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How Brands Use Design & Marketing to Control Your Mind | Transcript

Brands manipulate us with clever design and emotional tactics, creating meaning and loyalty. From subtle cues to bold claims, they shape perceptions and drive sales.
How Brands Use Design & Marketing to Control Your Mind

As we navigate through the world, we are constantly being influenced by subtle design tactics that most of us aren’t even aware of. These branding tactics can be found everywhere — in the layout of your favorite store, the colors of a pop-up ad, or even the design of your favorite app. But it’s not just about understanding these principles. It’s about considering the ethics behind their use, questioning the motives, and equipping ourselves to recognize and resist manipulation.

0:00 Intro
1:08 BS Continuum
1:38 Information Asymmetry (example from Rory Sutherland’s book “Alchemy”)
3:29 Emotional Alchemy (example from Rory Sutherland’s book “Alchemy”)
4:56 Tropical Storm: Visual Signaling
7:30 Seller Reputation & Trustworthiness (Sephora example and some other packaging examples from Rory Sutherland’s book “Alchemy”)
9:20 Category 1: The Debt of Kindness (Reciprocity as described in Cialdini’s book “Influence”. Envelope example is from Sutherland’s book “Alchemy”)
11:41 Category 2: Follow the Herd (Social Proof as described in Cialdini’s book “Influence”)
14:58 Ekster
15:57 Category 3: Obey Authority (Credibility as described in Cialdini’s book “Influence”)
18:58 Category 4: The Deception of Exclusivity (Scarcity as described in Cialdini’s book “Influence”)
22:41 Category 5: Misguided Loyalty (Unity as described in Cialdini’s book “Influence”)
28:40 Brutally Honest Manipulation
31:43 Creating Meaning
33:32 Education vs Manipulation
36:58 What’s the Most Manipulative Brand?

Published on July 12, 2023 by Design Theory (YouTube)

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Intro

Brands can profoundly shape our actions and even our physiology. This is Tylenol, and this is generic store brand medicine. They have the exact same ingredients, so they should work the same, but they don’t. If one of the pills costs more, it’ll be more effective. Even the color of a pill and its packaging can dictate how effective it is. It’s all in the branding and design, and this extends far beyond Tylenol. Wine tastes better when poured from a heavier bottle. Food tastes better when it’s plated beautifully. Just the mere presence of a MasterCard logo can trigger customers to spend 30 percent more than they normally would. Companies understand that brands are like placebos; they use all sorts of mind tricks to get us to see what they want.

It’s gotten to a point where brands aren’t just selling you a product; they’re selling you a tribal group identity that they want you to be a part of. They reel you in with clever branding and beautiful design. So how do they do it, and is this a good thing, or is company branding and design all just a bunch of manipulative BS? I’ve spent over a decade thinking about this throughout my design career, and I’ve read a lot of books to try to answer this. Because the answer is so nuanced, I’ve created a BS Intensity Spectrum, which is based on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.

BS Continuum

On one end is a little drizzle of creative liberty still grounded in reality. But the other end is a category 5 fecal tempest of deception, where companies toss truth to the wind just to drive sales, creating a huge gap between marketing claims and actual reality. On this quest to unravel branding insights, you’ll get a deep understanding of human psychology and how design hooks into our primal instincts and desires.

So let’s work our way up the continuum. The most basic form of branding is simply labeling your product, which has been around since at least 2000 BC. Craftsmen would imprint symbols onto their goods to show where they came from. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually a very important way to protect customers. The Soviet Union learned this the hard way. Brand names were seen as anti-communist, so bread was just labeled “bread,” no matter what company made the bread. The packaging labels were all the same. If you bit into some bread that was stale or moldy, you had no way of knowing which company to avoid. Producers weren’t held accountable, so the quality of many products was truly terrible. This wasn’t only about bread; it went as deep as rivets, those tiny little things holding ships together. Factories churned out unbranded rivets that got jumbled up into one central facility. No one knew where each rivet came from, so once again there was no incentive for companies to make good rivets.

So why does this matter? Well, it starts to matter a lot when ships start springing leaks and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The Soviets did finally end up having factories stamp their brand names onto their products, and quality went up. Producers were held accountable, and customers knew which brands to trust.

Information Asymmetry

Branding helps solve a problem called information asymmetry. This is when sellers know everything about what they’re selling, and buyers know almost nothing about what they’re buying. If you’re buying from a well-established brand, there’s a lot of information and inherent trust built into that transaction. So branding isn’t always about manipulating you into buying things you don’t need. Without brands, there’s an increased incentive for companies to create a cheaper, lower quality product because they make a greater profit while suffering no reputational consequences.

