Feb. 4, 2023

How to Keep Brands Human in the 21st Century - with Matt Johnson

Consumers today find brands through many online sources, including search engines and social media. And with the rise of hyper-personalized ads, consumers are constantly being bombarded with brands that seem to speak to their needs and interests....

Consumers today find brands through many online sources, including search engines and social media. And with the rise of hyper-personalized ads, consumers are constantly being bombarded with brands that seem to speak to their needs and interests.

Given such a landscape, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that brands need to move beyond business fundamentals and into the fundamentals that we share as human beings if they wish to stand out. That is to say, brands need to shape not only what consumers buy, but also how they feel about and relate to brands themselves.

In today’s episode of This Anthro Life, host Adam Gamwell speaks with Dr. Matt Johnson, author of “Branding That Means Business,” about the whys and hows of consumer-brand relationships, brand strategy and identity, the role brands play in our lives, and more.

Show Highlights:

  • [03:08] The fundamental principles of branding
  • [05:48] On the functional value of brands
  • [09:18] How brands can shape consumers’ perceptions of reality
  • [15:06] The ways brands can be smart about being global
  • [21:51] Why brand strategy should be specific and consistent
  • [25:01] On brand polysemy
  • [28:30] On the difference between corporate social responsibility and activism
  • [34:15] Closing statements

Links and Resources:


[00:00:00] Adam Gamwell: Hello and welcome to This Anthro Life. I'm your host, Adam Gamwell. We're just about at the end of the year at the time of this recording, so that means we're deep into the holiday shopping season. Similar to most years, I find myself around this time reflecting on the culture of consumerism, that is, how and why we buy what we do, how marketing and branding shapes that, and how we can fit our own values and aspirations into and around these forces. And honestly, that's true year-round. Doesn't have to just be the holidays. Now, one thing I've been noticing this year is the huge increase of seemingly personalized ads and messages that appear as if they were made just for me. You might have seen these, too. In fact, I suspect you have. This includes things like email newsletters addressed to me, ads for products that I was previously searching or weirdly just thinking about, and music apps getting my music mood just right with new suggestions. 

[00:00:51] As I was reflecting on this, my colleague Matt Johnson reached out, also seemingly at a perfect time, for a conversation about his latest work and book Branding That Means Business. In this book, Matt and co-author Tessa Misiaszek explore the ways that brands need to reach new heights of expression in this hyper-personalized world. It's not just about what people buy, but also about how they act and feel and relate. And what this means is moving beyond business fundamentals to some of the fundamentals that we share as human beings. So, today, I'm really excited to welcome Matt back on the podcast. And if you remember, Matt first joined the TAL family to talk about neuromarketing and the hidden ways that marketing reshapes our brains alongside with his co-author Prince Ghuman. Now, alongside contributing to major news outlets like Psychology Today and Forbes and BBC, Matt has been busy with the new exploration into how brands can learn to stand out in this era of hyper-personalization. What this means is that the human side of business is becoming more and more important, so to help businesses make the leap to the next level, Matt draws on neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and even a dash of anthropology to help businesses and brands connect more deeply with their customers. Matt is an author, a consultant, and a professor of psychology and marketing. So importantly, he has his feet in the world of rigorous academic research and fast-paced business consulting. So, I'm really excited to welcome Matt back on the show. We're gonna dive right in right after these messages from today's sponsor.

[00:02:23] Cool. Matt, excited to have you back on the podcast. You know, we last talked about neuromarketing and that kind of cool space and how that makes us think about branding and what marketing and products do for our brains. And so, I just wanna say that was a great conversation, so I'm really excited to have you back today to talk about Branding That Means Business and really gonna dive into the kind of social world of branding, so touch my anthropologist heart with that idea. Thanks so much for joining me on the show today.

[00:02:49] Matt Johnson: Absolutely. No, it's a pleasure to be here. You definitely came up quite a bit as I was putting together a few chapters of the book Branding That Means Business. The new book definitely trespasses in some areas of anthropology and sort of social systems, and I know those are topics that are near and dear to your heart and to your work. So, yeah. Excited to get into it. 

