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A brand can be defined as the distinctive identity of a particular product that differentiates it from its competitors (Wells et al, 2006). Branding is the process of creating a special meaning for a product, one that makes it distinctive in the marketplace and its product category (Weitz et al, 2009). Branding transforms a product into a brand, which is a distinctive identity for a product. A brand design is not static, but evolves constantly to suit the needs and wants of an ever changing society. This report critically discusses the influence of social and political events on brand designs and its implications.
One such an example is the civil rights movement of the 1960s in America, which was against racism and ushered in an era of greater political correctness. Previously, African American, most of who were the descendents of slaves were subject to great discrimination and abuse. They were treated as second class citizens or worse, segregated and often tortured by whites. For example, no black person could board a bus reserved for whites or use a rest room for whites. Similarly schools were segregated along racial lines and it was the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education in 1954 that ended racial segregation in schools (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007). However, that was just the beginning. In the 1960s, leaders like Martin Luther King struggled and fought for racial equality and soon after, American society began to see the ills of racism. As a result of political will and media advocacy, the public began to grow ashamed of racism and started to be more sensitive to the feelings of others.
This had a major impact on branding. Products that used racial slurs such as Nigger and depicted blacks in a bad light stopped such practices. One obvious example is in the brand design of the famous toothpaste brand Darkie. Originally, the product was produced by the Taiwanese company Hawley & Hazel and its logo featured an obviously African American man flashing a white smile. When the company was acquired by Colgate Palmolive, public outrage and accusations of racism caused the company to revamp its brand image to feature a racially neutral (and whiter) person that was inoffensive. The toothpaste brand name was subsequently changed to Darlie in the international market (Harvard Business Review, 2011). Nevertheless, the product is still known by its original name in China as it not considered offensive there.
Another major upheaval that dramatically altered brand design, particularly in the Muslim world was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This took place to overthrow the autocratic Shah who was held responsible for numerous violations of human rights and did not respect the rights and wishes of the people (Funk and Wagnell Encyclopedia, 2005). Subsequently, a government led by religious clerics was set up and this was the root of the Islamist movement which has gathered strength among Muslim nations since then. The Islamic Republic was viewed as the most viable Muslim alternative to the various forms of Western governments and many were inspired by it. Consequently, many Muslims around the world felt the need to shake of Westernization and its un-Islamic values in favour of a more traditional, Islamic ideology. Islamic law (Syariah) began to be implemented with greater fervor throughout the Muslim world, with wide ranging political, social and economic implications.
For one, it deemed a more modest and conservative dress code and conduct. Scantily clad women and 'haram' products like liquor are banned from advertisements. Similarly, products have to be 'halal', or compliant with religious requirements. Products that are widely used in the Muslim world have to not only be 'halal' compliant, but also bear the 'halal' logo to give them credibility. As a result, companies have to change their brand design to appeal to the Muslim world at large. This would involve incorporating the 'Halal' certification logo on their products as well as using green as the predominant colour, or other Islamic motifs like the crescent. This can be seen in products ranging from cosmetics, food and clothes. Even the service sector is inspired by the Islamist movement, such as Islamic banking and insurance which are fast gaining popularity. Hence, companies that wish to penetrate the Muslim world will have to modify their product designs to suit religious sensibilities.
In recent years, the public has grown more environmentally conscious. Massive pollution, deforestation and the emission of greenhouse gases have all taken its toll on the environment. As a result, there is growing awareness about the importance of protecting our environment. This enormous social change has affected company brand design. Consequently, there are many companies that have reinvented themselves to project a more environmentally friendly image. Some do this because they genuinely believe in environmental causes, while others do it for deceptive purposes. This is most apparent in the petroleum industry, which is one of the worst polluters in history. In an attempt to salvage their tarnished reputation after a series of damaging oil spills since the 1970s, big oil producers like Shell and Mobil have tried to project a 'green image'. However, the company that has most dramatically altered is brand design is British Petroleum, which was subsequently abbreviated to BP with the wonderful tagline, "Beyond Petroleum" (Fortune, 2011). Yet, this amounts to little more than window dressing since BP is the culprit of the worst oil spill in 2010, that of Deepwater Horizon off the Gulf of Mexico. In such a case, insincere brand design might actually backfire, judging from the massive backlash towards BP.
