Is branding manipulative?

by Fran Collins

Posted on 23 June 2017

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New coke share bottle

Companies spend millions on branding, hoping to increase influence and sales. As consumers we regularly make choices between one brand or another - often reasonable, but sometimes illogical!
As a branding company we spend considerable time working out which messages will resonate to different audiences and whilst it feels awful to admit it, I do think the art of branding is highly calculative! 
Is it good to use insight to drive donations for a charity? Is it bad to use design to increase profits for an oil company? I’m not sure it’s that simple. A little like the conversation around big data, the line of what is ‘too much’ constantly moves. A few years ago I may not have wanted Google to know where I am at any given point. Today, I am grateful that they can direct me to my next destination without hassle! The same is true for branding - the more you know about your audience, the more precise you can be in your brand decisions. 

“We need to find ways to speak to young people who are getting all their information off a phone, and will not sit down and read a 50-page report. You may have two minutes to get your message across, or five minutes, and they may be more interested in a video than they are in reading a text. You’ll need to create a strong, truthful, powerful message that leads them to action – that’s something I’m going to be spending a lot of time thinking about.”

- Barack Obama, on engaging the next generation. 
I think the ethical case needs to be wider than a case by case judgement. For me, it comes down to purpose. 
Unintentional branding can be as manipulative as considered branding. Your local corner shop may not have thought much about their colour scheme, font choice or fascia. However, you will still make judgements around how much money you’ll spend there. Yes, it may not be particularly successful manipulation, but manipulation nevertheless!
If a business can communicate their purpose - the core of who they are - this to me, feels ethical. If the projected brand is closely aligned with the experience a customer has with the company, the user can make a more informed decision. 
To remain ethical, companies need to keep on ‘checking in’ with their brand image. Can body shop retain their ethical message after the death of Anita Roddick? Can Innocent Smoothies still project a carefree attitude after Coke bought over 90% of the shares?
The good news is, when expectations match reality trust is easier to form. It's easy to feel disappointed if you’ve been told something's ‘too good to be true’.