But when you feel that connection, you’re more likely to trust and support each other. Selena’s marketing team is counting on that.
Now, look, I’m a pretty open-minded person. If finding purpose in your favorite brand, makeup, shoes, or cars brings you joy, that’s awesome. But let’s not forget that brands are not these benevolent guardians of values. They’re in it for the money. Purchases can hold meaning, but it’s important to know where to draw the line. If you find yourself setting fire to your beloved shoes because you dislike a company’s new ad, you’re probably taking it a bit too far. The same goes for feeling the need to defend a multi-billion dollar corporation on social media. Trust me, they’ll be just fine without you.
You know, brands really push for unity, and it’s something worth discussing. That’s exactly what they want you to do, after all. And that’s why I find these tactics particularly harmful. Essentially, they use unity as a way to create a cult-like following, with their brand’s values at the center of your world. But brands can’t replace genuine spiritual meaning or a true sense of community.
Now, imagine if a brand openly admitted to manipulating you. Would that be better or worse? There are certain companies that don’t even bother hiding the fact that they’re essentially creating a cult. It’s almost like these brands are playing a complex game with our minds. While part of me wants to applaud their audacity, another part wonders if they’re secretly mocking us for being so easily influenced.
Let’s take a deep dive into Liquid Death, a name that might make you think of some cheap, horrifying liquor. Or maybe even poison. But no, Liquid Death is simply water packaged in a can that resembles merchandise from an 80s metal band. As a product, it couldn’t get any more basic than this. Water covers 71% of the Earth, yet somehow we’ve managed to turn it into a branded item. Liquid Death’s branding is so ridiculously over-the-top that it’s actually amusing. They embrace dark humor and the water itself is surprisingly enjoyable to drink because of the beer can-like packaging. I know it sounds silly, but it’s true. It’s genuinely fun to drink. And they don’t even try to hide their manipulation tactics. Their marketing VP is proudly called the VP of Cult Indoctrination. It’s as if they’re saying, “Yes, we’re brainwashing you. Here’s your cloak and cult membership card.”
The interesting thing is that it actually works. However, I can’t help but wonder if this brutal honesty in marketing is genuine or just another form of manipulation. It’s like they’re secretly telling us, “We’re all in on the joke together.” But can we really trust that? It’s difficult to say. I must admit though, Liquid Death water is actually quite good. Their claims are backed up by reality, which gives it a sense of authenticity. Plus, they donate a portion of their profits to cleaning up plastic in the ocean. I have to say, Liquid Death’s unique brand of honesty is both ridiculous and brilliant. It’s as if they’ve harnessed the power of 100 internet trolls to sell us water. My only concern is their environmental friendliness claims, which seem a bit questionable. While aluminum cans are more recyclable than plastic bottles, I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re good for the environment. Generally, drinking tap water is a better option than any packaged water.
I wanted to mention this because I believe that for a brand to be truly honest, their claims should align with reality as much as possible. However, despite all the theatrics, Liquid Death is actually quite honest. They mostly back up everything they say, but let’s not forget, it’s still just water in a fancy can.
Some companies go the extra mile, not only by openly admitting that they’re trying to manipulate you and build a devoted following, but also by poking fun at you for falling for it. Dbrand, for example, has a manifesto book where they openly acknowledge that it’s just a massive piece of propaganda, and they practically applaud you for being gullible enough to buy it. I mainly purchased it for this video though. Well, that’s what I keep telling myself. And if that wasn’t peculiar enough, they even have an extortion portal where you can simply send them money and receive absolutely nothing in return. I could explain what Dbrand sells, but let’s be honest, does it really even matter?
And if you thought that was insane, Cars Against Humanity sold over 30,000 boxes of actual bull poop, mailed it to customers, and made over $180,000 from it. It was meant to be a commentary on unnecessary spending in our consumer culture, but the irony is hard to miss. So why does this strategy work? Well, here’s the thing. The most successful companies understand that branding and design are all about creating meaning. Remember, we don’t just value things for what they are, but for what they represent to us.
