It’s estimated that most people see tens of thousands of marketing messages a day, and you might see even more than that, depending on where you live in the world.
That’s a lot of messages. And most of them are trying to convince you of something.
To add insult to injury, many of these messages don’t even seem like marketing. Instead, a product is mentioned in a pop song or displayed in the background on a prime time dramedy.
Perhaps the most cunning of these messages, though, is the apple on your laptop. Or the swoosh on your sneakers. Or the charging bull on your energy drink can.
I say cunning because, in most cases, consumers of the products bearing these logos are more than happy to display them. In fact, they’d feel a little ripped off if they couldn’t. The logo stands for something, whether it be quality, edginess, or a certain indefinable cool that you understand, but can’t put your finger on.
These associations aren’t accidental: There are teams of very intelligent people in charge of building up the reputation of these iconic marks. They make sure their computers are used by the right people, and their energy drinks are chugged by the most influential stars for specific demographics. It’s an aspect of branding that is part art and part science, and its most shining success has been making consumers feel that by associating themselves with a certain logo—certain colors, certain words, certain songs, certain tastes, and certain packaging—they are themselves transformed into something more. They believe that some of the quality or edginess or cool displayed in commercials and magazine spreads will somehow rub off on them.
In a way, it does. It’s said that you are what you eat, and if you decide that you’re a Whole Foods person, for example, chances are you’re eating more organic, healthy foods than someone who associates themselves with the McDonald’s brand. It’s not a given, but the likelihood is higher.
This association is very superficial. The attributes that cause a person to eat healthier are not imbued by a brand; the brand simply brings these attributes to the surface. It’s encouraging to feel there are other people like you out there, and you’re not just a log floating down a lonesome river: You’re part of a movement, something bigger than yourself. This is your grocery store.
The important thing to remember is that you don’t need logos to be something. You don’t need to wear a swoosh to be better at sports; you just need to practice and feel confident with your development. You don’t need to drink from a specific can to be the kind of person who enjoys skydiving and snowboarding. You just have to decide you want to do those things and do them. You don’t need to have the right logo on your compostable shopping bag to eat healthier. You just have to decide to eat healthier, and then do it.
Logos are shortcuts. They allow us to jump on board a moving train and enjoy the speed as much as anyone else on board. The trouble is, it can be difficult to get off a moving train, and even more difficult to start walking once you have; traveling on foot just seems too slow by comparison.
Logos are labels. They associate you with a specific set of attributes—a movement, in many cases—and if you were to go logo-less and lose those associations, you might find it difficult to express just who you are.
This is something I encounter all the time, as someone who eschews logos as often as possible. The most significant difference is that no one knows where to place you. If you don’t have logos that symbolize your loyalties, associations, and—to a growing degree—economic status, people aren’t quite sure where you fit.
The most beneficial part of going label-less is that you’re forced to figure out who you are down to the nitty-grittiest detail. Rather than being able to shorthand your personality (“I’m kind of an Oakley guy, and I dig the Giants and NASCAR, but I also have a soft spot for indie rock and classic Zeppelin”), you have to know yourself in the context of yourself. You’re not ‘the kind of person who likes X,’ you’re you.
This is a difficult process at first, because early on we learn how to describe ourselves as a collection of overlapping Venn Diagrams; the only uniqueness we can offer up is the complexity of the shape the circles make and which circles we use. Being your own brand—and building yourself up from scratch—is more like writing a series of short stories about yourself. You’re forced to understand who you are in a vacuum, rather than who you are in the context of some soft drink’s storyline.
As you go through life, brands and people will try to force you to define yourself in terms that they understand, in their context, as you relate to them and what they think is important. You don’t have to tear all the logos off your clothing and gadgets, but be careful that you don’t let them define you, and reject those who try and force you to belong to one camp or another.
You are an individual and completely unique—remember that, and aspire to be frustratingly unlabelable.
“Logos” is an excerpt from Act Accordingly. Colin Wright is an author, entrepreneur, and full-time traveler who travels to a new country every four months based on the votes of the readers at his blog, Exile Lifestyle.