How Brand Codes And Narratives Can Deceive Us

Dr. Martina OlbertovaMay 10, 201910 min

Facebook rolled out a new updated visual identity for its mobile interface last week. And the desktop version will be launched in the following months. The big question here, however, is why? It’s not as much about what the new visual identity looks like or what cool new functions it offers but what motivates a company with a catastrophic loss of consumer trust over the past year to invest their money in the one thing that matters the least at this point: what their logo looks like.

You have to ask, is it truly a makeover, or just a mask to cover up the ugly reality? In my most recent article here on Branding Strategy Insider, Why Global Brands Fall Into The Gap Of Meaning, I identified the four most prevalent gaps of meaning occurring in brands and corporations when it comes to their relevance, symbolism, value, trust and accountability. Perhaps the most important one of them is the “gap of trust” as, without trust, there is no reputation, no relevance and no long-term value for a brand. This is the gap that occurs when what the company says and what the company does aren’t in alignment, which is what seems to be happening with Facebook right now.

Why Brands Divert Our Attention Through Identity Change In Times Of Crisis

Why do brands attempt to divert our attention by altering their brand identity in times of crisis instead of facing the root cause of their problems and actually fixing the issues that they have?

For one, a cosmetic facelift of the company’s branding is certainly an easier exercise than mending the serious problems with their website algorithm, data and privacy breach, dissemination of fake news and exploitation of the platform by the Russian troll farms to skew the US election or the Brexit referendum results – all legitimate reasons that together stand behind Facebook’s plummeting sense of users’ trust since 2016.

The second reason is that by investing in a new identity Facebook is effectively trying to rewrite and redefine their own trajectory by creating an image that precedes the future company reality they want to create. This wouldn’t be of an issue as brands are vehicles to mirror the company’s values and beliefs; they are assets to help businesses achieve better futures. The problem is that this only widens the gap of trust that already exists.

Let’s take a look at Facebook’s new identity in more detail and reveal the reasons why it’s so troubling not only as a strategic move but also in the kind of effect it produces.

Visual Style Of The Interface

Facebook’s new white-dominated makeover sends a clear and very important message to the global audience: “Our service is trustworthy and it’s easy and safe to use.” It skillfully hijacks the symbolic space of “whiteness” which in our Western society serves as a visual metaphor signifying the trinity of “purity, innocence and clarity” in attempt to clear one’s own conscience and portray a lack of guilt. However, to the informed, it’s an approach that says the opposite. Psychologically, it’s a move of someone whose conscience isn’t clear and who wants to focus on creating perceptions rather than fixing their problems. Purity and innocence is an image that Facebook wants to put up front possibly to divert attention from its own privacy issues, which is not innocent, but the very opposite of innocence – it’s morally corrupt.

Redesigned Logo

The pure visual identity creates great synergy with the redesigned logo. The overt playfulness and overall banality of the new Facebook logo in the style a la Google then sends a message saying: “You don’t have to fear us or feel threatened, we’re just playful and safe.” It shows a clear move towards the space of simplification and entertainment. The new logo with no sharp edges and very round shapes styled in baby blue sends a subliminal psychological signal of pacification. We feel calmed down, non-threatened and at ease, even though the reality of the service itself doesn’t match up the image that Facebook has created and wants you to believe.

How Brands Can Fool Our Brain Circuitry By Deploying Visual Cues & Narratives 

The thing with childhood is that it makes us feel safe and cared for. The subconscious program triggering feelings of nostalgia, unconditional love and safety then fires off a powerful (yet misleading and untrue) association which links Facebook to feeling safe.

This mental link creates a faulty meaning which makes it possible to continue to use a service we might see as hazardous and even develop a positive emotion associated with using it. This feeds our never-ending need for ontological security in the world that’s intrinsically unstable, deceptive and full of unwanted chaos and drama making us feel blissfully at ease with using a service such as Facebook – a website using practices that are morally questionable, to say the least – as a safe haven to escape this cruel harsh reality.

From the storytelling standpoint, you can see that this move is clearly very smart. But its genius is evil as it exploits our own subconscious programming, bypasses reason and mines the nature of the human mind for its own benefit. As the inner workings of our subconscious mind are about 10x more powerful than our conscious mind, these psychological shortcuts can work even if we don’t consciously believe them and know better based on past data or even our own previous experience.

Behavioral scientists call this powerful instrument the System 1 – it’s the rapid-processing, intuitive, subconscious mind that is based on quick hunches, our instinctive bodily reactions and automated thinking and feeling patterns, rather than having to deliberate in a long and time-consuming manner through logic and reason each time as the System 2 likes us to do. If we were to process all stimuli we get in contact with every day based just on System 2, we’d never leave the house. We’d probably draw the line at making a cup of coffee, paralyzed by deciding what outfit to wear or what are all the pros and cons of taking a morning shower.

Facebook uses these psychological practices to mask their own reality and make you believe the skillful narrative they’ve crafted about themselves through the new, innocent and non-threatening take on their brand. The extreme example of how far from the reality you can go based just on the strength of your narrative would be Elizabeth Holmes. The founder and CEO of the now-defunct company Theranos, who is currently on trial facing charges for two counts of conspiracy for wire fraud, defrauding investors and deceiving doctors and patients, used the power of the narrative to precede her own reality in order to create a technological solution that based on the industry expertise wasn’t technologically feasible and could not work. She too put up an image she wanted the investors, doctors and patients to believe only to hit the limits of her own narrative when the reality could not match up to her unrealistic expectations.

