No recession in obsessive branding

Journalist Lucas Conley wrote his book, “OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder,” just before 2008’s financial and economic meltdowns. You would expect branding excess in an economic bubble. But what about in a near depression? If anything, Conley told me in an email exchange last month, the condition he calls OBD is likely to get worse.

“As for OBD in the current economy, I can condense my general observations down to a couple points: consumers are buying less and thinking more. The result of both is that brands are trying harder (either via marketing, discounts, redesigned packaging, etc.) to capture our attention, often driving greater desperation and obsessive branding. Why? When consumers buy less (cutting back on staples and skipping status buys) it means brands have to fight even more for a smaller piece of the pie. When consumers think more (Do I really need this salon shampoo? Isn’t the generic ibuprofen more or less the same as the pricier brand?), they tend to dispel brand myths and discover deals. And any time consumers do more thinking, brands have to fight harder to shortcut their logic with emotional appeals (faster and deeper than logic) or overwhelm them with more marketing, new packaging, etc.”

If Conley proves to be right, and I think he will, the extreme efforts of brands to occupy every nook and cranny of our lives will grow even more frantic and insidious in this rotten economy. And we’re not only talking about consumer products companies. Product and service companies of all stripes are running scared. They could resort to most anything to get customer attention.

Not that any of us would be so guilty, right? Conley says the marketers he interviewed for his book agreed obsessive branding was a widespread problem–it just didn’t apply to them. In other words, they know OBD when they see it; they just don’t see it in themselves.

How about those of us trying to operate our businesses and live our lives more sustainably? Are we better equipped to draw the line when it comes to marketing approaches that offer only the illusion of something innovative, better, unique? Or that deceive customers into believing we offer something they truly need, not just desire?

In this economy, devoted “greenies” in business are not exempt from diminishing prospects. Companies that in good times preach transparency and authenticity in their business practices may be challenged to maintain that commitment as sales rapidly disappear. Numerous incidences of greenwashing in recent years indicate even so-called advocates for sustainability are not above sleight-of-hand branding tactics.

Obsessive branding, Conley argues, distracts companies from what they ought to be doing–innovating. “Real change results from innovation that advances knowledge and improves quality of lives,” he writes. “Branding offers the satisfaction of a sense of change without the hard work.”

There are no shortcuts in the honest pursuit of sustainability. But businesses trying to be more sustainable will also become more innovative. And that will be their ultimate competitive edge.

Want to stand out in this dismal marketplace? Stick to the principles of sustainability. Lead with innovation. And when it comes to your brand, seek the middle ground between neglect and obsession.

P.S. A special note of thanks to McClenahan Bruer Communications, my previous agency, for hosting and introducing me to Lucas Conley last fall.

January 19th, 2009


  1. I’m a little confused, Rich. If consumers are thinking more, doesn’t that also create more opportunity to engage them on an intellectual level? If we take more time on a purchase, won’t we absorb MORE information, and be more educated?
    “If you want to buy a green product, here is why ours is your best choice.”
    I would hope that those companies that are open and transparent, and respect their customers, will gain an advantage. The empty brands? All they have is OSB.
    Keep up the posts.

    Comment by David Smith — January 19, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  2. Hi Rich,
    Like Obsessive Branding, obsessive innovation can be dangerous for any marketer.
    Innovation for innovation’s sake in marketing and product development can lead to potential pitfalls. Especially when consumers think more about their purchases, making them leap to new conclusions can be dangerous.
    At the same time, innovations that lead to new, simpler product experiences can make extreme sense.

    Comment by Janet Johnson — January 19, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  3. Love your added perspective, David. My question of Lucas was prompted by whether the recession might dampen down OBD. And you saw his response. You’re right, his response also points to an opportunity for companies to engage customers at an intellectual level. By doing so, you would avoid OBD and distinguish your company from the desperate brands out there. Thanks for drawing that opportunity out.

    Comment by Rich Bruer — January 19, 2009 @ 10:15 am

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