[00:03:08] Adam Gamwell: Right on. I had this kind of thought. So, across, you know, across the book itself, you know, you kick off with the kind of opening what are some of the fundamental principles that we need to think about what a brand is and then going through the process, like as you noted there, you end up in the kind of social norms space of like how brands have to fit into culture, right, and also how they play a role there. So, obviously I wanna kind of think about starting with the principles, but then I'm thinking about going backwards too in terms of like let's jump to social systems too and think about how they can fit together. But so, people have probably heard the word "branding" before, right, so I guess we can start there. Like what are some of these kind of fundamental principles that get us thinking about what a brand is and what it does? Like why do they matter?

[00:03:48] Matt Johnson: Yeah, great question. So, we can sort of think about a brand's variety of perspectives. So, one, a brand can sort of be understood in terms of its corporate entity. So, the brand isn't the company. The brand is a tool of the company that allows it to differentiate from its competitors; to be able to signal its goods in the marketplace; and to add unique value above and beyond the product itself. And so, the brand is essentially from a corporate perspective a bundle of intellectual property. It's things like logos and things like mottos. These are things that are owned by the brand and sort of help build the constellation of the brand. But really, the real power of the brand comes from what the brand is externally in terms of its market. When we're looking sort of externally, the brand is really the totality of emotional and semantic associations. So, when you think "Nike," for example, you're gonna think "LeBron James." You're gonna think, you know, "Serena Williams." You're gonna think "athletic excellence." We get all of these associations come to mind, both semantic and emotional. And it's really this bundle of associations and their effect on our behavior, their effect on our thought processes, which give the brand its power. So, the brand is effectively owned by the company, but its power comes from its sort of shared meaning in consumer society. And so, I think that's really sort of how we should think about brand and branding. 

[00:05:15] Adam Gamwell: Cool. That's great and that's super helpful to think about 'cause oftentimes you're right where people will, you say the word "brand," they think "Nike." They may then, they think "Colin Kaepernick," to your point, right, or "Serena Williams." Or they may think "Walmart" and they think "low prices." But, you know, are we taking the time to pause and think about what is the either, you know, again, I like the way you put it — semantic or emotional kind of associations that are often behind that, right? The brands themselves both can be a tool but then their actual value is that which people invest in them monetarily but then actually really socially, right? Like they can only have any staying power if they do something for people. 

[00:05:48] I think this is interesting, too. One of the things that you kind of broke down early on in the book too is this idea of functional value, right, in that what is something that a brand or a product can do for people. But that only gets us so far, so I wonder if we can unpack that idea a little bit too. I wanna use that to kind of move to some other ideas. But how has functional value come into play with what a brand can do for people?

[00:06:07] Matt Johnson: This really comes down to the brand's sort of very tangible effect on the consumer experience once these associations are created and maintained and once they really have power in the mind and lives of consumers. So, functional value really describes this phenomena where the brand itself has top-down influence on the product experience. There's a wealth of empirical research behind this, but if you, for example, drink a brown fizzy liquid, it is objectively Pepsi, it's gonna taste very differently, depending if you think it's Pepsi or think it's Coca-Cola. And so, when you think you're drinking the product, you're actually drinking the brand. There's been experiments, we talked about Nike earlier. When you give people objectively generic golf clubs and if you lie to them, you mislead them, and you actually tell them that these are Nike golf clubs, you slap a little Nike logo onto them, they'll hit the golf ball about 10% farther. Very similar for Ray-Ban sunglasses. If you tell people these generic sunglasses are actually Ray-Ban, they're gonna actually block the sun better. So, in neuroscience, we've come to this observation again and again that we don't really experience the world objectively. There's a gap between the objective reality in the external world and our subjective internal reality. And brands really play in this space. They really play in this gap between objectivity and subjectivity, especially when the product is also very subjective in terms of its value. I mean, what is objectively the best-tasting soda? What is objectively the best golf clubs? When it plays in this objective space also, the brand can really sort of fill this in in a way that enhances the reality of consumers.

[00:07:47] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, I think that's like such an interesting piece too, you know, both in the neuroscience sense in terms of we can do experiments to see how does the brain react to like both subjectively to yeah, what tastes better. But then, you know, would we tell the story a bit differently if it's just a brown liquid versus we slap some labels on it? Give it a Pepsi or Coke label then it does, people, you know, report it something tastes better or different, right, in that space. And I think Coke is a good example, right, when there is the kind of the, I don't know, the "debacle" may be too strong of a word, but the rise of new Coke, right? Like, you know, the Pepsi challenge that kind of blew up in Pepsi's face, you know? And even this idea in terms of like recognizing how important like brand recognition is for people and how that actually shapes their subjective experience.

