People and Products

A brand exists in the mind of the consumer, as my one of my graduate school professors told me repeatedly.

As a marketer, you can try to shape the brand, to control the images evoked when people think of your product. But at the end of the day, the “brand” is under customer control.

When you think of McDonald’s, you may think of golden arches or you may think of trans fats. Both reactions are equally part of the brand.

A smart marketer needs to understand that.

Gone are the days when an advertisement could simply claim a product to be “the sedative for all coughs,” and folks would run right out and buy it.

Marketing today is all about two-way communication, customer interaction, and understanding consumer perspectives.

A skeptic would say it’s all about understanding consumer behavior solely for the purpose of manipulating consumer behavior. The true believers would say that understanding consumer behavior results in better companies and better products – products designed around true customer needs.

After a conversation with some colleagues, I started thinking about this in terms of another trend – the product-ization of people.

That same professor used to yell adamantly that “people are not brands!” But despite his protestations our society continually and increasingly treats people as brands. Barack Obama is a brand.

And there may be value in using the best thinking of the marketing world in running a political campaign, but there is certainly risk in it as well.

We live in a world where corporations are people and where people are products.Where politicians and celebrities can be bought and sold and cast aside when something newer comes along.

And it’s not just these big name brands/people who are turned into products. In many ways, all of us are.

Gone are the days when the average Josephina would work for one company all her days. Many people are always shopping for new jobs and many companies are always shopping for new people.

Presidential elections are all about Get Out the Vote. They’re not really about discussing issues or weighing pros and cons. They’re about media buys and outspending the competition.

And while money is demonstrably not the sole deciding factor in elections (thanks, Ross Perot, for the data point), it has a big enough impact to be disconcerting. It may be simplistic to say that politicians buy votes, but the metaphor is apt.

And what is lost in all of this?

Individual development.

When your computer breaks, you buy a new one. You don’t just update the OS every couple of years, maybe add some more RAM now and then. Nope. It’s a whole new machine. Out with the old and in with the new.

That consuming and discarding behavior in the corporate world certainly has important implications for economic and environmental stability. But as people become products, it has, I think, important implications for how individuals are developed and nurtured over time.

That’s not to say our society is all about disposable people. Many well-resourced organizations take professional development very seriously and see the value in developing the skills and capacities of their existing employees. In another realm, Positive Youth Development, is a whole field about how to better support the development of young people.

But these are examples. They are stories of those who take development seriously. It’s not nearly the norm.

So today I wonder what it would look like if everything in our society – if every system and institution – was structured in such as a way as to prioritize the positive development of individuals?


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