While brand design is generally influenced by political and social factors, once in a while a brand design can do the opposite by altering society. The best example is DeBeers Diamonds with its famous tagline "Diamonds are forever" (DeBeers, 2011). Previously, people did not use diamond engagement rings. Due to a slump in global diamond sales, the company explored all sorts of marketing strategies to improve sales. In 1947, it finally came up with its tagline. De Beers uses emotive marketing exceptionally well by associating diamonds with eternal love (Riley, 2005). DeBeers was so successful in its branding and marketing campaign that today, a diamond engagement ring is a must for Western wedding. The company has gone even further by launching anniversary ring campaigns and these have been equally successful. Never has a company been more successful in altering societal and cultural norms.
Another example of how brand design can impact society is Apple. Some of products like the iPod and iPhone have dramatically altered the way people interact with certain technology. For instance, before the iPad, music was portable on in the form of compact discs and cassette tapes. One had to record music through these media. While efforts were made to streamline design, these portable music players were often cumbersome and bulky. Later on, streaming music online was made available, but this option did not really catch on until the invention of the iPod. With its sleek design and capacity to store large quantities of music, the iPod revolutionized the world of music. Music became instantly downloadable and portable. This also created a new business model in the form of iTunes, which was the online store to purchase music. Now, most major record companies have a presence on iTunes and the number is growing. Similarly, the iPhone went against the norm of having numerous buttons by introducing a touch screen system. This approach is now adopted by most smart phone manufacturers and the iPhone is much more than a telephone. People can use it for so many different and useful purposes that it has altered telecommunications forever. Apple's new table computer, the iPad, looks equally promising as it will revolutionize reading itself.
The case of the cigarette industry is an interesting example of a reversal in fortune as brand design initially influenced society, before political and social factors turned its back on the industry and forced it to reinvent itself. The origins of the cigarette are obscure, but since 1855, soldiers who fought in the Crimean war used them. Generally, war has the effect of stimulating the tobacco industry and by the end of the Second World War, 45% of all Americans smoked (Mukerjee, 2010). The cigarette industry spent a fortune to transform the industry, and transform the concept of branding itself. Smoking was regarded as fashionable, manly and other positive virtues. Unsatisfied by merely enticing war veterans, it launched a highly effective strategy to lure different consumer markets. By the early 1950s, cigarette brands were designed form segmented groups such as urban workers, immigrants, housewives, women, African Americans, and most shockingly, to doctors. Indeed, an advertisement proclaimed, "More doctors smoke Camel" in a bid to reassure consumers about the safety of cigarettes (Mukerjee, 2010). Back then, even though it was clear that cigarettes caused lung cancer, there was no serious scientific study to prove it and those who pointed out the correlation between smoking and lung cancer were scoffed.
Indeed, the cigarette industry's efforts at disproving the dangers of smoking should go down in history as perhaps the most evil crime committed by an industry. In the late 1950, when landmark studies finally showed the link between smoking and lung cancer, the industry launched an all out media war to discredit the scientists and to take legal action against them. However, due to the advocacy of a small but vocal group of anti-smoking lobbyists, the American government finally launched a study that proved the dangers of smoking. This was the beginning of the end of the good perception the public had of smoking.
In the 1960s, a series of anti-smoking advertisement caused so much negative publicity that the tobacco makers voluntarily withdrew cigarette advertisements from broadcast media. In addition, some victims of lung cancer successfully sued cigarette companies which were then forced to pay a fortune in compensation. Due to all these efforts by anti-smoking groups, cigarette smoking declined so the cigarette industry had to retreat and redesign its brand.
Currently, cigarette makers in the West have to pose a warning sign on cigarette packages that smoking causes lung cancer. They also have to show gruesome pictures of autopsies done on people with lung cancer, a move that has been adopted here in Malaysia. All these have undermined the image of cigarettes and smoking itself. Hence, this demonstrates how social and political events have altered the brand image of cigarettes. Nevertheless, the cigarette industry is highly resourceful and has increased its presence in developing countries like China and India that do not have such strict anti-smoking groups. Perhaps in due course, society in these countries will react negatively to cigarettes as their Western counterparts.
In conclusion, it is true that social and political events influence brand design. As discussed in this report, there are many instances of political and social upheavals that profoundly alter the very nature of brand design. At the same time, every once in a while there comes a brand design that does the very opposite by altering society.