[00:08:27] I think, I mean, one thing that is, that really struck me kind of across the work, but I want to like use this to dive into is these ideas of how, again, brands can play a role in our subjective, you know, versus objective kind of modes of reality. And as, you know, the responsibility of brands and marketers and organizations to think through these processes, right, and how they're embedded in our lives, our social systems, right? And that they don't just come out of nowhere for one, right? I think this is a really powerful and important point that y'all raise in the book is that we have to understand the bigger systems that brands fit in because like it feels on one level that it's innocuous if like somebody likes Pepsi versus Coke more or less. But, you know, what are the potential ethical practices behind the production of Coke or Pepsi, for example, and stories they do or do not want to tell and like how does that play into these bigger social pictures? Nike's a good example too with Colin Kaepernick. Black Lives Matter. 

[00:09:18] So, I'm throwing a lot of things here to kind of get our brain juices here. Kind of thinking through this idea of how can we kind of begin to square off the ways that brands can shape our perceptions of reality and play with them and then how that affects our social worlds, you know? So, again, we could maybe pick an example either, you know, thinking Nike could be good, you know, the Coke example you mentioned a number of times in the book too can work. So, whatever you're thinking. I mean, I'm kind of curious in this space to kind of bring in in this part of it, too. And the reason I'm doing this is not just cause I'm an anthropologist, but like, you know, so I'll give a shout-out that I really enjoyed your interview on The Brainy Business Podcast the other week and it was cool to kind of hear from a behavioral science perspective too like what stands out and how we're talking about that. And so, I wanna do my anthro duty and toss in the social side too to kind of add this piece to that equation. I'll link to that episode as well cause it's a great interview also.

[00:10:09] Matt Johnson: No, definitely. I think it's a great question and this is one of the topics that I was most looking forward to chatting with you about. So, I think one way to look at this is the fact that the brands sort of matter when and only matter when they matter to consumers, especially when we're talking about sort of B2C brands. When your consumers are humans, you know, the brands matter. This consolation of associations associated with values and concepts matter when those values and concepts matter to human beings. And so, they really rely on shared meaning and sort of shared social conventions. You know, the reason why, for example, you know, Nike is an extremely valuable brand is because the attributes and concepts that the brand has come to sort of insert itself into in terms of its associative network, those are valued a priori by the market in general. So things like athletic excellence, things like achievement of the underdog, things like making dreams come true — Nike didn't invent those ideas, but they're sort of tapping into them and sort of inserting themselves as an athletic brand into a deeper conversation. And so, I think one thing that's very interesting about brands is they on the one hand, they are again these sort of bundles of intellectual property. You can sort of, you know, look at them. They're sort of certifiable. They're, you know, there's sort of financial and sort of, you know, corporate data behind them. But on the other hand, they're totally ethereal. They're totally not real. They're stories. They exist in our minds and their value is really predicated again on the concepts and attributes that they've come to associate themselves with being valuable in society.

[00:11:53] So, we do see instances where a brand has sort of tethered itself to a value in society that society at that time sort of holds in high esteem or this particular target market holds in high esteem. So, think about Harley-Davidson, for example. So, incredible American storied brand, you know, has sort of allied itself to this idea of sort of the, you know, the American Rebel and there's a very sort of like deep cultural milieu around the American Rebel and out in the open, you know, road. And they really sort of integrated into this conceptual space. As a brand, they have really suffered over the last 10, 15, 20 years because the specific demographics that really value that have frankly started to die out. It's sort of a boomer concept. And people that ride motorcycles in their, you know, 30s, 40s, 50s, have different sets of values that don't necessarily value being an American Rebel or Hells Angels or any of the others that have consolation of attributes. And so, this has really put Harley-Davidson in a pickle in terms of how they want to redefine themselves if they wanna try and get young, if they wanna try and, you know, ran themselves to sort of harness some of that heritage but also to make themselves appealing to a younger generation that has very different values and that really values very different things. And so, you can't ever I think objectively say, well, this is a, you know, an incredible brand or a valuable brand like for this time and for all times because what makes them valuable is what society at the time deems valuable. And no one brand can really unilaterally dictate that to a consumer.

