False Subjects. Human Metaphors in Branding

On productive fallacies

In: Images, Experience Reading Time: 4 min

The concept of “branding” is the holy grail of marketing. Unfortunately, I regularly get a mild bellyache from the ubiquitous, hackneyed sets of advice that pour out of this grail. That is true for me as a consumer, but even more so as an active participant in a world that propagates the “power of brands,” drunk on itself and the belief in the relevance of its work.

So a tiny portion of self-contempt resonates. I am aboard, however much I try to keep my distance.

It has to be acknowledged that the occasionally laughable seriousness with which marketers try to formalize the notorious cloudiness of communication has created quite a few jobs, including mine. Nevertheless, this is rarely a sight to behold. Legions of experts put monstrous catalogs of measures in place so that we give our money to this or that company. Hopefully. They call it customer loyalty.

Thinking in Humans

The oversized keywords of brand management are “lifestyle,” “identity,” “emotions,” and “trust.” I can hear them right now, uttered on the TV by a “brand strategist” of the multinational advertising group Publicis named Arne Brekenfeld, who casually and falsely explains why McDonald’s is so successful.

Marketing in general and this language, in particular, want to turn a brand into a personality. From 1990: “We are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world.”1

Brand Voice, Brand Identity — the reference for understanding a brand, its model is the human being. As we all know, people are very good at this: seeing people where there are none. Tonality, appearance, voice, attitude: here, anthropology is being used to the hilt.

Modeling brands as subjects offers the advantage of thinking of them as relational, that is, being in relation to a human being. The corresponding business terms are customer relations and, more importantly, customer-centricity. The customer is at the center of a brand’s reasoning to make a connection — whatever that may mean.

Sorry, video in German only.

Addresses for communication

There are, of course, reasons for this. I would call it, quite bluntly, embarrassment: how to reconcile this mishmash of companies, products, marketing, design, words, images, services, etc., linguistically and logically? How does one address and construct the apparent connection between these very different things, between a company’s task and the customers‘ perspective?

Against this backdrop, the concept of the brand is a practical abridgment, a condensation, precisely that much-invoked „reduction of complexity.“ Who (subject!) or what is it that customers are dealing with? How can we grasp this economic counterpart?

If we take a brief look at a theoretical register, we find that brands are addresses that act as

mechanisms of localization in a global communication system. Addresses constitute local points of attribution in communication. They make it possible to determine who said something, who was meant by it, and whom one would like to address in a future matter.2

This abstraction provides a different approach to understanding communication — which is what marketing is all about. From that perspective, communication is not an exclusively human affair. Brands, computers, algorithms, animals, and things are all involved in the circulation of signs and meaning.

The brand, just like a human being, is then only one audio-visual instance or surface of announcements, among others. It is a knot in communication, which raps and swallows what is hidden behind as a mixed situation (see above) — the intention: to stimulate consumption, i.e., to increase the probability of buying.


The human metaphor of branding allows marketing to deal with this abstract functionality more simply and concretely. The model of the human being is a handy tool to figure out (!) what a brand is, what it wants to be, and how the surfaces need to be designed to stabilize the brand identity.

The aim is to ensure a consistent customer experience at all touchpoints. In today’s ever-changing communication and advertising environments, every text, every image, and every interaction should be in harmony with the imagined brand essence and contribute to it.

Marketing’s task is to maintain the stability of a brand’s personality. Recognition, intimacy, reliability – these classic human attributes generate trust, which is supposed to be the baseline of consumption.

Identity, the operational fiction of marketing

Yet, a brand has no body and hardly any shape — a logo may suffice as a signature, but nothing more. The brand is an amalgam composed of numerous aspects and updates itself with every customer contact in the respective context. This dynamic calls marketing into action, namely to control the fragility of moments to prevent undesired results.

Given this condition – mixed situation, amalgam – it seems rather silly to speak of identity. But it is precisely the fragmentation of brand reality that calls for identity models, linguistically and conceptually. It is an operational fiction that helps marketing establish guard rails for design, tonality, and behavior in diverse environments.

But to adequately depict and reflect the reality of materials, spaces, and the networks of brands, one would need a different understanding and new concepts.

Incidentally, this would also be closer to the reality of contemporary human subjects. It seems somewhat anachronistic to cling to rigid notions of identity merely for control reasons, considering that modernity is primarily about liquefying identities. Just one look at the beautiful dismantling of traditional gender concepts should clarify where we are now. 

After Customer Centricity

There is another reason to look for new metaphors and descriptions. Right now, subjects still dominate consumption, be they people or brands. But if you speculate a little, you can already see the end of Customer Centricity.

When people’s egos recede because they understand their dependence on environments (climate, spaces, communities), the driving force of consumption is likely to shift, too — and with it, the communication behavior of companies. The human metaphor will then become obsolete, which is good news.

  1. Gilles Deleuze. Postscript on the Societies of Control. 1990
  2. Rudolf Stichweh. Adresse und Lokalisierung in einem globalen Kommunikationssystem. 2000 (Transl. from German)