Now, that’s one good reason for branding. But as designers and marketers know, branding is really about influencing people emotionally. This can be used for good or evil. For example, we don’t brush our teeth primarily for health reasons. I mean, sure, that’s definitely a big part of it, but for most people, that’s not the main reason. If it was, we’d brush after every meal. But take a moment and think: when do you usually brush? Probably before an important meeting or a date, usually before we eat. Nobody’s vigorously brushing after secretly annihilating that chocolate bar while binge-watching Netflix. Brushing your teeth is about being confident and removing stains or bad breath. And that’s also why toothpaste is usually mint-flavored. It makes your mouth feel fresh. The mint doesn’t give any practical health benefits. We might think we do things for logical reasons, but emotions often drive us.

Emotional Alchemy

Many people believe emotions are unreliable, but they’re actually crucial evolutionary shortcuts that help us. For example, our strong dislike for dirty or rotting things isn’t based on a logical understanding of germs. Our caveman ancestors that stayed away from rotting things lived longer, so we developed a negative emotional response to it thousands or even millions of years ago, way before we ever knew about germs. Emotions tap into a biological and intuitive need without all the processing, and good designers know this emotional alchemy like the back of their hands.

It’s like buying a Tesla. The buyer might insist that it’s because they want to take care of the environment, but it’s more likely that it’s just fun to drive and show off as a status symbol. Otherwise, they’d just drive a Nissan Leaf or something. So anyway, look, these branding examples are all pretty harmless, but things get worse with the rising tide of the BS Continuum.

Tropical Storm: Visual Signaling

The next level of the continuum is about visual shorthand. So here’s a simple example: toothpaste stripes. And yes, this is the last mention of toothpaste I’ll make in the video. But why have stripes? Once you start brushing, it all mixes together anyway. The stripes don’t serve any logical purpose, but they do look cool, and they show you that the toothpaste does more than one thing in a visual way, like fighting cavities and freshening breath. People love any visible effort that goes into a product. If you just say that it’s an improved toothpaste formula but it looks exactly the same as before, it’s not as convincing. If you add something visual like stripes, it’s a lot more believable.

Adding visuals to highlight real benefits seems reasonable enough, but we steer into murkier waters when designers add elements that don’t honestly convey the product’s benefits. Car companies sometimes add fake vents to their car designs, for example. Lots of car enthusiasts complain about this because it makes the car look more powerful than it really is. It feels a little dishonest. And this is maybe a hot take, but I rank this example pretty low. Cars are sculpted to exude power and agility, and designers do all sorts of visual tricks to convey that. Why draw the line at fake vents? What about the flashy styling lines or fancy rims? They’re mostly visual shorthand just like the vents, and no one complains about that.

Imagine if we got rid of any visual element of a car that was not primarily functional. A Lamborghini would start to look more like a 1996 Camry. If we think back to the Tylenol example from the beginning of the video, looks can genuinely affect how we perceive things and even how effective products are. Maybe those fake vents or cool rims are a placebo that helps us drive better. At the very least, it keeps things interesting.

To be clear, I think visual shorthand becomes a problem when brands use it to highlight an element that is completely fake. For example, there are some speakers that have two drivers in them, but only one of them is real. When you get speakers with fake drivers, it’s messing with the main reason you bought them: for the sound quality. You probably paid more thinking that the extra driver is real. On the other hand, fake vents don’t significantly change how well the car runs. We don’t have time to meticulously analyze every single detail when buying something. For most purchases, you just make a snap judgment based on a few indicators. Imagine analyzing and comparing price, specs, materials, and quality for every single item on your grocery list. You’d just go insane.

That’s why visual shorthand is valuable. Branding and design help to convey what’s good about a product without making us do all the work. There are situations where we make more calculated decisions when there’s a lot at stake, but most buying decisions just aren’t that important. Most of the time, you’re right. Sometimes you’re wrong. It only becomes a problem when companies actively try to deceive us.

This type of visual signaling extends way beyond the design of the product itself. We don’t just buy the thing; we buy based on the trustworthiness and reputation of the person selling the thing. Nice packaging and storefronts are signals that they’re trustworthy businesses counting on repeat customers. A company that spends time after you have bought and paid for a product to make sure you’re not disappointed is more likely to be trustworthy, especially when contrasted with a company that just runs away right after you’ve bought something.

Seller Reputation & Trustworthiness

That’s why Sephora gives you nice little bags with the little rope handles. It’s an extra expense for them, but it signals that they’re trustworthy and care about your long-term experience. Also, the more a seller has to lose in terms of their reputation, the more confident you can be in their quality control. It’s why you buy sandwiches from sandwich shops with a storefront and employees rather than some guy selling five-dollar footlongs out of his van down by the river. The sandwich shop stands to lose a lot if the food gets you sick. They have an entire business and infrastructure, and they can get sued if something goes wrong. The guy in the van down by the river will probably be gone the next day.