[00:13:43] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, I think that's a super important point, especially, you know, 'cause we're recording this in the end of 2022. But I mean, even if this episode came out in 2026 or in 1998, like we're still in very much this era, late 20th century, early 21st century, in which we are also working with global brands too right, that brands that like reach international borders easily, you know, Disney and Walmart as examples there that just can, that expand borders in terms of the content they produce, the products they put out, the fan bases that they garner and generate with. And I think that that's a really important point. Like Harley-Davidson is a good example there where it's on one hand we see a brand trying to be authentic to itself, right, and sticking to what it sees as its own, you know, brand principles, we might say; that this is what we stand for, this kind of, you know, rebellious American out on the open road. And we can all imagine that in our head, right, where we see this like leather in like dusty open road, Route 66, you know, just like cool mountains in the background, you know? And so, it's like there's I think an appealing image to that. But then you're right. Like as we're seeing cultural shifts and what kind of social norms are changing, what do brands need to do to kind of pay attention to that and to make sure that they're not, you know, getting either left by the wayside or on the side of the road, we might say, and kind of helping to continue to build those connective tissues? And I think this is again particularly important as we are in this global space where we are talking about Harley also has a global presence, right, it definitely has this American ideal, but you can see it in other countries as well. 

[00:15:06] And so, yeah. I think that how we can both think about the important like local principles we might talk about, I mean, regional, you know, national even. But then also when we're crossing borders, like what does that look like? And, you know, some brands have done that successfully or not. So, I'd love to kind of also think about this idea and how can brands, especially maybe if they aspire, right? Because obviously we're talking about big brands at this point. We're not talking about mom-and-pop shop or a small company, yet at least. You know, we'll get to startups in a second. But, you know, and this idea of like these bigger global companies, like how can we pay attention? How can we help brands kind of pay more attention to these like bigger norms that they made? I'm also asking this because I work in consumer insights often, too. And so, I work with, do some similar kind of work where it's, especially global brands are trying to figure out like, okay, what's happening? Like, why is this different? Why doesn't this work in China? We're using it in the US. Like why does this marketing campaign not work? Or how do we, you know, credibly talk about sustainability in France versus Germany versus the US who all have different approaches to sustainability and like one type of ad or product will not necessarily bring the same way, right, for, you know, a French versus an American consumer. So, kind of pick your brain about this. Like how do we get global and get smart about being global when it comes to branding? 

[00:16:18] Matt Johnson: Totally. It's a great, great topic. So, I think there's a couple ways to go about it. I mean, one as sort of a brand that's inspiring to do this and they have global ambitions from the very beginning, you know, the idea there is really to try and tether their brand identity, tether their brand strategy to what we might conceive of as, I wouldn't say universal values, but values which are sort of more internationally recognized. So, there's a reason why the American exports, in terms of movies aren't the sort of highly nuanced, you know, dramas and romances, which are really deeply steeped in, you know, certain types of American subcultures. But they're really the big action movies and explosions because, you know, that's a very universal thing. Life and death and running away from good guys, bad guys. I mean, it does, you know, scale relatively well across different cultures. I mean, Fast and Furious Seven, I think was, to date, it is still the most popular movie in China in terms of gross and made more money in China than it did in the US. 

[00:17:17] So, when it comes to brands that do have that global aspiration, you know, really trying to tether it to, you know, really sort of again not universal, but really sort of world-beating qualities. You look at Nike, for example. The story that Nike tells about, you know, achieving your dreams and, you know, athletic excellence and, you know, sort of transcending the circumstances here of your own upbringing, etc. Like that's a very universal story and you can tell that in America and you can tell it in South America. You can tell it in Europe and you can tell it in Asia. It's gonna be a little bit different, you know, each time you tell it, of course, because the specific trajectories that people's lives are on and the specific ways in which that narrative would sort of show up and the brand would need to insert itself in order to be sort of perceived authentically is gonna clearly change. It's not a clear sort of copy-paste from one country to the next. But that's a very easy story to tell on an international stage without really having to change the plot too much. 

[00:18:15] But if you look at a brand that's much more, you know, sort of esoteric; that, you know, may not even survive when the cultural values of its home region change. Look at Liquid Death, for example, which, you know, everybody loves in 2022 and they're, you know, a funny brand, I get it. They're, you know, valued at, you know, three quarters of a billion dollars already. It's very impressive. But is there any reason to think that this kind of like, you know, hard rock, you know, black humor, dark humor, you know, type of water brand is really going to still pull up people's, you know, heartstrings and really be compelling to people, you know, in five years and 10 years? I mean, their entire company is sort of built on the brand. They actually did brand-market fit, product-market fit when they launched. Is that gonna survive as — changed and is that gonna survive as they try and export that model to different locations? It's probably not as universal a story as one we discussed earlier with like a Disney or an Apple or a Nike. So, that's what I would say for brands that are sort of just starting out and do have these global ambitions is there are value types and there are concepts that sort translate better than others and are more universal than others. 