Take a look at this humble $1 bill. There’s a clever way to make this $1 bill worth more than its face value. Imagine if you were able to catch Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in an elevator and convince them to sign their names on this bill. Suddenly, its worth would skyrocket. This is because we assign meaning to objects through symbolism and storytelling. This is exactly what company branding capitalizes on. A brand is like a signed dollar bill. It gains value through the stories and symbols associated with it. People don’t just purchase a product, they buy into the narrative that the product represents. Everything around us holds meaning, and successful brands understand this. Sometimes, a single descriptive word can completely transform the perception of a product. That’s why liquid death doesn’t just market their product as water, but as mountain water sourced from the majestic Austrian Alps. The Austrian Alps carry a rich legacy and vibrant history, which adds value to the brand.
A description or label directs our attention towards specific features of a product and helps shape our perception of it. Our attention influences our overall experience, extending far beyond just names. It can encapsulate an entire brand’s philosophy. At the end of the day, is Apple merely selling metal electronic rectangles, or are they offering tools that empower creative self-expression? Is Nike solely selling footwear for foot protection, or are they enabling individuals to unlock their full athletic potential? Each version of these stories holds some truth, but some companies take it to extremes that may not align with my personal preferences.
I mean, it seems like the Pepsi logo is supposedly inspired by Earth’s magnetic fields and gravitational pull. If that’s the case, it’s pretty interesting. I’m all for conveying ideas in a subtle way through visual cues, but there’s a point where it starts to feel like an excessive and crazy analysis. So, is there a problem here? Well, it’s subjective. Giving meaning to things isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and our mental shortcuts exist for a reason. They’re incredibly effective.
In today’s world, we have to make around 35,000 decisions every day. It’s no wonder we often feel overwhelmed, like cats chasing a laser pointer in a disco, desperately trying to catch everything but ending up with nothing. When we’re stressed, tired, or distracted, we simply don’t have the time to analyze every tiny detail. That’s when we rely on mental shortcuts like authority, scarcity, and more to help us make decisions. This is why good photography matters, why having three stripes on a toothpaste matters, and why good packaging, design, and branding matter.
When these mental shortcuts are based on reliable information, it’s fantastic. However, as you’ve seen, some designers and brand managers try to manipulate these shortcuts for their own benefit. They may use fake evidence or questionable tactics to deceive us into buying their products. So, why does this happen? Well, it’s easy to label the employees and owners of these companies as evil psychopaths, and while that may be true in some cases, I believe it’s an oversimplification.
In the companies I’ve had the opportunity to work with, I’ve come across a majority of individuals who were genuinely good-hearted and had a strong sense of doing what’s right. However, it’s not uncommon to witness disagreements among employees in boardroom discussions, where questions like what’s best for the customer?, what’s best for the local community?, or even what’s best for the planet? arise. These are all noble causes, but often teams struggle to reach a consensus on these objectives. It’s quite common for different teams within a company to have conflicting or opposing goals. The only common ground they share is their dedication to the success of the company. This leads them to a more straightforward, yet somewhat sinister question: What’s best for the company?
Once this question is posed, it’s evident that the answer will always revolve around whatever generates the most profit for the company. A company is essentially a machine, an abstract entity that exists independently. It prioritizes maximizing profits, sometimes at the expense of its employees. Both the planet and the end customers demand constant growth and expansion from companies. Even in organizations driven by a humane mission, when faced with a tough decision, the need to support one’s family, buy a house, and seek stability in life often takes precedence. In such situations, many individuals may choose to stretch the truth a little rather than compromising their family’s well-being. Fear is often at the root of many issues within companies. It’s a challenging problem to solve, but I’ve discovered that living without fear allows individuals to act more authentically.
As a designer, I sometimes struggle with determining whether my design work is manipulative or not. To overcome this, I found it helpful to clearly define manipulation within this context. Manipulation is when you influence someone for your own benefit without their consent. On the other hand, educating someone is when you influence them for their benefit with their consent. The goal should always be to educate, not manipulate. I learned about this concept from a friend online, and I believe it’s a valuable guideline to assess my own behavior. While I’m not perfect, as a designer, it’s important to periodically ask myself this question.
While commerce is inevitable, we can still strive to leave a legacy that is not only prosperous but also kind, compassionate, and wise.