And once again, we don’t just buy the thing; we buy based on the trustworthiness and reputation of the person selling the thing. You might think this stuff doesn’t work on you, but you’d be surprised. During a project where I was designing food packaging, I noticed that when the packaging designs made the food appear more appetizing, people almost universally reported that the food tasted a lot better too. These things really do influence our perception. That’s why good brands don’t focus on what people say but instead focus on what they feel and what they do.

Now here’s the thing: scam companies know that real or honest companies use these kinds of signaling devices too, so they try to emulate their behavior in order to rip you off. I’ll talk more about this later in the video, but generally speaking, if you’re doing a quick scam, it doesn’t pay off to incur too many expenses with high-quality branding and design. These strategies can be abused, but they’re pretty reliable overall.

As we venture deeper into the storm, though, things go from slightly questionable to full-on dumpster fire.

Category 1: The Debt of Kindness (Reciprocity)

There was a study conducted where a company was trying to raise donations for a charity for, ironically enough, hurricane relief. These envelopes were mailed out to millions of people. Some of the envelopes were different from the others. Tell me if you can guess which ones raised the most money: a hundred thousand were hand-delivered by volunteers, a hundred thousand were delivered in an envelope that opened in portrait format, a hundred thousand were in higher quality envelopes, and a hundred thousand encouraged people to complete a form which gave them a 25% tax rebate. Logic would tell you the 25% tax rebate is the one that raised the most money. If you donate a dollar, you get 25 cents back. None of the other things matter, right? I mean, who cares about a fancy envelope? Why does it matter if it’s hand-delivered?

But as you’ve probably already learned from this video, logic doesn’t always matter when it comes to human decision-making. The 25% tax rebate actually performed the worst out of all of the above options. In fact, they got 30% fewer donations. The other options increased donations by over 10%. The higher quality paper also tended to encourage people to give big donations of more than a hundred dollars.

So what’s going on here? A lot of it has to do with visual signaling, which we explained earlier, but another possible reason for the success of the nicer envelopes is the rule of reciprocation. We feel the need to return favors. When someone goes out of their way to hand-deliver an envelope to you, you feel indebted to them. We hate the feeling of being indebted or beholden to someone else, so we often do outsized things to get rid of that feeling of obligation. Companies also exploit this when they offer free samples, knowing customers will feel compelled to buy. In one study at a California candy shop, customers were 42% more likely to make a purchase when they were given free samples. You’d think this happened because the customers liked the product, but that wasn’t the case here. They usually bought other types of candies, not the ones that they got free samples of.

And lastly, we equate effort with quality. When we see a higher level of effort put into something, we assume that it’s worthwhile. If I tell you that I wrote this video in one day, you might not think much of it. But if I tell you I researched it for months and have 100 pages of notes, you probably feel a lot more confident that what I’m saying is true. When companies put in a bit of extra effort, we appreciate it and feel more inclined to support them.

By the way, if you want to access the full script with like 80 pages of extra notes and want to support the channel, check out my Patreon link down below.

So the rule of reciprocation can get a little bit manipulative, but now we’re really entering the danger zone of the BS Spectrum.

Category 2: Follow the Herd (Social Proof)

In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, he describes a Beijing restaurant chain that wanted to boost profits without any extra effort or cost. They didn’t want to source better ingredients or improve their recipes or spend any money on advertising. This sounds impossible, right? They tried labeling menu items “Chef’s Special” or “House Recommendation” with limited success. But labeling menu items with two magical words made all the difference: “Most Popular.” Sales went up by 13 to 20 percent without changing anything else. That is social proof. Social proof is relying on others’ opinions to make choices, especially when we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

That’s why marketers focus on what is highest-rated or best-selling. They don’t need to convince you that a product is good; they just need to convince you that other people think it’s good. If you’ve read Amazon reviews or chosen a popular Netflix show, you’ve used social proof. Speaking of social proof, you should subscribe to my channel. Or don’t. Do whatever the heck you want; I don’t even know why I still say this.

But anyway, social proof is Category 2 on the BS Continuum. So let’s talk about the way it can be manipulative or unethical. First of all, it’s extremely easy for companies to fake this. Fake online reviews are pretty common. Same thing with fake testimonials. Plus, you’re relying on someone else to do the research for you, which can be extremely dangerous. I mean, check out Tom Brady here, one of the greatest football players of all time, endorsing FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange that ended up being a huge fraud—at least allegedly. I don’t know if it’s proven yet. Many investors lost everything.

Involving Brady is a classic form of social proof, but look at the tactics here. “Yeah man, yeah, sounds good. I’m in. I’m in.” “Hey Arthur, I quit.”

