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Op-Ex: Reading OBD – Obsessive Branding Disorder (Conley, 2008)

05/01/2009

Is branding a disease by nature or nurture? Are we trapped inside a global brandemic? So it would seem in reading Obsessive Branding Disorder (OBD) by Lucas Conley (2008).

Like any marketer, I’m an avid reader and lifelong student of every aspect of communications, culture, and business. Soon after its publication, I was caught up in the OBD buzz. The book went on my plan-to-read Shelfari bookshelf.

Marketing Week offered a particularly intriguing review, noting that, “OBD’s key argument is that society has got caught in a web of deception or doublespeak that is the work of the branding expert, agency, or chief marketer. Not only is the ordinary consumer buying into what brand promise they’re being sold but they’re regurgitating it or reinventing it.”

As both a creator and consumer of b2b and b2c interactive marketing, I felt compelled to investigate such a powerful thesis. (My aunt and her generation innocently called every refrigerator a “frigidaire.”) Oddly enough, now having read OBD, the book feels beyond reviewing.

Instead, please accept my reflection on my OBD reading experience.

Visually, OBD jumped from the “new releases” shelf at my local business library. The book’s cover design looked as slick as any cosmetics package. On a grey, late-winter day, the eye-candy cover glowed in a Revlonesque red, pre-empting (i.e., disintermediating) other hot titles like Blink. Even Made to Stick, with its cleverly-embossed cover, were hard pressed to get or hold my attention. (Good thing this wasn’t a showroom and the book wasn’t a sports car!)

I jumped right in to read OBD, fully absorbed by the polish of every page, torn between taking a non-stop speed read or making rest stops to compile quotes and data. Halfway in—yes, the writing is that dynamic—a craving took hold. When would the author launch the questions that would start the dialogue that would lead to some solution?

As the pages continued to turn and the weight of the book’s spine shifted (telling me subliminally, “the end is near”), I realized that there was no conclusion that would fit into the book. Perhaps it would be so monumental that readers would be encouraged to click through to a website, soak up observations, and join a grassroots discussion.

Nope.

Exeunt omnes, each reader trips upon the bright red back cover, featuring a glowing review from the founder of Fast Company Magazine (where Conley has been a contributing writer). Left in the brandemic aftershock, each can place OBD back on the shelf and post a review to Amazon.com.

As both consumer and creative services provider, I anticipated solid business value, expert conclusions, or communal catharsis. In all, well informed or not, my experience can can be described as reading hype about hype.

Individually, each chapter provides an in-depth review of the topic—the methods of branding, the ills of popular culture, the obscure practice of for-profit brand evangelism matched by the FTC’s pussyfooting in regulating the practice. Each chapter features compelling data that make the book hard to ignore. Drawing from Emotion Marketing (Robinette, S., Brand, C., & Lenz, V. 2001), for example, Conley notes that “Experiences open up emotional shortcuts, and the brain acts three thousand times faster than normal when stimulated by emotion.”

It’s well known that branding pulse points shifted from product features to emotional experience nearly a generation ago. The branding methods and practices for each organization are unique—as closely guarded as formulas for Coke and Pepsi.  To these neutral, virtual methods, Conley attributes intentions of misinformation and dissuasion.  Can branding truly be classified as obscurantism (the 4.30.09 Word of the Day from Visual Thesaurus)?

Reading the book leads me to three conclusions.

1. OBD withheld the backstory to branding.

ODB begins with a supposition versus a definition of branding’s unique purpose and intent. In the late 19th century, branding provided the cure-all to selling that had taken over the US in the boom of the Industrial Revolution, transcontinental selling, and urban retail stores.  Branding provided the context for the seller to become a trusted acquaintance rather than a traveling huckster-and-stranger.

As a result, a number of key questions are pushed off the table.

  • Is branding really a disease and consumers prey to its infectious nature?
  • Or is the weakness in society that is lacking in direction as it continues to grow in its wireless, global connectivity?
  • Where is the responsibility—with advertisers, agencies, or consumers?
  • What is the solution—less advertising or highly regulated advertising?
  • Would the author suggest a return to pure selling or socialized global branding?

2. OBD offers criticism without fostering discussion.

Right now, OBD is spot-on in mirroring consumer cries of victimization by ad agencies and media that provide both the context and content for commerce (Marketing Vox). Likewise, this spring alone, there were numerous posts about religious leaders who encouraged their followers to give up social networking as a spiritual offering. If there is indeed a disorder, there is some type of behavior modification that can lead to greater strength of character for advertisers, marketers, and consumers.

Is it to come top-down through trade regulation, bottom-up through grassroots movements, or individually?

There’s the rub. As consumers, we now control the entire 360 of marketing, selling, and buying. We do this overtly as day-to-day buyers and as generators of our own brand ads. We do this covertly as for-profit brand evangelists. Perhaps Conley would see a bright spot in the resurgence of certified direct sellers.

3. OBD preaches to three captive audiences.

OBD offers opinionated news flashes to three distinct groups versus developing a non-biased narrative for all to absorb and retell.

  • If you fall on the nature side of the question, you’ll probably enjoy this book immensely. It fits in nicely with  subliminal advertising, a hysteric backlash of the ’50s, and the ’60s futuristic media philosophies of Marshal McLuhan.
  • If you’re going into the classroom to teach, individual chapters would provide great discussion or opportunities for assignments.
  • If you’ve got a meeting with your agency or your client to struggle with recession marketing, it offers reflection on topics you address everyday.

Here’s my micro-blog review of <140 characters.

OBD fails to observe that brand:story :: selling:news. The perspective is anything but neutral w/ no way out.

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