[00:19:26] The other thing I would say is that when brands expand, they do to a certain extent have a pressure to stay internally consistent. So, the Nike swoosh means something, you know, similar. They do have a consistent brand identity. But if you're telling the Nike story in Asia, if you're telling the Nike story in Micronesia, if you're telling, you can tell it sort of slightly differently, you can adjust to a certain extent. And some brands do this really pretty dramatically where they take on an almost completely different brand identity in one country versus the next. So, the example that I love to give is Pizza Hut, which, you know, we're both Americans, Adam. You know, been to a pizza hut and you know, probably didn't blow you away with, you know, the taste and the ambience. Everything else is good. Sort of like economy pizza. It's fine. But if you go to a Pizza Hut in East Asia. So, I lived in Shanghai for 18 months. You go to Pizza Hut in Shanghai or in Tokyo. I mean, it's incredible. I mean, people get married in Pizza Hut. People negotiate, you know, multimillion dollar deals in a Pizza Hut. It's a totally different brand personality. And so, it just goes to show that really brands are idiosyncratic. Their associative network can be very specific to the cultural strategy that the brands sort of implemented in that specific region. That can be a totally fine way to go about that as well.

[00:20:51] Adam Gamwell: We're gonna take a quick break. Just wanted to let you know that we're running ads to support the show now. We'll be right back.

[00:21:01] That's a great example, too. Yeah. So, like Pizza Hut has this, it means one thing in the United States, one thing else in Shanghai, and how do we kinda think about that? So, I think this is an interesting area too to contemplate as brands think about what's the right way to implement or think about my strategy. And so, in this case it's like, is it kinda like how much can a brand stretch in terms of like how much can it fit in its associative network? Can it both be the multimillion dollar deal wedding chapel and like the place I go when I'm either hungover after being out too late or the okay pizza spot for lunch sometimes? Like how do we think about that? Like how much, I guess it's not exactly a quantitative question, but thinking about like how much space can a brand's like associative network handle and how do companies think about what's like a smart way to kind of think about that space and how much can I add or not?

[00:21:51] Matt Johnson: So, I do think at the core of the brand strategy has to be something very specific. The brand is not, unless you're Amazon, unless you're Taobao, unless you're Alibaba, like you're not all things to all people. You have to be something specific to someone specific. And you have a set, a representative set of attributes that helps you navigate that value exchange between your value proposition and your target market. And, of course, it's gonna be appealing if you could be someone slightly different. You could be with this group of people if you were somebody slightly different. You could be with this group of people. It's some of the classic things is if you try to be all things to all people, you're gonna be nothing to no one effectively. You're just sort of completely diluting yourself. So, I do think there's definitely limitations there. I think there's an upper bound, you know, when it comes to how many sort of folks you can put on that associative network. 

[00:22:39] I think the real way to sort of think about it is the brand identity itself needs to be consistent. It needs to have a clear personality just as a person does. You need to feel that, you know, you know the person, of course, they're gonna act a little bit differently on Twitter than they are on Instagram versus a, you know, a 30-second commercial versus a, you know, a three-minute, you know, vignette that they're putting on their specialized, you know, video channel. But it's the same brand and the same level of familiarity and you get that at the level of sort of consumer interpretation. But then once you have that, then the brand potentially can go in many different directions and sort of apply that to many different target groups. So, one great example of a brand that's doing that right now is EasyJet in the UK and in Europe where if you're familiar with EasyJet, you probably know them as a very low-budget airline. They're very no frills. It's sort of, you know, your A to B sort of airline, you know, on the cheaper end and what will get you there essentially. They're the Volkswagen of airlines. And now that they've established that very clear brand personality, now they're going into like food delivery services with EasyFood. And now, they're going into ridesharing services and trying to compete with Uber and Lyft. 'Cause If you look up the EasyRide app from the Easy brand — EasyJet, EasyFood, EasyRide; it's this consolation of brands sort of brand portfolio — you sort of get that same consolation of attributes, that same sort of feeling that, oh, I know EasyJet. They stand for, you know, sort of a value brand. It's gonna be the cheap get me there sort of no frills experience. And I could expect that, whether it's an airline versus a food delivery service versus a ridesharing service. So, I think first comes brand identity and then comes potentially spokes with that with different products. But the brand I think should be relatively consistent, at least within the region. 

