Beyond the Brand: Finding the Communal Self Behind Our Labels

Beyond the Brand: Finding the Communal Self Behind Our Labels June 18, 2018

Photo Credit: Fauzan Saari on

The Russian World Cup is well underway, and whenever I catch a glimpse of Colombia’s colours in posters and TV spots, I feel a bewildering sense of pride: Bewildering because I realize that if I had moved anywhere else in the world, I would likely feel this same sentiment for another set of colours. Bewildering, too, because I know how much I still respond to the Canadian brand, simply due to my place of birth.

Branding is a normal part of our experience as human beings–whether the labels we carry are national, ethnic, (geo)political, spiritual, or related to positions on the gender/sex spectrum. As a culture, Westerners also latch onto Enneagram, True Colors, and Myers-Briggs tests, and certain forms of astrology to clarify our personality types. We hold to the myth that there are distinct learning styles. We rely heavily on diagnostic labels for mental health concerns, possibly to our detriment. And in the age of Facebook and Reddit, our preferred news sources brand us, too.

Often, this inundation of labelling comes across as background noise: in a culture where everyone relies on specific brands to convey their values, it’s hard to recognize that you maybe haven’t had much choice regarding that range of values in the first place.

Moving–whether because one is fortunate enough to have the opportunity, or because one has been forced by horrific circumstances to leave their place of birth–can be a chance to re-evaluate that background noise.

Take Colombia, for instance: one of many countries in which the Virgin Mary can be found most anywhere–on busses, in gas stations, between the massive limbs of sidewalk trees, along city ravines where the hardest-off lay their heads to rest. And yet, when I first visited Colombia in January, a month before my move, it was not just the surfeit of Marys that startled me: it was the ubiquity of Postobon labelling where Coca Cola and Pepsi merchandising usually reigned supreme. In a heartbeat, I gained a more acute understanding of the omnipresence of sugary beverages in general.

The overwhelming testament to Marian devotion, though, was also misleading, for at first I thought it must surely signal a louder and more outspoken faith on an individual level, too. Instead, in a land with churches in great and open-armed abundance, and images of Mary most everywhere, I have found that spiritual belief in everyday practice is often no more overt than that of Canadians, with our 1/4 “non-religious” population.

Granted, where faith here is highest, usually poverty is, too, and for the many of the poor, Mary is a powerful intercessionary force in lives they go to their graves believing will improve. But for many Colombians, Mary, the churches, and the attendant spirituality in the cityscapes here is just that–a backdrop. For all the supposed values represented by the Catholic brand, people are still, well, people–and so they wear crosses around their necks while doing good in their communities, of course, but also while abusing children, committing armed robbery and assassinations in the light of day, abandoning their families, and engaging in sexual assault.

A tired argument between atheists and theists is the question of which “side” is the more moral, with myriad studies easily corralled for both “teams”. But one question that I suspect gets put aside too often involves our fixation with labels in general, as a means of truly understanding human nature and building a better individual ethos to match.

Do we adopt a certain set of values–any values–simply by adopting the brand?

And if not, what is the point of using brands to understand our fellow human beings?

Words have power. As a writer, I would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But scratch the surface of most any brand and you will find the persistence of individual complexity: ISIS soldiers whose reasons for participation are as mundane as feeding their families; anti-abortionists who privately recommend abortion to women in their lives; a rising trend of atheists whose belief in life after death has nevertheless increased.

In general, too, we in the Western world fall victim to the “illusory superiority” effect, so when asked about positive labels in our lives, the majority of us brand ourselves as better-than-average, despite the obvious incongruity of the majority of us being better than average unless the minority is really far to the other side of the spectrum. But if we are persistently convinced of our own exceptionalism, it makes sense that the labels we use for ourselves play such an important role in our lives.

(I say this, too, as someone who consistently scores as an INFJ/INTJ split, whenever Myers-Briggs tests trend on social media, and as such gets the ego fluff of reading that INFJ is “very rare, making up less than one percent of the population”… before noting that many people I do not see as matching the type have proudly shared the same result. What an amusing sense of indignation follows! Clearly all these other people fudged their answers, and are now mucking up my field of exceptionalism!)

…But what if we put less faith in branding? What if we were less interested in the proclamation of identities in general? What would we lose? What would we gain?

The idea of letting go of assertions of self is difficult for many North Americans, but here in Colombia I do see spaces where one’s personal brand takes a back seat to a more relaxed social performance: in the parks, where old men gather daily to play cards and idle in nature; in the kitchens and eating areas, where families gather at least weekly to enjoy a meal together; and in the malls, where everyone gathers to watch the latest game.

I have spent a tremendous amount of my life “in my head”, and to some extent I doubt I will ever fully escape the pull of discourse, of careful analysis of every bit of entertainment in my life, and of the power of the written word. I have told the story of myself so many times, in so many ways over the years, that it routinely startles me here when simply existing is enough to merit one’s position in a community.

Certainly, tribalism is everywhere–and since Colombia’s latest presidential election has yielded a staunch right-winger against many elements of the peace deal with FARC, there may well be a deepening reliance on political brands in the months ahead.

But stepping outside the Canadian perspective has nonetheless clarified for me two powerful lessons for humanist practice:

  1. that in any social system the range of values we can choose from is rarely as comprehensive as we might think; and
  2. that our brand in general is rarely a useful metric for understanding the inner workings of fellow human beings.


What matters more? What can we draw upon to build a better individual ethos for moving in this world with one another?

Action, of course, is the traditional counterpoint to speech–and yet here it might well be inaction that determines our ability to be kinder, more wholeheartedly united people in this world. Can we sit in the presence of others, especially others from different backgrounds, without desperately seeking to assert ourselves, our brand, in any conversation? Is it possible for one’s personal brand to exist simply as a backdrop to the more nebulous work of being human–with all the flaws and failings, the missteps and the cognitive dissonance, that this most extraordinary project of our lives entails?

I am still answering these questions myself, and so tomorrow I will don my Colombian colours and watch the first Colombian match at 7:00 a.m. in a little tienda down the street, gathered with the neighbourhood’s old men simply to share in an experience. The brand is one thing–the yellows, and reds, and blues; and the dancing; and the chants; and Colombia’s most beloved player darting about the field while the monitor looks for any insects that might alight on his uniform.

Scratch the surface, though, and what will have mattered most when whistle blows is the time spent in the company of others–for more than any individual label, what we seek in uttering our personal I AMs is the affirmation that, yes, our I AM also belongs. It’s only when we let the words we use for ourselves and others matter more than the people they represent that, oh, how much harder the act of real belonging then becomes.

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