The new era of consumerism and what it means for today’s brands

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”
Edward L. Bernays

Edward Bernays is considered the father of Public Relations; a pioneer of modern consumerism credited with, among other things, the death of fact-based journalism in America. He proved that appealing to consumers’ irrational emotions was much more powerful, and lucrative, than appealing to their logic.

Using this theory, he devised strategies to grow consumption and sales within business, PR and even politics during the mid 20th century. His contribution, more than any other individual, forever changed the western economy from one focused on “essentials” to one focussed on “accumulation.”

But a new era is upon us. Due to the enlightening effect the Internet age has had, people no longer consume a product; they consume a brand in its entirety. How do Bernays’ principles work in this new age of consumerism?

Bernays in his prime

Taking advantage of the economic climate and armed with his uncle Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories, Bernays aimed to target consumers’ hidden desires and fears by aligning products with personal identity.

Perhaps his most emblematic campaign was for The American Tobacco Company. He was tasked with increasing tobacco sales with women – for whom smoking was strictly taboo. After consulting with an American psychoanalyst, A. A Brill, Bernays hired female ‘freedom fighters’ during the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade in New York. In full view of the press, and the world, he encouraged women to smoke cigarettes or “freedom torches,” breaking the taboo as an act of liberty and female emancipation. By aligning smoking with a sense of liberty, Bernays was seen to be empowering women, shattered social expectations and increased sales among his client’s new target demographic.

For American Tobacco, Bernays put the product at the centre of the story. Today, the emotional weight that sells a product encompasses the whole brand – to the extent that, for many brands, the product becomes a secondary concern.

Times have changed

Because the Internet has become our primary source of information and communication, the way we consume, and how we view brands has changed dramatically. Our expectations of companies are also changing:

  • Unlike in Bernays’ heyday, nearly two-thirds of people now believe we must consume less to help our environment.
  • Many consumers expect full transparency from companies and hold companies responsible for the products and their actions in wider society.
  • As prosumers, we have the direct power to champion or destroy companies through social media based on our judgement of their ethics, messaging and moral compass.

We are in an age of “collaborative consumerism”, where consumers are much more involved in the success of brand marketing. As well as how a product may make you feel, we now consider how it was made, and what the brand stands for our purchase decisions. In fact, a Nielsen study found that 55% of global consumers are willing to pay more for products from companies committed to social and environmental impact.

Instead of focusing on aligning emotion with a product, successful brand builders have since used Bernays’ core principles by building brands on what current consumers are primarily motivated by; not least global social causes, the environment and sustainability.

Which brands are winning?


Built on the “One for One” philosophy, since 2006 retail brand TOMS have donated more than 60 million pairs of shoes worldwide, restored sight to over 400,000 people, provided over 335,000 weeks of safe water and supported birth services for more than 25,000 mothers. Their positive brand purpose resonates so strongly with today’s social prosumers that despite donating half of their product, they have grown from a canvas shoe suppliers into coffee roasters, bag and sunglasses designers in less than ten years.


At the forefront of sustainable and healthy eating, Innocent’s values, “to be natural, generous, commercial, entrepreneurial and responsible,” are the perfect example of what the Internet-enabled consumer expects from modern companies.

Red Bull

With only TOMS and Innocent as examples, it’s tempting to believe that unless a brand promotes a positive global impact, it’s certain to fall foul of conscientious consumers. Not so. Red Bull has successfully demonstrated that it’s possible to use Bernays’ core principles in a spirit of “collaborative consumerism”, creating a brand that aligns with a range of different emotions and ethical standpoints. In this case: individual achievement and pure enjoyment.


Adrenalin appeal: Much of Red Bull’s branding revolves around the extreme sports industry.

Red Bull is oriented around “Giving wings to people and ideas”. By building a brand focused on action and heroism within extreme sports, Red Bull have saturated their target demographic by appealing to the “adrenalin-junkie” impulse. They have produced streams of high-quality video and print content through Red Bull Media House and Red Bulletin. At the same time, the brand recognises the power of environmental issues by broadcasting the lifecycle of their 100% recyclable can.

What this means for your brand

“Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. It must understand the changes in the public mind and be prepared to interpret itself fairly and eloquently to changing opinion.”

Edward L. Bernays

The lesson is clear: Bernays’ principles are still as effective as ever, but companies must now think beyond their product and imbue their whole brand with consumer meaning. Be bold, authentic, responsible and embrace new economic and social attitudes – then make them work for you, across the supply chain. It’s what Bernays would have wanted.

Like this? Check out our post on environmentally-friendly brand innovation.

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