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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

The Power and Potential of Marketing's Brainprint

27 July 2023 - CISL Director, Commercial Reach & Influence - Charlie Thompson - introduces marketing’s brainprint.

The marketing, media and creative ecosystem plays a multi-faceted role at the intersection of business and society. Here, it connects organisations and citizens, through brands, via the likes of advertising, entertainment, publishing, production, and product design. These mediums act as vehicles for brands to create meaning and connection between our needs and aspirations, and ways of consuming.

For decades, marketing narratives, creative assets and placements have shaped our perception of what is valuable and aspirational, affected what is normal and desirable in the cultures and societies in which we operate, and influenced our individual and collective values, worldviews, identities and lifestyles.  Marketing has achieved this through ever-evolving strategies, channels and tactics that have moved and become supercharged with the evolution of the technology industry it is closely partnered with. The effect is known as ‘marketing’s brainprint’ - a term that acknowledges the psychological, sociological and cultural influence and impact of brand, marketing and creative work[1].


The Impact of Marketing’s Brainprint

Every time brand, marketing and creative professionals make a strategic or creative decision, they have the opportunity to re-enforce sustainable or unsustainable behaviours, norms and the values that underpin them. Because our attitudes and actions shape our connections and exchanges with the world, marketing’s brainprint is a conductor of the physical impacts we collectively have on each other, nature and our climate. The diagram below illustrates this flow of influence, of brainprint to footprint impact.

                                                               Figure 1: The influence of marketing’s brainprint [1]

While the marketing brainprint of today is a key influence of unsustainability, it holds huge potential to influence the sustainable outcomes we need if harnessed and directed towards sustainable ends.


The Depth of Marketing’s Brainprint

Edward Berneys, nephew of Sigmund Freud, was a powerful force behind The Consumer Story. Drawing on his uncle’s theories and his experience in World War One propaganda, Berneys invented the field of public relations and re-shaped an advertising industry that once focused largely on influencing rational choice, to begin concertedly driving company profits by connecting products and services with feelings (The Century of the Self, 2002). This story is told in the documentary, The Century of the Self which explores the deep influence that this work has had on our collective psychology, social behaviour and norms. The Guardian columnist, Arwa Mahdawi summarises the subtlety of brainprint outcomes:  

“Drinking a glass of orange juice in the morning. Eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Eating cereal for breakfast. Proposing with a diamond engagement ring. Taking a coffee break in the office. Watching a soap opera… So many of the traditions and rituals and associations that we take for granted are the result of canny marketing. The marketing industry has fundamentally shaped the world we live in. It’s moulded our habits and permeated our vocabulary. It has persuaded us to pay more for certain products, dress a certain way, think a certain way.” [2]

To unpack marketing’s role in one of the norms that Mahadawi notes here: in 1947, a US-based copywriter named Frances Gerety wrote the infamous tagline ‘A Diamond is Forever’. She did this for De Beers who wanted to create a campaign to address the fact that diamond sales had depreciated in the Great Depression. That ad launched in 1948 and was a huge success. In 2013, The New York Times reported that De Beers had used this tagline in every engagement ad since its launch. Frances and her team have been credited as being responsible for creating the modern concept of an engagement ring and the social norm of diamond proposals [3].

This is just one example of marketing’s influence on consumer and cultural psychology. Our collective psychology impacts the collective long-term wellbeing of all people and the planet via the real-world impacts that it influences.

                              We could question how the tagline ‘A Diamond is Forever’ has influenced diamond mining over the last                               75 years, and how so many other taglines have influenced so many other social and environmental                                         impacts by creating and influencing consumer and cultural norms and behaviours.


A Movement of Materialism

It’s human nature to make sense of ourselves and the world, and apply meaning to this. Berneys was part of a 20th Century movement that tactically replaced occupation with consumption as a key source and sense of identity. We moved from drawing meaning and identity from our professional roles - which in earlier times, were even adopted as surnames - and began drawing greater meaning from the possessions and activities we bought, displayed or gained access to. Brands and goods began to lead the facilitation of meaning-making across society, with advertising and public relations industries at the helm of a ship steering our consumption patterns to become part of our present and aspired-to identities.

In a consumer society, material values increase, and it’s shown that when we place higher value on power, achievement and financial success, we place less value on how social and environmental damage impacts humanity, our planet and future generations (Crompton & Krasser, 2009). Many connect marketing to the development of materialism, the commodification of our lives, and a reduction in happiness and psychological quality of life [5]

Every one of us has the potential to influence another’s thoughts, feelings and actions, but brands - as commercial identities and assets - have trained, talented and dedicated marketing teams and budgets behind them to amplify this influence, traditionally towards commercial ends. In 2023, the global entertainment and media market was valued at $US2.5 trillion and global advertising spend at US$856 billion [6][7], which puts huge investment potential behind marketing’s brainprint. This is currently not invested in a thriving future for all.


Brainprint of the Past & Future

Brainprint of the past has been used as a vehicle through which to influence materialism and capture financial income, resulting in a collective disconnection with our natural world and what we really need to achieve collective wellbeing. However, it holds a critical key to the future we want. If brand managers, marketers and creatives can harness brainprint’s ability and funding, and redirect it towards sustainable outcomes, they could drive catalytic change through the channels and mediums that host society’s conversations at scale. The idea that marketing can avoid leading society and culture is untenable [5]. It therefore must ensure this inherent influence is directed towards a new movement - beyond materialism - that embeds sustainability in our culture and society, and our prevailing norms and narratives, to drive the transformation and systems change we need.

                              The sustainability crisis needs every brand manager, marketer and creative to use their capacity and                                    position to work for the generations of today and tomorrow, recognising that the brainprint impact of                                 their work can transcend the time it enters the marketplace, and that younger and future generations                                   are watching what we do today.

The brands of the future will be those that embody sustainability and help us individually and collectively reconnect our human identity with the natural world, and align what we perceive to be most valuable, aspirational and desirable with thriving outcomes for all living things.


Learn more about marketing’s brainprint via the Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative Online Course from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.



[1] CISL (2022) Marketing's Influence on worldviews, identities and lifestyles. Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative [Online course]. The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. 

[2] Mahdawi (2021) Can marketing save the planet? World Federation of Advertisers [Accessed, 27 July 2023].

[3] The Drum (2016) 1948: De Beers 'A diamond is forever' campaign invents the modern day engagement ring. The Drum. [Accessed, 27th Juy 2023].

[4] Crompton, T. & Kasser, T. (2009). Meeting environmental challenges: the role of human identity. World Wildlife Fund UK.

[5] Hurth, V., Whittlesea, E. (2017) Characterising marketing paradigms for sustainable marketing management.Social Business, pp. 359-390.

[6] Statista (2023a) Value of the entertainment and media market in the United Kingdom in 2026 and 2026 (in billion GBP) [Accessed, 21st June 2023].

[7] Statista (2023b) Advertising worldwide – statistics and facts [Accessed, 21st June 2023].

About the Author

Charlie is the Director of Commercial Reach and Influence at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and Co-Convenor of its Sustainable Marketing, Media and Creative course. Charlie leads CISL's work on the influence of the business ecosystem via the role of marketing, media and creative industries, and the opportunity this poses for sustainable change



The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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