Narratives are so effective and can be used to deceive people precisely because they are so compelling to our human minds which favor stories over facts. Stories are the backbone of humankind. In this world of post-truth and post-factualism enabled by tremendous technological progress the power of narratives raises serious concerns as when the foundation of our reality is destabilized, we all are becoming increasingly susceptible and easy to manipulate.

This only brings more questions:

Why is it so difficult for corporations to take accountability for their own actions? Why do they mask the presence of conscience by signalling virtues such as purity instead of actually developing a real conscience? Why is it so hard for a business to act humane and morally uncorrupted when its basic premise is to connect people and facilitate human relationships to bring people closer? This is a very noble idea, so what exactly went so terribly wrong? When did our dreams become our biggest nightmares?

Facebook, once a brilliant idea of a social network with an aim to connect us, suddenly poses the very reason why our societies are facing a major social disconnect. The global rates of isolation and social anxiety have never been higher in our human history. The lack of trust is skyrocketing as we don’t know whom to trust anymore. Everything and everybody has become suspicious, which drives an unprecedented level of anger and surfaces long-repressed emotions of pain and grief across the Western world. This creates a major precedent to take our focus inward and mend what’s truly important.

Focus On The Inner, Not The Outer Work First

In my opinion, Facebook should focus all their resources on doing their inner work first, instead of polishing the outer layer. If it is to continue, Facebook needs to urgently address its own privacy and security issues and find new ways to create relevance and a real sense of value in people’s lives, rather than redesigning their logo to make us feel warm, fuzzy and blind to their transgressions. It doesn’t work anymore. This is not an answer. People increasingly see through the layers of brand deception. Consumers are waking up and are less and less inclined to tolerate missteps, especially if they’re the ones to lose things they care about: privacy, security, safety, stability and connection.

The outer layer of any company – also known as The Brand – only has value, when the inner workings of the business remain intact, uncorrupted and have integrity. Otherwise, it’s just a charade that you play with your trusting customers. You might ask why anyone would still use Facebook when it’s battling a complete erosion of trust and reputation, and it would be the right question to ask.

The answer isn’t rational, however, it’s strictly irrational yet important, especially for brands in times of crisis. The level of emotional investment we’ve put into building our lives on Facebook and the degree to which Facebook has become a valued part of our lives over the past decade subconsciously trumps and supersedes the allegations the company faces in reality. We will always value our own emotional investment much more than the hard evidence. There are specific cognitive biases you might want to look up in this case: they’re the confirmation bias, sunk cost fallacy and IKEA effect.

Lessons From Behavioral Science: You Can Blame Our Cognitive Biases

Confirmation Bias: We tend to favor and look for information that further confirms the feelings, views and beliefs we already have about the reality as our minds detest the state of cognitive dissonance. This is when we have one or more opposing streams of information challenging our prevailing worldview, and therefore threatening the integrity and stability of our inner worlds. We will do whatever we can to avoid this state, even if it means acting irrationally or doing things that are not always in our own best interest.

Sunk Cost Fallacy: We will always be subconsciously inclined to protect the investments we’ve already made in an attempt to maximize reaping our future benefits by continuing to invest more. This is true even when there is no return. We often continue to invest out of the habit of doing so, out of hope that it will get better or because we want to avoid the feeling of dissonance by adopting new and unfamiliar behaviors. Especially if we feel that such behaviors would stretch our minds beyond our comfort zone, could jeopardize our future rewards or make us miss out completely.

IKEA Effect: We will always value the emotional labor we put into building, creating or investing in something more than the actual thing that we are investing in. This is why we tend to keep the IKEA furniture long past its shelf life and sometimes even past its own utility because we value the work (both manual and emotional) we had put into assembling it far more than the actual piece of furniture itself. We want to keep the positive feelings of sharing, togetherness and envisioning of our future. It’s the fantasy that we protect; it’s what the furniture means and represents to us rather than the physical furniture itself. Remember, it’s all about meaning.

These three biases might explain why we continue to use brands like Facebook long after we’d stop trusting them, and vice versa how something we no longer trust can still bear significance and value in our lives only because of how much we had experienced together in the past. The relationship between meaning and utility is in itself peculiar and sometimes isn’t very clear even to us who use these brands. This is why it’s important to follow our hunches and understand what motivates companies to put their best face forward when the reality lags a long way behind.

Closing Thoughts

Semiotics is a very powerful tool. That’s why it needs to go hand-in-hand with a conscience, otherwise, it can do more damage than good.

Brand codes, or semiotic codes in general, are very sensitive to context. They are potentially dangerous because they can be hijacked, twisted, played around with or repurposed to make things ‘seem’ authentic even though they’re not. That’s why we need to be extra cautious and always read between the lines to differentiate real essence from the make-believe.

So, when we use brand codes and narratives in our branding and communication, we should always be mindful of the intent we have for using them. Should they serve to conceal or reveal the truth? They can certainly do both, but inevitably they’re better and more influential for brands if they serve the good rather than the bad.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dr. Martina Olbertova, founder and chief executive at Meaning.Global.

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