[00:24:23] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, no. That's a great point. It makes a good amount of sense in terms of understanding what like what is my core proposition and like who is that in terms of personality? But then, and that's a great example, too, where it's the kind of story that comes out of EasyJet, right? We'll get you there. It's nothing crazy, but, we'll, you know, we'll do it and you'll hopefully be mostly comfortable and the prices are good because of that. And then thinking about how that then translates to delivery, right? Food delivery or ride shares, too. So, that is a, to your point, like also this interesting way of kind of thinking both what can the brand do, but then also like what is the services the business can provide and how can they also follow from that story, too, so there can be this recursive conversation between services offered and story that we're telling, you know? 

[00:25:01] Matt Johnson: Definitely, definitely. And the one thing I would add there is that at some level, the brand can become so world-beating in its qualities and so well known and so global that inevitably people are gonna interpret it in different ways. It does have some general sort of stable characteristics, but people are gonna be drawn to it in different ways. And this is called brand polysemy, where the brand does have sort of a set of attributes associated with it and depending on the consumer type, depending on the precise target market, depending on the time of day, a consumer can see any one of the values that they sort of see in themselves reflected back at them. 

[00:25:39] So, Tesla, for example, is sort of a like classic brand image analysis nightmare because they have all these attributes that seemingly conflict. They're a tech brand that's also an environmentally friendly brand, at least on paper, and also is, you know, very sort of futuristic and also has, you know, a lot of celebrity firepower behind it obviously with Elon Musk but then also is very sort of, you know, crypto positive, which conflicts with being environmentally friendly. So, it's this, you know, this consolation of attributes that don't necessarily coalesce and that can be fine when it's a big enough brand that appeals to a big enough market where you have different people sort of seeing themselves in it. 

[00:26:18] And another great brand, an older, you know, more classic brand is Chanel, where Chanel has had to sort of reinvent itself several times. And at the point now where they do have such broad appeal to such different target markets across decades, across regions of the world, some people look at Chanel and they see that like classic austere French brand. Others look at Chanel and they think it's a very sort of like whimsical, they have a lot of like child's artwork in their advertisement, such a very whimsical, you know, child-like beauty sort of brand, and people see that quality in them. 

[00:26:52] So, at some level, brands can rise to that level where they don't necessarily have to be so dictatorial about their brand identity, where they can embody a constellation of attributes that they feel comfortable and authentically represent and different people in different target markets can sort of see those reflected in that.

[00:27:09] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, that's a great point. And I think this excellent drop of like brand polysemy, you know, it's a good thing to think about, like the multiple meanings that can come out of any one kind of group or. And especially in this case, like I think constellation is the exact right metaphor to discuss this, right? It's like literally the kind of stars and you could map them in different ways, right? You can see Ursa Minor and the Big Dipper and like the same stars, right? And you can kind of see how they tell the, the tapestry tells different stories depending on how you look at it and when. And obviously, the stars are not visible during the day so, but yet they're still kind of there. So, I think that's a really interesting piece and a great way to think about it, especially as like Tesla and Chanel are good examples; that they're big enough and there's enough happening both in terms of like history, like Chanel's obviously a lot older, but both of them in terms of longevity, in terms of, you know, even Tesla is shorter, but they do, we just rattled off the number of things that can like trigger, right, they have crypto friendliness and environmentally friendliness and tech bros and all this other stuff, you know? And like, I mean, even like American infrastructure, it raises a question too of like, can I charge my car? And like we're seeing the massive investment now in charging stations, right, like depends on. But just like thinking about that, too. Like where is it gonna take us from the stories that we can get from these constellations? So, reading the stars I think is a fun thing in that regard.

[00:28:21] Matt Johnson: Totally. No, that's a great analogy. I'll have to borrow that for the next book for sure. I didn't think of that direct analogy for the book, but I really like that. 

