24 June 2004

Procrustean Branding

Procrustes was the villain in Greek mythology who forced travellers to fit into his bed by stretching their bodies or cutting off their legs. The term "Procrustean" is now used to characterize someone who has ruthless disregard for individual differences.

"Procrustean" can refer to practitioners who impose their ideological agendas on clients and clients' houses, often without taking history, common sense, or authentic brand advice into consideration. When you look for a branding practitioner, you need to be able to identify those who have been poorly trained, practice quackery, or who use untested methods -- including practitioners who are trying to fit your biz into their Procrustean branding bed. I always wonder why these people are so upset about being scrutinized and why they're angry about having their methods explored and critiqued. Aren't they interested in seeing how well their belief system holds up against my questioning and references? If I challenge their belief system or just ask embarrassing questions, they act like I have personally assaulted them.

Carl Sagan said that if we've been bamboozled long enough we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle because it has captured us: "It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken," he wrote in The Demon-Haunted World. So we'll believe even more outrageous bamboozles rather than admit we've been had!

People make outlandish promises that are just part of their marketing campaign. Even the most credible practitioners will "go down the tubes" with the quacks if they fail to exert appreciable lasting effects on people's lives. As of this writing, the body of scientific research that supports claims made by Branding directly applies to psychology, and in areas where science has yet to tread, the vapid anecdotal "testimonies" used as advertising fodder by practitioners still can't stand up to the volumes of methodical case studies produced by traditional practitioners. Clients should consider the educational background of the practitioner, their references, and all the usual stuff you check on when you're about to spend some serious money. There is nothing wrong with applied creativity, as long as the practitioner is qualified in his applications and can produce results - even unexpected ones.

Many people enjoy the creative and experimental approach to branding. Many employ the scientific principles of keen observation, careful methodology, patience, and a healthy dose of scepticism. Creative and experimental processes are best for the untutored novice. Every adept has a store of horrifying anecdotes involving damage control -- that is, being called in to clean up after a self-styled "master" misapplied change management to a business or organization. This happens when the practioner is uneducated or inexperienced in the real world of business and all the implications of it.

Think of it this way. Nobody in their right mind would think of performing major surgery on a family member without benefit of medical schooling or practice. Similarly, no sane person would consult a physician who uses medical diagnostic equipment with one hand and holds a medical textbook in the other.

The Consciousness of Brands is a bit like unlocking of the mysteries of the universe, and is very powerful. The people who play at �the science of branding� are messing with something they should deeply respect. Generally, the reason that people reject something - that doesn't readily appear to fit into the Western ideological straitjacket - is that they don't know anything about it. It is not part of normal, everyday life, and is therefore suspect. Such reactions are part of the age-old human fear of the unknown, mixed up with a bit of equally ancient xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

R.D. Laing - in The Politics of Experience - explains that the acceptance of "normal" as the only possible experience demands a lot of us, including alienation and forms of insanity. Laing concludes "what we call 'normal' is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, interjection, and other forms of destructive action or experience. It is radically estranged from the structure of living." Psychiatrist Judith Linzer explains that "we pretend and others keep up the pretense with us. This pretense is called 'social reality." Professor Julian Jaynes puts it this way: "A theory is . . . a metaphor between a model and data."

Vine Deloria, a Native American activist, reminds us that human knowledge boils down to three sets of experiences. Some things are true because a person has experienced them. Some things are true because everyone seems to agree that they are true ("social reality"). Then again, some things are insoluble and cannot be solved by any stretch of the imagination.

The "This Stuff is Bogus!" mindset - or Bogus Syndrome for short - is a belief system much like any other: you have faith in the fact that something -- in this case, the Conscious Brand -- doesn't exist or is not valid. That faith, as R.D. Laing defines it, is the "scientifically indefensible belief in an untested hypothesis." It is rejection based not on knowledge but on a kind of phobic avoidance. People who think of themselves as "modern," "rational," "scientific" or whatever are most likely to fall into this intellectual trap. C.J. Jung, writing in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, claims that people with this mindset are really "pseudo-moderns," who he characterizes as "a great horde of worthless people who give themselves the air of being modern by overleaping the various stages of development and the tasks of life they represent."

Unless he is proficient, the man who claims to be modern is nothing but an unscrupulous gambler. He must be proficient in the highest degree, for unless he can atone by creative ability for his break with tradition, he is merely disloyal to the past. It is sheer juggling to look upon a denial of the past as the same thing as consciousness of the present. Many people with the Bogus Syndrome suffer from what Peter Berger calls "nihilation" in The Heretical Imperative. Nihilation is what occurs when one cognitive system "develops ways of interpreting the truth claims of a rival cognitive system as being null and void [bogus], thus neutralizing the implicit threat to its own truth claims." The Bogus Syndrome is fearful insecurity, not confident knowledge. Or, as Dr. Linzer puts it, "A true believer has examined the particular belief system in question before rejecting it."

Margaret Caudill, M.D., Ph.D., a Research Fellow in Medicine at Harvard, seems to have her own interpretation of the Bogus Syndrome that corresponds well to people's reservations about things they don�t understand. In the Foreword to The Web That Has No Weaver, she cautions people who dismiss Chinese medical terms and images as "inconsequential or as the babblings of a primitive society," saying that Chinese have observed life processes and relationships between humans and their environment for millennia. From these observations they have developed a descriptive vocabulary for myriad subtle bodily patterns --"a method of description not available to Western medicine because of its emphasis on disease states." In the end, it is all a matter of difference in philosophy and scientific processes, not between civilization and barbarism.

"So-called primitive peoples," says Vine Deloria, "do not cringe in superstition before nature and they are not fearful of natural processes. They are capable of creating situations in which they can use the forces of nature to their benefit. . . . They have no reason to reduce it to systematic thought and the elaboration of concepts. The doctrines . . . expressed in the most precise phrases and elaborate concepts with every nuance of meaning represented by weighty tomes, describe virtually nothing and do not inspire anyone to much of anything."

Professor Theodore Roszak is a great deal more blunt: "The scientist does not wish to see with the lively, wayward eye of the artist, which allows itself to be seduced by what is charming, dramatic or awesome -- and to remain there, entranced. It seeks a neutral eye, an impersonal eye . . . in effect, the eyes of the dead wherein reality is reflected without emotional distortion."

I feel it is my ethical duty to make it easy to understand the historical, scientific, and common sense foundation of authentic branding so people can reap the benefits of its use. People should be able to make intelligent choices about products and practitioners. They should also be able to spot proselytizers for the executional agencies and their mentality that pushes their version of brand.

You should also know enough to spot a slick marketing scheme run by someone who wants to make a quick buck off ignorance. If things sound too good to be true, that is because they are!

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