A few months ago Apple launched its most trendy product till date - the iPhone6. In this era of new models of mobile phones, with a prefixed 'smart' to their name, confessing an allegiance to an old trusty device brings a moment of dark comedy. Your colleague or friend might give you an icy stare, others might smile sarcastically and even might comment on how you aren't keeping up with the changing times.
I, therefore, decided to replace my old phone with a new 'smart' one that respects the popular sentiments of the people around. This hints at a deeper narrative that we live in an era where society is bullied by market goodies. No one denies the fact that the market is essential as it creates wealth to nourish our society. But today it's as if the market is the new religion and brands are gods.
Do people run after famous foreign brands just because they promise a better quality product? Or is it because they allow the buyer to be part of a group of international consumers, thus enhancing their social status? So, does that not mean that brands thrive upon the idea of creating a pseudo-psychic identity for their consumers? And is this not connected to their ego, their very sense of self?
The present trend in urban India reminds me of a French cult play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (by Molière) where the writer presents a satirical picture of a middle-class man. Monsieur Jourdain, the main protagonist, emulates the lifestyle of aristocrats in an exceedingly ridiculous way just to get identified as a nobleman. The Indian urban middle class's obsession for foreign brands is not so different.
Do brands bring happiness?
Foreign brands intervene into your buying decisions mostly for clothes, mobile phones, automobiles and accessories. Consumers say they feel a sense of pleasure and happiness by using a famous brand. Some women may say they feel a sense of identification with French style when they use a L'Oréal Paris product. Men may admit that by wearing Giorgio Armani accessories, they feel a certain belongingness to Italian couture.
Can a brand bring happiness to its consumer? Or have the advertising agencies of the renowned brands redefined 'happiness'?
It depends on how we define happiness. According to the Greek concept of happiness, Eudaimonia (term attributed to Plato), it's a pursuit of self-interest. The concept of self-interest itself is a complicated one because mostly private individuals have trouble in understanding the real essence of it. The mind of a social individual can't see self-interests with rationality, but rather emotions. In effect, the mind is socially conditioned to keep emotion over rationale while evaluating an idea or taking any decision. It's only with great effort that a wise mind can see its self interests. In many instances, during pressing circumstances, the 'ego' determines our self-interests.
The ego and human behaviour
As Freud explained, people function along several layers of consciousness. If one analyses human action, of any nature, a superficial explanation of it will probably be quite different from the deeper motives. This is because of the psychic construct known as the 'ego', which is that part of the self that develops from our interaction with the outside world. It consists of our emotions, pride, prejudice, desire to respect others, the desire to be respected, degree of tolerance, intellectual maturity and even our ability to distinguish just from unjust. In other words, a human's idea of justice is shaped by the development of the ego (as opposed to the instinct-driven 'id'). Thus, the ego is what makes you aware of your distinctive identity. It is what energises you to claim your identity in the comity of other men and women.
Nirad C Chaudhuri, the author of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, put it rather candidly when he attributed his productivity - in the face of ill health and age - as being driven by the 'brute power' of his ego. Though in eastern society, especially in the Indian subcontinent, ego is perceived to be a less worthy notion because it's seen as next to 'arrogance', it can also be viewed as the inextinguishable desire of a person to assert the self-identity vis-à-vis others.
When brands take over the ego
The advertising agencies work solely to find an emotional cord between different dimensions of the product and the prospective consumer's needs. Through those dimensions, a branded product intends to respond to the needs or wants of the consumer. The fulfillment of those needs and wants gives solace to the ego. By entering into the sovereign area of ego, the brand forges an identity in the consumer's cognitive world.
The idea behind inventing a brand and then consolidating it around a niche market is to create a mass consumerist society. The carrier cart of the brand is unbridled consumerism. This cart runs only on the road of borderless market supported by free flow of capital.
The market, consumerism and brands, they all are interdependent. It's for the people to think whether they are buying a product to simply consume it or if they are trying to find an identity for themselves in that brand. If they go the latter way, they are jeopardising their individual identity. And losing individual identity is another form of losing liberty.