[00:28:30] Adam Gamwell: Right on. Hey, well, if you write anthro book, let's talk. But I think that there's a couple things that I want to jump to to kind of think about here is that. One is the interesting and important and quagmire space of obviously we are seeing especially through younger consumers asking for more brands to stand for things, right? You can't be neutral, in the language of Howard Zinn. And this is I think a really important kind of central part of the book is like, again, I keep saying, doing strategy smartly, you know? We can kinda say it a bunch of different ways, but I think one of these is this. And I appreciated the one thing you broke down was the difference between corporate social responsibility or CSR and activism. And we see brands do both. We hear like CSR is corporate speak. I mean, it's got the word "corporate" in it. And activism obviously has a bit more of a grassroots-y type feel to it. But I'd love to kind of break those two apart and like talk about why we're seeing this. And activism is tough, but let's kind of break into it a little bit and kind of get a sense of what's happening in the space and why are we seeing brands get more active and get more activists, I guess I should say.

[00:29:29] Matt Johnson: Totally. So, there's, yeah, a couple things to unpack there for sure. So, I think they're often spoken about in the same breath — CSR and activism. But I think they are important to disambiguate. So, CSR, corporate social responsibility, is really any corporation's just broad, sort of umbrella term for anything they're doing to sort of get involved in the non-corporate spheres. So, that's, you know, investment of environmental causes or social inequality or any other sort of social activism — that sort falls under CSR. And that can be as simple as a corporation just making donations. It can be donations to a sort of political think tank; can be donations to a nonprofit organization; can be donations to a municipal group; can be as simple as just writing a check. Where activism comes in is really when the CSR activity is done through the lens of the brand, where you see a campaign that says, not only are we doing these things, but this is what we stand for. We're being very overt about it. We're being very loud about it. This is what we stand for as a brand; where these sort of political stances are sort of impacting how consumers sort of see politically the leaning of the brand.

[00:30:43] So, you know, classic examples would be the Colin Kaepernick campaign, which was, you know, now in hindsight way before, you know, December of 2020, sort of what was one of the first sort of great examples of that. We saw other examples in more recent years. Patagonia obviously sort of leading the charge in terms of environmental activism. They've always been a very sort of activist brand. Ben & Jerry's owned by Unilever, but has effectively acted as an independent brand; has always been very, very politically active. And in recent years, and this goes back even before December of 2020, but 2020 definitely galvanized this. There's been a call for brands not just to serve great products and to embody these sort of interesting aspirational values, but also to take political stances. And it's a really interesting debate in terms of why this is. I think there's a certain level where consumers, especially the American consumer, you know, feels a sense of existential dread and they feel that, for example, there's good evidence adjusting from Pew that, you know, American's faith in democracy is sort of, you know, failing a bit and their trust in mainstream institutions. And so, where else to look but the corporate environment? And they want more and more for brands to really embody political values that they hold. They want brands to do more and more, and they want brands to tell them what they're doing. 

[00:32:03] Whether or not brands can actually sort of move the needle on these and whether brands, if they are doing this, can do this through the lens of the brand overtly or can do some more quiet activism. That's sort of a really interesting debate. There are good examples of corporations that do effectively move the needle on a lot of causes, but they're not very loud about it. One example, great example I think that we gave in the book was Walmart, which when you think about Walmart, you think about Arkansas, you think red state, you think Republican. But when you actually dive into their CSR, they're incredibly progressive. So, something like 75% of their physical retail locations are outfitted with solar panels. They sort of lead, you know, Fortune 50 companies in terms of its level of representation on executive positions. They donate an incredible amount of money towards social causes, very progressive social causes. But they sort of list this on page 804 of their website and they file these in their, you know, their reports 'cause they have to as a public trading company. But you'd never know unless you sort of dove into, you know, the sort of inner workings of the corporation. And the reason, of course, they're not very loud about it is because they serve such a broad, diverse swath of the American demographic. The progressive half would say, yes, that's amazing. Walmart, go Walmart. I never knew you're a progressive brand. But their original target market, the sort of red state Republican would not appreciate these. And so, they've done a lot of good, if you're progressive, these are very good, a lot of good work around these ideas, but tend not to be very sort of overt about them. 

[00:33:34] So, yeah, it's a really interesting space and I think this is something where there's been a, you know, a sort of a huge, you know, drive for brands to get 'em more involved. There's been a lot of consumer cynicism around this as well. And so, I think brands are sort of pulling back and there's been sort of less brands that are sort of, you know, going that extra mile and actually making a very overt push about it because of the cynicism that certain brands have faced. But I think it's a very interesting way in which brands have have evolved in the last few years. 

