09/15/2013 07:14 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

Branding everything: Putting a new spin on language, culture, politics

[For more on branding trends and the issues they are raising for society, listen to Ira Basen's in-depth audio documentary, Brand New World, in the audio link to the left of this page.]

Should branding begin at birth?

That provocative question was the headline of an article at earlier this year.

In case you were wondering, the answer is yes. The author points out that parents make an important brand decision for their child when they choose his or her name. Stay away from bland names like Jane or Joe, but avoid anything too wacky like Jermaine Jackson’s decision to name his son Jermajesty.

Why does it matter?

Because, according to the marketing gurus, your personal brand can be critical in getting the job you always wanted, or turning your business from a loser to a winner. Are you an “ideas person”? Maybe you’re a “bridge builder”? Image and reputation have always been important, but never more so than in the age of social media, where we can re-invent ourselves online, and call ourselves a “brand."

Next week on The Sunday Edition, 9 a.m ET Sept. 22: A member of the sisterhood of sobriety, journalist and writer Ann Dowsett Johnston's memoir, Drink, reveals her own journey to getting sober. It also zooms out to explore women's complicated relationship to, and dependence upon, alcohol.

That word has traditionally referred to companies selling goods or services in the marketplace. Nike has always been a brand, but you weren’t. Until now.

Today, our economic, cultural and social interactions are increasingly seen through the prism of brands.

We expect companies like Nike and Coca-Cola to sell us shoes and soft drinks. But in a brand culture, we’re now also forming “relationships” with them on social media, looking to them as legitimate vehicles of social and political change, even as trusted sources of news and information.

Nearly half the respondents in a recent survey conducted by the PR firm APCO Worldwide agreed that global companies had a bigger impact on their lives than governments. Sixty per cent thought that companies now serve some functions in society that were previously reserved only for government.

Meanwhile, the language of branding now permeates our cultural and political discourse.

Susan Delacourt, the senior political writer for the Toronto Star, has been covering Ottawa for more than 25 years. In her new book Shopping for Votes, to be released next month, she looks at how Canadian politics has gradually become about marketing, and citizens have become “consumers of politics.”

“The less that people pay attention to politics, the more politics has had to go and find people where they live,” Delacourt explained in a recent interview.

“So where do people live? They’re consumers. So you might as well speak to them in the language with which they’re familiar, which is advertising, slogans, brands, all the things that make shopping enticing to consumers.”

And so we now routinely hear parties and politicians referred to as “brands,” and we hear about “Starbucks voters” versus “Tim Horton’s voters.”

The Conservative government in Ottawa never misses a branding opportunity. They were “Canada’s New Government” for the first two years after their election in 2006, before becoming “the Harper Government.” Every federal budget since 2009 has been branded “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” even though that plan was once about stimulus spending, and is now largely about austerity.

Policies change, the brand remains the same.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of how pervasive brand culture has become is the remarkable change in the way many people, particularly young people, relate to commercial brands.

Heather Gardner, a 33-year-old Toronto fitness instructor, is one of millions of Canadians who “follow” brands on Twitter and “friend” them on Facebook. Lululemon is one of her favourite brands, not just because of the quality of their clothes, but because she believes they share her commitment to healthy living. So when she became active on Twitter, she started to follow Lululemon - and was thrilled when they followed her back.

“That was really important,” she recalled in an interview, “because I believe in what they do, and I believe in the message that they share and the engagement with the community. So for them to follow me back felt like they were giving me that same recognition that I had given to them. So they thought that I was worthy to be followed back.”

The way Heather Gardner describes her relationship with Lululemon is nothing short of revolutionary in the world of marketing.

Until recently, all it really took for a brand to win the loyalty of customers like her was to offer a good product at a competitive price. But that’s all changed in the age of social media.

Lululemon and other big brands maintain an active social media presence, responding immediately to questions and comments, offering encouragement, even birthday greetings. After all, that’s what friends are for.

So in today’s brand culture, we’ve got people behaving like brands, and brands behaving like people.

Consumers are now looking for brands to stand for something, to articulate their values so they can believe in “what they do” and in “the message they share,” so they can feel “worthy” when a company agrees to follow them. They identify so closely with the values their favourite brands articulate that they actually feel they are part of that brand.

But that loyalty is a double-edged sword.

Consumers don’t want to damage their own personal brands by associating with commercial brands that fail to do the right thing. So brands now use their social media platforms to highlight not the virtues of their products, but their virtuous behaviour.

Coca-Cola, with 72 million Facebook fans and 1.6 million followers on Twitter, uses its many digital properties to emphasize its environmental stewardship, and more recently, its commitment to fighting obesity. Both these initiatives have attracted criticism, but brands like Coke have very large digital bully pulpits, and it’s easy to forget that they exist to make a profit, not to save the world.

The CEO of Coca-Cola declared on one company video that “for companies today, having a valid social purpose is as important as having a valid business purpose.”

And as people expect more from brands, they start to expect less from other institutions, including their government.

But do we really want to count on Coke to solve problems like obesity and pollution?

Digital media encourages us to think of ourselves as brands, but there’s a danger when person-to-person interactions get replaced by my brand talking to yours, or when we start to think of consumer brands as our “friends.”

Brand culture is here to stay - there’s not much point getting nostalgic about a time when we just wanted to buy something from a company, not form a relationship with it. But we need to think much more deeply about the implications of what it all means, not for us as consumers, but as citizens.

[For more on branding trends and the issues they are raising for society, listen to Ira Basen's audio documentary, Brand New World, in the audio link at the top-left of this page.]