The human brain is a fascinating piece of bio-engineering. In fact, Woody Allen famously quipped that of his entire body, his brain was his 2nd most favourite organ! Your brain continues to grow during early childhood, passing through various stages of development. One of the most interesting is known as ‘Object Permanence’, the stage where as a human you can reason between what you may no longer be able to sense, but that you know still exists.

You can entertain yourself for hours watching the reaction of small infants wonder where things have gone as you hide their favourite toy or teddy behind a cushion, only to extract squeals of joy when said item emerges back into existence. But eventually they learn that even though they cannot see it anymore, it still exists behind the cushion. That is complicated reasoning, a concept the brain has to ‘learn’, something that often escapes other mammals (watch the clip below as this poor dog struggles somewhat with the concept!)


So, what does ‘Object Permanence’ have to do with branding? What does it have to do with the future success or failure of your business? Well I guess to answer that we have to get a bit philosophical.

For centuries, people far cleverer than I have struggled with profound reasoning around the meaning of life and existence itself. Why do we exist? Or better still, how do we even know we exist? What does ‘to exist’ mean? Descartes decided that the very act of human awareness and consciousness led to proof of existence in his statement “I think, therefore I am”. Others have mused over questions such as “if you can’t sense something, does it even exist” which brings us back to ‘Object Permanence’. It is a great question. If I can’t see, hear, taste, touch, or smell something, does it even exist?

Some things you might not be able to sense, but clearly, they exist. Electricity is a good example. You might not be able to see it, but grab hold of a live wire and you’ll feel it soon enough. You can’t smell or hear WiFi, but turn off your router and your teenage children will writhe on their bedroom floors like fish out of water! But there are more challenging examples. Does love exist? Prove it. Does God exist?Prove it. Billions of people believe in a God they cannot prove exists. There is no cushion you can look behind for the answers to that one.

So, Do Brands Exist?

Brands are transient, ephemeral things. They are mental constructs forged from imagination and a set of values. But do they actually exist? The product or service they are attributed to exists of course. They have a logo, a name, but they are just the physical manifestations of the brand. Brands themselves are a bit like ideas – they have to be thought of and born into existence. We create them, just as an atheist believes humans have created God, and not the other way around. If this is the case, then any brand owner should be somewhat paranoid about their brand ceasing to exist. You need to do everything in your power to keep it alive.

The quote above attributed to English author Terry Pratchett is the core of this blog message (took me a while to get here, didn’t it?). Perhaps a good definition of existence is if people are talking about you. Indeed, we have millions (if not billions) of consumers today who measure their self-worth based on the success of their last Instagram post and how many shares/likes it got. If people aren’t talking about you, liking your posts, sharing your links, then do you even exist? And so it is with brands.

Are You Talking to Yourself?

If your consumers and potential consumers are not talking about your brand, your business, do you even exist? You know you exist, but really who cares? If they don’t know you exist, then all you are is some colourful character walking down the street talking to themselves, ranting and waving your arms about. Or like a child deep in conversation with an imaginary friend.

I often look at graveyards as a sea of story boards. Everyone that has been buried there no longer exists, but the very act of standing at their grave and reading their (brand)name out loud brings them back into existence, just for that moment. If someone is saying your name, then you are remembered. So how do you live forever as a brand? How do you make sure you DO exist? Well, you make sure people are talking about you. You are alive as long as they are.

The Empowered Consumer

My last post here has been about peer-to-peer and how important harnessing and leveraging user generated opinion and content is for any business. This blog entry is an extension of it. Getting customers to share your story keeps you alive. The more they talk about you and the more they share your story, the more alive your brand. Story telling is key.

An empowered consumer tells your story for you. They bring your brand to life within their peer network, within their lives. Apple fans are great examples. We all know someone who will trade up to the iPhone 8 whenever it arrives, immediately, and do so with a great fanfare and story share. Tesla Motors are another brand with a deep tribal brand fandom. You don’t just own one, you are part of the brand, of its philosophy and values, and it of you. You are part storyteller, part audience.

Today, as brand owners we have been gifted social media. Imagine telling a marketer in the 1980’s that they could have a tool where all the customers could share and tell the brand story, to bring it to life with videos, pictures, share experiences, all in real time. That they could interact with the brand community and brand itself in the same way. They would have thought you were delusional. No such tool could ever exist surely?

What’s the Story?

In Ireland, particularly Dublin, people will often great each other with “what’s the story?”. This phrase replaces “Hi, how are you” but basically means the same. What they mean is “tell me what is going on in your life, what is your story today?” Ireland has always been steeped in a tradition of storytelling, from James Joyce to Brendan Behan. Irish people like telling stories (the whiskey helps!). Another way conversations often start when two people meet is “come here and I’ll tell you”. Again, the message is the same. I have a story and you just have to hear it. I think it might be a good way to think about your brand every day. What is your story today?

Every day you want consumers talking about your brand or business. Which means that every day you need to be pushing sharable content out there, curating content within the brand community, creating brand experiences that will be shared, giving people a reason to tell the story. Without a reason, why would I share anything about your brand?

But this takes effort and a creative approach. Everyone craves the 1m viral but those are the exceptions, although should always be the target too. Surprise, delight and excite consumers and they will share and tell your brand story. Disappoint your customer and they will tell the story too, but that is a story you could do without.

No one is going to tell your story for you without having something to say. It is your job as a brand or business to give them something to share, to say, to laugh at, to enjoy. If you think they are going to tell your ‘story’ based around product features and benefits, you are very much mistaken.

Oscar Wilde, another great Irish storyteller, once said “If there is anything more annoying in the world than having people talk about you, it is certainly having no one talk about you”

And if you have problems coming up with a story to tell, try some Jameson … I find it always helps!


Ken Hughes is one of the worlds leading Shopper and Consumer Behaviouralists, blending his vast expertise in consumer psychology, social & digital anthropology, behavioural economics and neuromarketing to answer the question to which he has dedicated most of his career: Why do shoppers buy and how can we make them buy more? Click here to read more

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Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

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