[00:34:01] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, right on. No, I think that that's really great and I appreciate that breakdown, too. 'Cause it is a, I think an important indication of where we are today and where we might be going in the future in terms of what consumers are gonna be asking for and then how we can position ourselves like best kind of going forward there. 

[00:34:15] So, I wanna say thanks for joining. I know this is kind of a quick dive conversation. I think I'd definitely love to kind of pick up again at some point in the future to kind of dive a little bit more in each of these and see how they're evolving too 'cause I think this is, seeing all these, right, both in terms of the rise of kind of brand activism as an important pillar and then also, again, like I appreciated the kind of thinking back and forth in terms of the social and cultural aspects of like when and why a brand may or may not work in different areas. And then on top of that, like how much can we and should we stretch, right, as brands kind of think about this. So, I think this is a super fascinating set of conversations that I appreciate. You know, the book is really exciting. I'm excited to get the listeners to check it out as well. So, thanks for joining and love to do it again and dive back into brandings and bring in some more brain things and some neuroscience as well. I always love this part of the conversation, too, so. What makes us tick and why.

[00:35:04] Matt Johnson: Yeah. No, I'd love that. I'd love that. And thank you so much again for having me back on. It's always a pleasure to nerd out on these ideas. I feel like there's such a rich intersection between anthropology and branding and neuroscience. And so, every time we chat about these things, I feel like I get more ideas than I, you know, came into the conversation with. So, gonna go take some notes and maybe do some writing on some of the ideas that we trespassed on. And, yeah. Looking forward to doing it again soon. 

[00:35:30] Adam Gamwell: Right on. Cool. Awesome. Thank you very much and we will catch you next time. 

[00:35:35] Thanks again to Matt for joining me on the podcast today. It's been a fascinating conversation, as it always is. Now, I'd love to hear from you. How has branding changed your perspective of different businesses? And do you find certain businesses are particularly good at being a little bit more personalized or finding ways to relate to the human side of us versus the consumer side, if we can make that split? Or is there a difference in those spaces? I think it's really interesting for us to continue to think about as we find ourselves moving further into the future. Marketing and businesses are gonna be employing more tools like AI and machine learning, big data. But then on top of that, also these other areas are trying to be more human, thinking about how we can relate to one another and to businesses and what role they play in our lives. I think it's incredibly important for us to always remain vigilant and aware of how businesses are acting and working in the world, sometimes in our best interests, sometimes not. And we can be real about that. I think branding is a really exciting and important way; an area for us to think about how we can relate to businesses and conversely how businesses can relate to us. 

[00:36:34] Feel free to get in conversation. Check out the newsletter associated with this episode over on our Substack. Link in the show notes. As well as shoot me message over on LinkedIn or on thisanthrolife@gmail.com. As always, thank you so much for listening. It's a pleasure to be here with you and to make these conversations available to wider folks. So, if you liked the episode, you liked the show, please share it with a friend or a loved one or a colleague. It always helps us grow the audience and get the message out about more anthropological and social science thinking into the world. Thanks so much. I'm Adam Gamwell, and you're listening to This Anthro Life.

Matt JohnsonProfile Photo

Matt Johnson

Author and Speaker

Matt Johnson, PhD is a speaker, writer, and researcher, specializing in the application of psychology and neuroscience to branding. Following his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Princeton University, his work has probed the science of brand storytelling, experiential marketing, and consumer decision-making. He is the author of the top-selling consumer psychology book, Blindsight: The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains (BenBella, 2020), and most recently, Branding That Means Business (Economist Books, Fall 2022). In 2023, he was inducted into Thinkers50 Radar as one of 30 “business thinkers with ideas most likely to shape the future."

As a contributor to major news outlets including Psychology Today, Forbes, and BBC, he regularly provides expert opinion and thought leadership on a range of topics related to the human side of business. Matt is also passionate about helping brands harness insights from neuroscience to better understand, serve, and interact with their consumers. To this end, he consults with a wide array of organizations, including as an expert in residence for Nike. Matt currently resides in Boston, MA, where he is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Hult International Business School, and an instructor at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education.

Matt grew up in The Bay Area, California, and has lived and worked in San Diego, New Jersey, Berlin and Shanghai.