I’m a big baby when it comes to Christmas. I’m lucky enough to like my immediate family and haven’t spent Christmas without them as long as I’ve been alive.

We’ve accrued traditions over the years, but none are as enduring as my mom chastising me for plucking a Hershey kiss from a glass Christmas tree that’s older than I am. Since it’s made entirely of glass, it requires surgeon-like precision to remove the top with breathless silence, and I am no surgeon.

I’ll have to fact-check with my mom when I go home this year, but even older than that glass Christmas tree is the annual Hershey commercial wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Those little chocolates have been miming handbells for almost thirty years. It’s straight-forward and simple. The spot says nothing about superior ingredients or production methods. The viewer connects Christmas and Hershey kisses and the good intentions of the season. The ad has remained unaltered since 1989 and has developed a familiarity that signals the start of the season. And immediately takes me back to my family’s kitchen trying to silently take the Hershey kiss without making the familiar clink, not entirely dissimilar from the chiming bells in the ad.

The best marketing allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions and has a life of its own. As a designer, a regular request is to “work my magic” on everything from a Facebook ad to a logo. (If anyone can tell me where they source their creative juices from, I’d be much obliged.) The magic in branding and marketing is allowing people to connect to your story through their own experiences, not forcing your message into their thoughts and hoping it’s regurgitated. It’s the difference between holding someone’s attention for 15 seconds and a teenager crying at an ad that’s older than they are.

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Digging a little deeper, I’d argue the difference between a brand that resonates and one that easily fades into the background is intentional manipulation versus allowing viewers to create their own connection. Sure, marketing teams have the power of suggestion and know what strings to pull for what reaction, but I think we deeply underestimate the effect their efforts have on us, to the extent viewers and creators take it for granted.

Polar Bears & Sugar Water, Great for Kids

Take the classic Coca-Cola bear for example.

“Coca-Cola’s first polar bear print advertisement appeared in France in 1922, and for the next 70 years, polar bears appeared sporadically in print advertising. In 1993, The Coca-Cola Company made a dramatic shift in its advertising by introducing the “Always Coca-Cola” campaign.” (read more)

Thanks to the brilliant team at CCA spearheaded by Michael Ovitz, inarguably the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time, we now associate a sugary carbonated beverage with friendly polar bears roughhousing and snuggling with their family in the north pole.

Except. There is nothing romantic about the inhumanly frigid north pole, nor the sheer mass and strength of polar bears that would crush a coke bottle just trying to grasp it. What’s worse, Ovitz and his team were able to make the connection that Coke is a suitable beverage for kids to quench their thirst:

“It wasn’t the intention of the spot, but still, it was genius that people from all over the world could enjoy the wordless imagery—and it also removed the idea of Coke being an unhealthy drink for kids. Those polar bears, and their babies, after all, were pure as snow.” (source)

Bad Breath—A Nuisance or Disease?

Another marketing tactic that lacks any real connection or story is fear. Does it move units? Absolutely. Bad breath was considered a nuisance and socially unacceptable but it wasn’t until Listerine introduced halitosis as a disease that it became a real concern and something to be treated. Same goes for why American women shave unwanted body hair. Shorter dresses in the early 1900s meant more skin and hair were exposed, and Gillette introduced the first woman’s razor in 1915, creating a problem that didn’t exist:

“The key phrase here is arguably ‘by women everywhere.’ You wouldn’t want to be the only hairy one in the dance hall, would you?”

Women had survived thousands of years without shaving their legs. Now thanks to the scare tactics of Gillette, whether or not it’s appropriate for an eleven-year-old to shave her legs is a conversation every mom has to navigate with her daughter.

Momentary Supremacy

Supreme is an incredible example of a brand without any real story, rather developing the demand through scarcity. There is no inherent value to owning something with the Supreme logo splashed across it beyond social cache. When the brand loses its draw, none of its customers will shed a tear because they’ll already be on to the next thing.

In contrast, if you grew up in the 90’s, you knew what Air Jordans were regardless of whether or not you played basketball. The shoes were well-crafted and looked nice, but the difference between them and any other shoe was the silhouette of Michael Jordan doing a split up in the corner. Didn’t matter if you couldn’t dribble a basketball, if you got your feet into a pair of Air Jordans you spent an afternoon trying to dunk. Air Jordans allowed to you believe in yourself and transcend any perception of your physical limitations.

Because of this connection with story, decades later die-hard Air Jordan fans can still list the year a particular shoe was released and how many went into production. They certainly weren’t cheap and like Supreme added some swagger to your step. Combined with story, some molded plastic, rubber, and leather can take people back to a time when they thought anything was possible.

Why does any of this matter? A quick Google search shows that Americans see an average of 5,000 advertisements a day. We already know our attention is at a premium. A business that is trying to get their message across has to make something unique that draws attention. Targeting someone’s fear is an easy way to achieve that, but at what cost?

We’re over-advertised, and we’re incredibly stressed. Americans at a rate of 79% report being stressed sometimes or frequently during their day; 44% say they are frequently stressed. That’s not great for our health.

“If stress itself is a risk factor for heart disease, it could be because chronic stress exposes your body to unhealthy, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Studies also link stress to changes in the way blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attack.” (source)

Stress activates our fight-or-flight response, once reserved for running from a ferocious predator. Fortunately very few of us are consistently in a position that threatens our lives, but with extended exposure to adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies don’t know any better. Hearts can only handle a low-grade threat on our lives for so long before they give out.

So in addition to the daily stress of surviving and contributing as a citizen, we see 5,000 ads a day, many of which prey on our need to fit in, not miss out, and most primarily, our need to feel safe. It’s an easy route to take, but they too start to confuse and clutter in our minds, and at what cost?

Stories are what stand the test of time. It’s how we passed down our histories and understand ourselves. It’s also why we buy certain products, be it consciously or unconsciously. I also believe it elevates a product beyond even what it has to offer; a brand’s story promises you a feeling. Figuring out what your customer wants and creating a story may take a lot more effort, research, time, and a great deal of skill.

Marketers, designers, and strategists are responsible for what they put out into the world. We have the opportunity to avoid preying on our customers and instead, partnering with them to create a story we’re both proud of.

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