Branding and design have the ability to bend the truth, but it’s like a magical illusion. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors involved. It’s acceptable as long as the audience is aware of the deception and willingly suspends their disbelief to enjoy the experience. The problem arises when companies attempt to deceive you into believing it’s real magic. So, here’s the best part I’ve saved for the end.
What brand is the biggest joke? Which brand is the most convenient of them all? Introducing the Design Theory merch drop, an event that has been eagerly awaited after years of development. I proudly present to you the ultimate masterpiece of brand manipulation and satire, the pinnacle of human achievement. It’s the shirt that surpasses all others. The shirt, the t-shirt. It’s like branding. I took a long hard look in the mirror and had an existential crisis. In a world filled with branding illusions, this t-shirt serves as a mirror that says, “Look at you, buying that shirt!” And you respond with self-awareness, saying, “Yes, indeed I am.” But there’s more.
With just a slight adjustment in kerning, this shirt will make designers run away in fear. It’s not just clothing, it’s designer repellent. Want to clear a room at a hipster design gathering faster than releasing a Roomba with a chainsaw attached to it? This is the shirt for you. If you desire the complete experience of a shirt with perfect letter spacing, you can get the properly curved t-shirt for just $2 extra. That’s a steal for good design. Now, for those of you who take good design seriously, I present to you the fancy font shirt. Like many other designer brands, the mere presence of a fancy logo significantly increases its value, for $500.
Wait, $500? Hold on, it’s actually $50. The fancy font shirt features a font so exquisite that it might as well have been crafted from Giorgio Armani’s tears. Sometimes, all it takes is a designer logo to elevate the value of a product. Slap on that logo and voila, you’ll need a mortgage for your t-shirt. And now, the crown jewel of the entire shirt t-shirt line, I present to you the Design Theory Galactic Glyphs t-shirt. It may say “shirt,” but it’s actually written in a fictional alien language. That’s right, I created an entire alien language exclusively for this t-shirt line. This shirt doesn’t just have the word “shirt” on it. If you look closely, there’s a hidden message underneath. The font is so fancy that you can’t even read it without a special decoder that only the design theory can decipher.
I have a limited quantity of these amazing shirts available for sale. Only 20 of them, to be exact. And let me assure you, at just $100, you’ll be rewarded for your trust in the design theory brand. Who knows, there might even be a hidden message that will reward your efforts. What will you discover? Wisdom? Fortune? Once you purchase this shirt, you won’t have any regrets. Trust me on that. Simply send me a direct message on Instagram with your order number, and you’ll become a valued member of the Unified Design Theory tribe.
Now, here’s the catch. I’m only selling these shirts for the next 40 days. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. I have limited time to manage sales, as I’m just one person with other design work to focus on. If you enjoy my videos, purchasing a shirt helps me continue creating more of them. Just click the link in the description or visit Design Theory Dot store to get your hands on these unique shirts that embody irony and rebellious kerning. Remember, you’re free to do as you please, and I’ll appreciate you no matter what.
Speaking of appreciation, I want to give a big shout out to my patrons and discord community for their support in creating this video. If you’d like to support the channel in a different way, aside from buying these wonderfully insane shirts, check out my Patreon! By joining, you’ll gain access to over 80 pages of research from this video, as well as research notes from previous videos, special updates, and the opportunity to shape future content that caters to our specific interests. It’s all about creating niche content that truly resonates with you and me, rather than chasing views. You can find the link to my Patreon in the description. Have an amazing day, everyone!
By John Mauriello, Adjunct Professor of Industrial Design, California College 0f The Arts
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As we navigate through the world, we are constantly being influenced by subtle design tactics that most of us aren’t even aware of. These branding tactics can be found everywhere – in the layout of your favorite store, the colors of a pop-up ad, or even the design of your favorite app. But it’s not just about understanding these principles. It’s about considering the ethics behind their use, questioning the motives, and equipping ourselves to recognize and resist manipulation.
Editing by Brad Heath: https://twitter.com/brad_heath_
Big shout out to Marc Levinson and Kyle Dexheimer for reading over my script and giving feedback on it! All content directed and written by John Mauriello. John Mauriello has been working professionally as an industrial designer since 2010. He is an Adjunct Professor of industrial design at California College of the Arts.