The Manchurian Candidate (1962)


Social programming is all the buzz these days. Study after study shows that we humans are quite impressionable and that external input never stops teaching our brain what we think and who we think we are. To become a brand requires a concentrated effort to overcome this social programming – primarily our deeply engrained need for approval and acceptance. This programming is why we often say that in order to differentiate yourself, you must actually be different!

If you are an entrepreneur or a corporate marketer, there is a sub-set of programming related to all things branding and marketing. The most prevalent issue is that many leaders have a fairly static knowledge set. They may be informed on the latest branding and marketing tools and trends, but there is a deep-seated first response system that must be overcome.

I have noticed at least three common “social programming” traits related to branding and marketing …

Selling Offerings. Simon Sinek has made “Start with Why” a contemporary branding mantra. But few actually do this. Most often, you see leaders start with their product or service offering. The social programming behind this is from several thousand years of tribal survival. It pretty much follows Maslow’s Hierarchy. Most of human existence has been focused on the bottom end of the hierarchy: physical survival, safety, security. This is all HOW stuff. In the middle of the hierarchy, you find the WHAT: acceptance, attention, belonging – all traits that have been heavily exploited by advertising the past 70+ years. At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization. This is the WHY that Sinek talks about. We also teach this is where brands come from – because true branding is how other people experience how you are self-actualizing (mission, beliefs, purpose, creativity, etc).

When you start with your WHAT (offerings), you are really just selling that they’ll accept you. Two simple tests:

1) On the above-the-fold section of your website, is the language and visuals WHY or WHAT?

2) In conversations where you are asked what you do, do you provide a WHAT answer?

There is no shame in this! But it is science. All decisions are made in the non-verbal part of the brain. They are made with emotion. Further, attention is meted out based on pattern disruption. So if you don’t sound and look different, everyone’s hyper-programmed brain will shove you in to an existing file folder.

Clarity at the expense of curiosity. Most of us are programmed with a deep need to be right; to have the right answer. To do a good job so that we get the grade, the approval, the promotion. So we over-explain everything in pursuit of clarity – both for our audience and for ourselves. When we seek to provide clarity first, we rob the audience of one of the essentials of experiencing life: curiosity! Curiosity is triggered by breaking pattern recognition. It is part of our primal wiring to notice something different and give it our attention. When we over-explain, we rob our audience of the opportunity to get closer, ask questions and otherwise investigate the mystery.

Tactical bias. Phew. This is a big one. This programming comes from the making and doing of the Industrial Age and ages prior. With it comes a need to pick the right tool and learn how to use it. It is also driven by the primal coding of competition. What if my competitor has a better tool than me? Or what if she has the same tool but knows how to use it better than me? Here is secret #1: you can’t use all the marketing tools. There are too many of them. So you have to choose the ones that best fit you. And here is secret #2 (this one said in a whisper): if you get a few things right, ALL marketing tools work. If you organize your brand around your mission. If you share a belief-based message. If you are disciplined about customer experience and marketing activities. Then whatever you decide to do will work. As a fitness trainer friend of mine once said, “The plan that you do is the one that works.”

If you want to become a brand – that is, go the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy – here are four principles to embrace:

  1. Your brand is how other people experience what you believe (not just an external image).
  2. “Advertising is the price you pay for being boring” – Andy Sernovitz
  3. All branding is an act of provocation. (Branding is an art. Art offends some people. These are not your people.)
  4. If ingredient panels sold cereal, they’d be on the front of the box. (there’s a lot to learn from the research done by a multi-billion dollar industry).

Take a look at the best branded competitors in your sector. Or your favorite local establishments. Or the brands of your favorite thinkers. Unless they’ve had a long term dominate market position (i.e. Coke), they all became great brands by ignoring social programming and just focused on being consistently original and interesting.

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