Even if Tom Brady doesn’t convince you, you’ve got all these other people saying, “I’m in.” You’ve got line cooks, surgeons, plumbers, women, men, all of various ethnicities and backgrounds. This is very intentional. Social proof is even more effective on us when the people endorsing the product are similar to us. If we see people similar to us doing something, it doesn’t just mean that it’s a good idea. It also means that it’s possible for us to do it. It seems more achievable. It’s similar to when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes. Bannister trained for years to achieve that goal, but once he did it, other runners followed suit just a few weeks later.

Social proof manipulation happens in way more subtle ways as well. Like this ad with Selena Gomez and her makeup line. Notice the setting. This is a massive brand that brings in like 60 million dollars a year, and Selena Gomez is an A-list celebrity. You’re telling me she can’t afford a good microphone and some good lights? I mean, look at this one. You think they accidentally just left the ruffled blanket on the couch by accident? This is all by design. They’re leveraging her star power and influence, but they want to make her seem more relatable to you. Once again, social proof is more effective when the people promoting the product seem like our peers. This is why you need to be very skeptical about unrehearsed testimonials, ads, and tutorials like this.

So yeah, social proof can be really manipulative, but it isn’t always bad. Online reviews and testimonials, as long as they’re verified, can be incredibly useful. And if a respected celebrity endorses a product, their reputation is at stake. Selena Gomez probably does really believe in her products, and as a person with a following, you live and die by your reputation. For example, when I’m picking a sponsor for my videos, it’s common for me to ask my friends what they think of it. I teach product design at a university, and at the beginning of every semester, I ask my students to bring in their favorite products. One of my best students actually happened to bring in this wallet by Ekster. He said that he’s owned this wallet for three years and it’s still good as new. So a few months later, when Ekster approached me to sponsor this video, I knew that I could endorse their product in good conscience. The build quality feels really solid, and the cards are held securely in place. The really cool thing about this wallet is the way that the cards fan out with the push of a button. The slim profile is also really nice too. I mean, look at this giant wallet in my pocket, then compare that to the Ekster. If you need more than five or six cards, you can also add this super slim clip to the wallet. Everything is clean, secure, and organized. To get your own Ekster wallet, go check out the link in the description below and use code DESIGN at checkout for a 25% discount.

So anyway, I put this tactic in Category 2. It definitely can be abused, or it can be a good shortcut. But there are bigger storms looming over the horizon as we delve deeper into the BS Continuum.

Category 3: Obey Authority (Credibility)

Designers and brand managers leverage the influence of authority in their messaging all the time, in both explicit and subtle ways. Back in the 80s, there was a really successful cough medicine ad. A confident man tells you Vicks Formula 44 will cure your cough. The man is Dr. Rick Weber, a character from the hit TV show General Hospital. The actor mentions he’s not a doctor, but he plays one on TV. But that doesn’t really matter. With his tailored suit, confident demeanor, and authoritative voice, he plays a very convincing doctor. In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, he shines a spotlight on this ad as an intriguing example of authority in advertising. Once again, the actor wasn’t a medical expert, but that’s why it’s so crazy—because viewers associated him with his TV doctor character. The ad hit gold, and it was a massive hit that ran for years.

This shows you how powerful authority is in shaping our decisions. You don’t need to be a real authority; all you need is the aura of authority, and people will follow you.

Now, using fake authority figures to sell cough medicine is pretty bad, but it gets a lot worse. Medical experts started to make the connection between lung cancer and smoking by the 1930s. In order to combat this sentiment, Camel cigarettes created an ad in 1946 that featured doctors. They created the tagline that would make modern-day fact-checkers’ heads explode: “More doctors smoke Camels.” I mean, can you imagine? They don’t just say the bold claim; they use every trick in the book to make doctors look like trustworthy authority figures. There’s a sea of white coats, stethoscopes everywhere, an entourage of scholarly-looking doctors puffing away. And this is where the harmless facade of authority turns into a blatant cover-up, blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love a little creative liberty, remember the fake vents from earlier in the video. But when it completely misaligns with reality, that’s a problem, especially when lives are at stake. These are more explicit forms of showing authority, but a lot of the time, it’s even more subtle.

In the animal kingdom, size matters. It’s common for animals to puff themselves up to avoid combat. Mammals bristle their fur, fish expand their fins and puff up, birds flaunt their feathers. The goal is to appear larger and more dominant. Instead of risking it all in battle, many animals turn to optical illusions to puff up their size and flex their authority. Our human instincts aren’t that different. We’re all hardwired to associate size with status and authority. Ever been wowed by an Apple launch event or gone to a store to see merchandise enshrined in glass cases? Brands are doing their own version of puffing up their feathers here. These elements can craft illusions of grandeur and strength, but it’s important to look past that facade.

