Branding has become synonymous with graft, deceit, manipulation, fake news.

A friend of mine, Felipe, is a Brazilian doctor. “Coca Cola is horrible,” he told me recently. “Everyone in Coca Cola knows it’s horrible. Everyone in the TV industry knows it’s horrible. But they make money off each other, and that’s all that matters. We have big TV personalities who like to talk about nutrition and healthy eating, and then they do ads promoting Coca Cola. Everyone has a price, I suppose.”

Branding has become a toxic stew of the worst forms of psychological manipulation. Branding understands us at a deep, subconscious level. It knows all our triggers, our buttons. It seeks to pull and push them until we open up our wallets and credit cards.

Of course, not all branding is toxic. Some brands have genuine worth. They actually deliver products and services of value. They deliver stuff that’s useful. However, when we look at so many of the brand superstars that the world so much admires, they are toxic and have been for a long time. Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Nike, H&M are driving obesity and diabetics epidemics, squeezing poor employees in sweatshops, pumping toxins into the environment. As Western populations become more educated and thus immune to their toxic marketing and advertising, they head to juicier picking grounds.

Some years ago, my wife and I went to the beautiful country of Tanzania. But the cities and towns were blighted by Pepsi and Coca Cola ad wars. Shops and all sorts of buildings were painted in their toxic brands. Their billboards roared: “Middle class? Show it!! Drink Coca Cola.” These brands are out to ruin the health of Tanzanians just to make some sleazy profit.

The toxic thinking that these brands spew out has seeped into the entire culture of marketing and advertising. It goes like this: “People are fools. They’re easy to trick. The more you trick them the more money you make. Just do it.”

People are not as easy to trick as they used to be. A combination of better education and declining disposable incomes have made many people truly think about what they buy and why they buy it. Sure, there are millions of gullible people out there, but there are also millions of people who will respond better to brands that are delivering genuine value and are not destroying health and the environment.

Learning Opportunities

Today, we are at a tipping point. On one side, we have dictators and big brands spewing out their toxic fake news and easy answers. In the messy, complex middle, there are no easy answers, no jingoistic slogans, just a constant bumpy path of uncertainty.

We have huge challenges ahead, but we have made huge progress. It can all go backwards if we let the dictators and toxic brands dominate our world. If we let them keep pulling our emotional levers and pushing those hot buttons, we will all suffer.

Every single decision we make, every single day, makes a difference on a global scale. For better or worse, the world is now a giant and ever-growing inter-dependent network. Let’s network. Let’s join and build networks that work for positive change. Let’s work for transparency. Let’s get the information out there.

Be useful. Don’t be used.

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