Edward F. McQuarrie explores rhetoric as an alternative to economic and psychological perspectives on visual branding.
Psychology dominates the study of branding in marketing. The brand is approached as a psychological object, and its investigation proceeds by studying how individual consumers take notice of brands, perceive brands, conceive brands, and respond to brands. Brand is stimulus, and to consume, at bottom, is to respond psychologically. To understand branding means to understand psychological responses: what people associate with the brand, how they feel about it, and what aspects they evaluate positively or negatively.
We wrote our new book Visual Branding to place a check on the relentless psychologizing of brands – to answer the question, What else is there to know about brands? This post introduces two complements that supplement psychology: History and Rhetoric. And it is a matter of complementarity rather than antagonism. The great mass of psychological theorizing about brands, accumulated over the past five decades, is not so much mistaken as blind, partial and incomplete. History or Rhetoric, pursued to the exclusion of psychology, would likewise provide an incomplete account of brands. We write to redress an imbalance, not to repudiate.
The corrective begins with this recognition: empirical psychology, as it has been pursued in the Anglo-Saxon world, is besotted with words. Pick up any behavioral science journal that treats of branding and consumer response, and skim the methods section of the experiments reported there (you’ll need half a dozen issues for the central tendency to emerge). Drill down to the description of the stimuli used. Read closely: what exactly did the experimenter manipulate? On what portion of the stimulus were the experimental subjects told to focus? Answer: the words. Subjects read written instructions, and then read word-heavy stimuli. That is how marketers entrained to psychology go about studying brands.
That’s why we titled the book visual branding. The visual element in branding, so salient to anyone outside of marketing academia, provides the loose thread, the chink in the armour, the gap in the flashing, for getting past the psychological perspective.
But still, one can’t just peel psychology back; we need a place to stand from which to wield the pry bar. History and rhetoric provide the point of leverage. We call attention to the history of visual branding. If you are in your sixties, like me, a brand such as Ivory soap predates your great-grandmother; if you’re a college student, your great- great- grandmother might have used Ivory Soap all her life. But then again, the Industrial Revolution predates Ivory Soap by a century; and stock markets, and the supporting structures of capitalism, are a century or two older yet. The brands you use every day may be older than any member of your family; but in the larger scheme of things, brands are a recent historical development. A thread running through the book is that brands have become a larger and larger part of our world, become more and more central to our daily lives, over the past century. And it is more particularly the visual expression of brands which has proliferated most madly. In Andrew Jackson’s era, it was not a branded world. Today it is.
A big part of the book consists of reproducing older ads and juxtaposing these initial, tentative efforts with not quite as old ads, and then more recent ads, and finally today’s ads. Visual branding has not stood still. It was nascent in 1890, a vigorous toddler by 1920, a pre-teen in 1950, and a strapping adolescent by 1980. And then it changed some more. But the vector of change never altered: branding kept becoming more and more visual, and less and less wordy.
The second alternative intellectual tradition on which we rely is Classical Rhetoric. We take its central premise to be that in any persuasive endeavor, there exists but a small inventory of forms, only a few possible gambits, from which the rhetor chooses. By small we mean a dozen, plus or minus one half. For instance, we find only six basic ways of constructing a brand logo. Each of these formal possibilities addresses, and is optimized for, a different branding challenge. We are able to show empirically that brands in different product categories tend to gravitate toward different basic types of logo. Financial services firms don’t use the same logo designs as packaged goods sold in supermarkets. Packaged remedies to bothersome personal problems don’t use the same logo designs as tasty snacks.
We also find that logo designs and other elements of visual branding changed systematically over the past century. The changes in design rest in part on changes in the underlying technological capabilities available to brands. You can see what Adobe Photoshop did to and for brands, once you juxtapose visual branding efforts from before and after.
The book applies this rhetorical lens in turn to logos, typefaces, spokes-characters, color, and pictorial style. In each chapter we develop a rhetorical perspective appropriate to the element in question, while providing a detailed contrast with how a more conventional psychological perspective might treat that element. A common thread is that Psychology, as it has been applied to branding, is Cartesian in spirit: it gravitates toward the infinite gradations found in analytic geometry, in stark contrast to the discrete inventory of possibilities assumed in Rhetoric.The concluding chapter steps back from the individual elements of visual branding to revisit the question of where the limit to psychologizing might lie. We test these limits by exploring four conceptual puzzles:
- How do pictures mean? And how can the viewer be certain that a picture means this or that?
- Can brands be decomposed into constituent elements? Here the foil is Democritus more than Descartes, with a focus on the measurement of brand meaning. How can we know that each visual instantiation of Betty Crocker is nonetheless a representation of the same conceptual thing? Or is there a tertium quid that keeps slipping away?
- What if the meaning of one brand’s visual expression were to be dependent on the visual expressions used by some other brand? What if the meaning and associations of the Pepsi brand typeface are a function of the very different typeface used by Coca-Cola? Can psychological theory deal with such intertextuality?
- And finally, do consumers evolve? Does what works in branding change with time? And if consumers evolve, what then of psychological laws, and theoretical universals?
The book reflects two decades of thinking about the rhetoric of branding, and draws on papers written with my co-author Barbara Phillips over two decades of fruitful collaboration. We hope it lifts the psychological blindfold, promotes the alternative perspective provided by rhetoric, and reminds all that brands exist in history.
Edward F. McQuarrie is Professor Emeritus at Santa Clara University, Silicon Valley, US
Visual Branding by Edward F. McQuarrie, Santa Clara University, Silicon Valley, US and Barbara J. Phillips, University of Saskatchewan, Canada is available now.
Read Chapter 1. Overview: Visual Branding in Historical Perspective free on Elgaronline