As Cialdini says in his book, just like fur, fins, and feathers, these surface-level elements masterfully project an air of substance and gravitas that may not actually be real. Bottom line, next time you see a company flexing its authority, take a second look. Is there substance, or is it just fluff?

Of course, not all expert opinions or authority figures are bad. Sometimes all you need to do is ask yourself two questions: Number one, is the person actually an authority figure in this space? And number two, what does this person gain by convincing us of this information?

Now it’s getting more serious.

Category 4: The Deception of Exclusivity (Scarcity)

This is a Di Tomaso Pantera. It was bought for $2,500 in 1976, but just two years later, the car’s value skyrocketed to an astonishing $300,000. But why? It was a terribly unreliable car, suffered a lot of wear and tear, and most intriguing of all were the bullet holes that pierced the steering wheel. How does a used car with bullet holes in it sell for more than a hundred times its original price? It all comes down to scarcity.

Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, was in a heated argument with his girlfriend Linda Thompson. When Linda left, Elvis stormed off and jumped into the car, probably hoping to dramatically peel out of the parking lot. But instead, the car wouldn’t start. So in a moment of fiery passion, he took his Colt 45 and shot at the steering wheel. Yes, those bullet holes are the very echoes of Elvis’s fiery soul. And this is where the scarcity principle takes center stage. Those bullet holes serve as an autograph. They’re a symbol of Elvis’s raw and untamed spirit, captured forever in steel. There’s never going to be another Elvis, so this Pantera isn’t just a regular car anymore; it’s a canvas that captured a moment in the King’s life.

This is a testament to how scarcity turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Shout out to my buddy Rafi for telling me about this story. This is common with collectible items like coins, limited edition Pokémon cards, and even rare stamps. But design and branding teams use the same principle of scarcity to sell you all kinds of things. When booking.com first started showing a limited number of hotel rooms at a given price, people started snatching up rooms so fast that customer service thought it was a systems error. But the increase in sales came from showing a limited supply. Shoppers who would normally be sort of on the fence about booking the room quickly turned into buyers.

Things can get so competitive that people could often wait days to get a new pair of Nikes or the next iPhone. It’s no secret that we want what we can’t have. Not only do we want the same item more when it’s scarce, but we want it more when we’re in competition for it. This is classic fear of missing out. There’s nothing wrong with actual scarcity. If an item isn’t available because of supply chain or manufacturing issues, that’s understandable. But in most cases, there’s no reason why Apple can’t make more phones or fashion brands can’t make more clothes in anticipation of a launch. They intentionally create an extremely limited supply of shoes in order to create what is known as artificial scarcity.

Artificial scarcity brings out some of our worst tendencies. Logic flies out the window and everything is reduced down to one basic instinct: greed. In the same way the big authoritative branding flexes are like an animal instinctually puffing up their feathers, artificial scarcity puts us into a primal feeding frenzy mindset. We’re operating on a very simple premise that is true most of the time: things that are hard to get are often better than things that are easy to get. This is a very general rule that holds true, and that’s why scarcity tactics are so effective. It’s also one reason why a lot of retail stores bring only a couple of items out to the storefront at a time. Not being able to see all the items in stock gives you no indication of whether or not there are any left. Plus, you might feel the need to reciprocate with a store clerk after they went through the trouble of finding the item for you.

It’s so easy to get swept up into the frenzy. Of course, the best way to combat this is to think to yourself: do I actually want this thing because it’s rare, or do I just want it because I need it for its functional utility? If it’s the latter, you can calm down. If it’s the former, try to assess it more calmly. The bottom line is that scarcity and loss aversion are some of the most effective design and marketing tactics there are purely because of how emotionally triggering they are. But it’s nothing compared to the next level in the continuum.

Category 5: Misguided Loyalty (Unity)

This isn’t just any normal hurricane; it’s a category 5 fecal tempest. Let’s talk about the great Nike barbecue of 2018, a roaring blaze of sneakers and corporate moral high ground. Nike wanted to partner with Colin Kaepernick for an ad campaign. Kaepernick was a very skilled American football player, but he’s probably most famous for taking a knee during the national anthem in order to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Nike decided to make Kaepernick their spokesperson and created the tagline: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

After these incidents, it isn’t clear whether the NFL blacklisted him or if he quit on his own accord, but one thing for certain is that he was a very controversial figure. So why would Nike sponsor such a controversial athlete, potentially alienating a huge chunk of their audience? Nike was trying to build a sense of unity with a segment of its audience who agreed with the Kaepernick ad campaign. This might not sound like much, but I assure you it’s a very, very powerful technique.

