This morning I heard this story on NPR about the efforts to study and improve public perception of “reclaimed wastewater,” aka sterilized and filtered sewage water that has been cleaned for re-use by the public. It made me remember this story on NPR from last night about what we should call the current economic crisis. Both of these stories essentially address the oft-referenced “what’s in a name?” question, and it is a question that has spawned an enormous communications sub-industry known as “branding.”

From an intellectual standpoint, the discipline of branding is completely fascinating. It melds science and psychology with a worship of capitalism, and produces a proscriptive and insidious process for advertising and marketing to follow. The field of branding helps companies, organizations and these days, even human beings, to develop an aura of feeling around a name, product, or icon. As Wikipedia puts it, “The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a ‘name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.’” For me, that definition is way too harmless.

You see, the way we feel about brands in modern America has been directly driven by the children and cohorts of Sigmund Freud. From Coca-Cola to Proctor & Gamble, Barack Obama to Apple; a good brand is worth billions and billions of dollars- and is a very high stakes business.

So here is where perhaps I should admit, I’m not a huge fan of branding. Though I am fascinated by it and by how powerful it can be, I also conversely often find it either insidious, or very fluffy. For instance, I often hearken back to my first job out of college where I was the account manager at my consultancy for a large tech storage company which shall remain nameless. When that company re-branded itself the client required that I and my account team attend their extensive briefing on the new brand. We sat through countless hours of presentations about the new “drivers” for the brand- items such as, “if this brand were a marine mammal what would it be? A dolphin!” “If this brand were a luxury airline, which would it be?” etc. The whole thing was such an utter waste of money and of time that I left feeling sick to my stomach. I was terrified that this was what a career in communications would lead to. Thankfully it didn’t, for me.

However, if done well, there really is a science to branding and re-branding. Some companies spend millions of dollars on U.S. census-level studies and data mining to discern what people will buy and what they won’t. In other words, once you’ve seen it on a shelf at Target, millions of dollars have probably gone into ensuring what is likely now a foregone conclusion- that you’ll buy it.

What does all of this have to do with reclaimed wastewater and the economic downturn, Jessica, you ask?

Well, taking the first topic on wastewater, the issue at the heart of this excellent NPR report is the very prominent problem of water sources in California. One of the theories and proposed solutions for water shortages in California has been wastewater recycling whereby plants would be built in California “that would clean local wastewater — aka sewage water — and after that cleaning, make it available as drinking water. “ There’s no rational reason that this shouldn’t be a stellar solution to California’s chronic droughts- if the water is 100% safe to drink, this is a phenomenal solution. The only real roadblock to moving forward with the plan? The public perception that the plan is for them to drink other people’s, er, waste.

As one of the leading professors who helped to draft the proposal, Brent Haddad, who teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz attested, “The public wasn’t really examining the science involved,” Haddad says. “They were just saying no.”

Why? Because there was a complete lack of branding involved in proposing this plan to the public. They should have seen the public rejection of this coming from a mile away, especially given the utter germophobia and hypochondria the general public suffers from these days (just think about the rise of those anti-bacterial hand sanitizer bottles ).

Too often the science of branding isn’t applied where it could be most useful- moving the public to adopt new courses or policies that are agreed to be rational and most beneficial to the greater good, but that suffer from being completely distasteful given the contemporary political, social or cultural context.

In the case of the California wastewater proposal, rather than turning to a branding firm, Haddad turned to a group of psychologists for help. Enter Carol Nemeroff who works at the University of Southern Maine and studies an area of psychology known as “psychological contagion.” Still with me? Because this is where it gets really, really good.

“Psychological contagion,” or informally, “contagion thinking,” “refers to the habit we all have of thinking — consciously or not — that once something has had contact with another thing, their parts are in some way joined.” In other words, “psychological contagion” is all about how the human brain works to create lasting neural connections between two objects because of their relationship to each other. From here we are only one hop, step and a small jump from the principle of “brand identity,” where objects adopt and carry attributes of feeling or sentiment with them due to successful marketing and advertising ploys. The one item contaminates the other in our brain, and they are inextricably interlinked sometimes forever.

Nemeroff’s conclusion on the wastewater topic? “You need to change the identity of the water so that it’s not the same water. “It’s an identity issue, not a contents issue,” she says, “so you have to break that perception. The water you’re drinking has to not be the same water, in your mind, as that raw sewage going in.” Nemeroff suggested that the wastewater project managers find a way to more closely relate the purified wastewater with shared concepts of nature in order to purify the water not only in physical form, but also in its branded form for the general public. This is re-branding at its best, people. The water will be the same water, but you need to convince the public with all of the available branding bells and whistles that the water is different than it was before.

So here’s where we get to the topic of re-branding the current economy. The other NPR story from Marketplace addressed how the economic downturn is being branded, and therefore also perked my ears. This one struck me because I have felt myself grasping for a title for this strange economy, without any luck. Clearly I’m not alone, as the accompanying article to the story reads, “The subprime crisis, the credit crunch, the recession — all are clearly part of one enormous economic mess that, at the moment, is nameless. There’s no question that we’re living through a historic downturn. But what will we call it?”

NPR interviewed Jonathan Wald, senior vice president of business news at CNBC, about how they were referring to the economic period, and he admitted,

“it’s really hard when you’re in the middle of something to know what it will be called. So all you can do is brand the hell out of it. In the media, he says, if it’s not branded, it doesn’t exist”

We have “economic downturn,” we have “deficit,” we have “depression,” but none of those has really stuck. The “depression” is fairly easy to weed out of the running, since bankers aren’t out on the corner selling apples, and thanks to the infamous photographic record by Dorothea Lange, the images of economic hardship we are observing now don’t fit with the national collective memory of a “depression.”

It seems the general consensus is that a name for a historical period or economic trend only begins to take form in retrospect, as historians, journalists, novelists and documentarians begin to need a commonly acknowledged term to indicate their subject matter. I guess we’re just not there yet.

I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but I know enough cursorily about investor confidence to know that a brilliant brandsman or woman could easily re-brand this current economic situation into something less threatening for us all and most likely do the economy some favors in the process.

If we could all be assured that this is NOT a “depression,” or “devastation,” but rather a “temporary lull,” or a “cyclical recession,” it would be akin to the very act of taking wastewater and forcing us all to drink recycled sewage- and to feel good about doing so. Not the most palatable idea, but in the public’s best interest in order to move on.

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