In unified tribal groups, there’s a blurring between the self and others in your tribe. Neuroscientists have an answer to this phenomenon. It turns out if you’re asked to imagine yourself and someone from your tribe, the same brain circuitry lights up. So thoughts of self and tribe members blend together, and suddenly your identities are interwoven like a tapestry inside your mind. This doesn’t happen with people who aren’t tribe members. Unified tribal groups tend to act in solidarity with each other. We like each other more, we trust each other more, and we’re more likely to help each other out.

Brands know that if you view them as part of your tribe, you’ll be far more likely to buy their products. So with Nike, it’s really not about the shoes or the clothes. The swoosh is just a banner under which the tribe for racial equality and social justice gathers. They made themselves part of the tribe’s fabric, and suddenly everyone wears Nike as if it’s the uniform of social change. The purchase of a product is like a ticket into a club. When you buy a product, for better or for worse, you’re making a statement to yourself and to the outer world about what you believe in. It’s a social signaling device. Even the choice to actively avoid it and not participate in it is its own kind of signaling device. For example, driving a Tesla is basically a signaling device that you’re part of the in-group of young, ambitious, wealthy tech workers. Patagonia is another similar signal of environmental consciousness. Even my leather jacket—did I ever tell you?

“This here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” It’s all social signaling.

So what about the people who disagreed with the ad campaign? Well, remember how I called this the Nike barbecue of 2018? Lots of people hated this ad, and they decided to post about it on Twitter, a domain where rationality takes a back seat and outrage has its foot firmly planted on the gas pedal. People were boycotting Nike by burning shoes they’ve already paid for. In the end, this outrage was just a bunch of free publicity for Nike. Plus, the people who agreed with Nike’s views doubled down and unified with their tribal group. If you know about the unity principle, this makes perfect sense. An attack on the brand is a personal attack on the individuals who support the brand. All said and done, this resulted in six billion dollars in profits for Nike. That’s the power of unity and tribalism.

But when companies jump into social causes, it’s worth pondering how genuine it is. Because at the end of the day, companies exist to make profits. You could make an argument that they’re trying to build awareness for a cause, but I’m very skeptical. Nike doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to working conditions. If it wasn’t profitable to sponsor Kaepernick, Nike would find a way to drop him.

Nike is certainly not the only company to use the unity principle either. You’ve got Chick-fil-A, Gillette, Jeremy’s Chocolate, Pepsi, Black Rifle Coffee Company, Dove Soap, and Patriot Mobile on varying ends of the political spectrum. If we take Chick-fil-A as an example, the fast food chain has been known for its stance on LGBTQ issues and its support for organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. But in 2019, they announced they would no longer donate to these organizations, mostly because of public pressure. Companies are only going to champion a cause for as long as it’s profitable.

Other companies have been following suit with varying levels of success. Nike’s ad was relatively tasteful, whereas other ads have faced considerable backlash and a huge plummet in sales. Things get dangerous for a brand when they inject themselves into a cultural, political, or environmental issue outside of their expertise and understanding. When companies take this route, they have to be really tactful in the way they approach it because it can easily be exposed for what it is: an advertisement meant to sell you a product.

But most of the time, companies that use the unity principle are a lot more subtle about it. In fact, most of the time it has nothing to do with politics at all. I mean, let’s look at the Selena Gomez makeup ad again. This isn’t just social proof; it’s a calculated move to evoke the unity principle, forging a connection that makes you feel as if you and Selena are in the same tribe.

Brutally Honest Manipulation

Now, what if a brand told you they were manipulating you? Is this better or worse? There are some companies that don’t even hide the fact that they’re basically building a cult. It’s as if these brands are playing 4D chess with our brains. And while part of you wants to give them applause for their sheer audacity, another part wonders if these companies are just laughing at us for being so gullible. Let’s dive into the deep end with Liquid Death. A name that suggests some sort of horrifically cheap liquor or maybe just poison, but no, Liquid Death is just plain water encased in a can. It looks like it was ripped straight out of an 80s metal band’s merchandise store. As a commodity, this is as basic as it gets. Water covers 71% of the earth, and somehow we’ve found a way to brand it.

Liquid Death’s branding is an exercise in absurdity that’s so over the top you can’t help but laugh at it. They engage in some seriously dark humor, and the water is super fun to drink because the packaging looks like a beer can. And yes, I know how stupid that sounds, but it’s true; it’s really fun to drink. They’re not even trying to be subtle with manipulating you either. Their marketing VP is called the VP of Cult Indoctrination. It’s like they’re saying, “Yeah, we’re brainwashing you. Here’s your cloak and cult membership card.”

The real kicker is that it kind of works. But is this brutal honesty in marketing genuine or just another layer of manipulation? It’s like they’re whispering, “We’re in on the joke together.” But are we? It’s hard to say. I do want to acknowledge that Liquid Death is actually pretty good water. Their claims are in line with reality, which makes it feel a lot more authentic. And they also take a portion of profits and donate it to cleaning up plastics in the ocean. I have to say, Liquid Death’s brand of honesty is both ridiculous and kind of brilliant. It’s like they’ve harnessed the raw energy of 100 internet trolls to sell us water.

My only critique is that their claims about their environmental friendliness are a little bit dubious. Yes, aluminum is very recyclable, and plastic bottles are worse for the environment. But I wouldn’t say aluminum cans are good for the environment. Drinking tap water is generally going to be a better option than any packaged water. I wanted to bring this up because I think that in order for a brand to be low on the BS Spectrum, its claims need to be as in line with reality as possible. But besides that, Liquid Death is actually pretty low on the BS Spectrum. In spite of being completely over the top, they mostly do back up just about everything they say. But remember, it’s still just water in a fancy can.

Some companies take it a step further, not only by making it clear that they’re trying to manipulate you and build a cult following, but also making fun of you for it. dbrand has a manifesto book where they openly admit that it’s just a giant piece of propaganda, and they’re practically patting you on the back for being stupid enough to buy it. I mostly bought it for this video though… at least that’s what I tell myself. As if that wasn’t enough, they even have an extortion portal where you can just send them money and get nothing back in return. I can tell you what dbrand sells, but honestly, does it really even matter?

And as if that wasn’t crazy enough, Cards Against Humanity sold over 30,000 boxes of actual BS. Like actual poop from a bull, mailed it to customers, and made over $180,000 from it. It was meant to be a commentary on unnecessary spending in our consumer culture, but it’s not hard to see the irony here.

So why does this work?

Creating Meaning

Here’s the thing: the best companies understand that branding and design is about creating meaning. Remember, we don’t value things; we value what they mean to us. Check out this lowly one-dollar bill. There’s a way to make this one-dollar bill worth more than one dollar. If you somehow manage to corner Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in an elevator and ask them to scribble their names on this thing, the value of this is multiplied significantly. We attach meaning to things through symbolism and storytelling. This is what company branding capitalizes on. A brand is like an autographed dollar. It adds value through the stories and symbols associated with it. People don’t just buy the product; they buy into the story the product represents. All of the objects and things in our lives are like little repositories of meaning. Good brands understand this, and sometimes all it takes is one descriptive word to change everything.

It’s why Liquid Death doesn’t just say that their product is water. It’s mountain water from the Austrian Alps. The Austrian Alps have an entire legacy and vivid history attached to it. A description or a label directs a person’s attention towards certain features in a product and helps bring out a certain concept in our mind. The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience. This goes way beyond just names; it can encapsulate an entire brand’s ethos. At the end of the day, is Apple selling metal electronic rectangles, or are they selling tools that allow you to express yourself creatively? Is Nike just selling foot protection, or are they allowing you to reach your full athletic potential? Each version of these stories is true to varying degrees, but some companies take it way too far for my personal taste. I mean, apparently, this Pepsi logo is based on Earth’s magnetic fields and gravitational pull. And if that’s true, great. I’m all for expressing ideas in a subtle way using visual shorthand. But after a certain point, it just comes off as psychotic overanalyzing.

Education vs. Manipulation

So is there a problem here? I mean, it depends. Adding meaning to things isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And our mental shortcuts exist for a reason; they’re insanely effective. A person in the modern era has to make 35,000 decisions in a day. Meanwhile, we’re so overwhelmed that we’re like cats in a laser pointer disco, frantically chasing everything while catching nothing. When we’re stressed, tired, or distracted, we just don’t have the time to analyze every little detail. So we tap into mental shortcuts like authority, scarcity, etc., to help us make decisions. This is why good photography matters. It’s why having three stripes on a toothpaste matters. It’s why good packaging and good design and good branding matter. When these mental shortcuts are based on reliable information, it’s great. But as you’ve seen, designers and brand managers try to exploit these shortcuts for their own gain. They’ll use counterfeit evidence or shady tactics to make us buy their products under false pretenses.

So why does this even happen? I mean, it’s easy to say that the employees and owners of these companies are evil psychopaths, and maybe that’s true some of the time. But I think it’s a gross oversimplification. Most of the individuals inside the companies that I’ve worked with were genuinely good people, and they cared about doing the right thing. A few things you’re likely to hear anytime employees are having an argument inside of a boardroom are questions like, “What’s best for the customer?” “What’s best for the local community?” or even “What’s best for the planet?” These are all noble causes, but teams often can’t come to an agreement on these goals. It’s not uncommon for teams within companies to have conflicting or even opposing goals. The one common ground is that they both work at the company and they want it to be successful. So they turn to a question that’s much more straightforward, much easier to measure, and far more sinister: “What’s best for the company?” As soon as we ask that question, it’s all over, because the answer is always whatever is going to make the company the most money. A company is just a machine existing as its own independent abstract entity. They optimize profits at all costs, sometimes at the expense of their employees, the planet, and the end customer. Companies demand constant scale and growth, even in humane, mission-driven companies.

When push comes to shove, we need to be able to support our families. We want to buy a house; we want stability in our lives. If the decision is between feeding your family versus stretching the truth a little bit, most people are going to choose the latter. Like many issues that I see in companies, the problem is rooted in fear. This is a tough problem to solve, but one thing I’ve found is that if you don’t live in fear, you can act more authentically.

Sometimes as a designer, it can be hard for me to figure out whether I’m being manipulative with my design work or not. One thing that helped me was to define manipulation more clearly within this context. Manipulating is influencing someone for your benefit without their consent. Contrast this with educating someone: educating someone is influencing someone for their benefit with their consent. You want to educate, not manipulate. I first heard this from my friend Anjin, and I think it’s a good guideline for checking my own behavior. I’m far from perfect, but as a designer, I think this is a good question to ask yourself every once in a while.

Commerce is an inescapable reality, but we can still try to leave a legacy behind that’s not only prosperous but also kind, compassionate, and wise. Branding and design can definitely stretch the truth, but it’s like a magic show. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s okay if the audience is in on the joke and suspends their disbelief in order to enjoy the show. It’s only a problem when companies try to trick you into thinking it’s real magic.

What’s the Most Manipulative Brand?

So I’ve saved the best for last. What is the most BS brand? What is the brandiest brand of them all? It’s the Design Theory merch drop. It’s a heavily anticipated event that you have all been waiting for. After several years of development, I present to you the holy grail of brand manipulation and satire: the shirt t-shirt. It’s like branding took a long look in the mirror and had an existential crisis. In a world of branding illusions, this t-shirt is the mirror that says, “Look at you, buying that shirt,” and you splendidly self-aware retort, “Yes indeed I am.”

But there’s more. With the kerning off by just a bit, this shirt will make designers flee in fear. This is not just clothing; it’s designer repellent. Want to clear the room at a hipster design gathering faster than setting a Roomba loose with a chainsaw taped to it? This is the shirt for you. If you want the full experience of a shirt with proper letters but spacing, you can get the correctly kerned t-shirt for just two dollars more. That is a bargain for good design.

Now, for those of you who are serious about good design, I offer you the fancy font shirt. Like many other designer brands, the mere presence of a fancy logo increases the value considerably. For five hundred dollars—wait, hold on, fifty dollars—the fancy font shirt has a font so exquisite it might as well be forged from the tears of Giorgio Armani himself. Sometimes that’s all it takes to elevate the value of a commodity: slap a designer logo, and boom, you need a mortgage for your t-shirt.

And the crown jewel of the entire shirt t-shirt line: I present to you the Design Theory Galactic Glyphs t-shirt. It says “shirt,” but it’s in a made-up alien language. That’s right, I created an entire alien language just for this t-shirt line. This shirt doesn’t just say “shirt” on it; if you look closely, there’s a message underneath. This font is so fancy you can’t even read it without a special decoder that is only decipherable by the Design Theory fanatical tribe. I’m only selling 20 of these, and at 100 dollars, I promise you will be rewarded for your trust in the Design Theory cult—I mean brand, the Design Theory brand. Maybe there’s a cryptic message that will reward you for your efforts. What will you find? Wisdom? Fortune perhaps? After you buy this shirt, which you will not regret, believe me, just DM me your order number on Instagram for the decoder and become part of the unified Design Theory tribe.

Now here’s the deal: for all the shirts, I’m only selling them for the next 40 days. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. I don’t have time to manage sales for longer than that. I’m only one person, and I need to focus on my other design work that isn’t completely insane. If you like these videos, the purchase helps me to continue to make more of them. Go click the link in the description or head to designtheory.store. Adorn yourselves in the fabric of irony and rebellious kerning.

As always, you’re free to do as you wish. I’ll still appreciate you no matter what. And on the note of appreciation, big shout-out to my patrons and Discord for helping me with this video. If you want to support the channel another way besides buying t-shirts that are completely insane, check out my Patreon. You get access to over 80 pages of my research from this video, research notes from past videos, special updates, and you’ll eventually enable me to create more niche content that’s tailored to exactly what you and I want to talk about rather than what’s going to get the most views. The link for the Patreon is in the description.

Have a great day, everyone.

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