Countercultural corporations

How anti-brand activists and alternative marketers are taking over the boardrooms.

Andrew Calcutt

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Topics Politics

‘I’m not white. I’ve read No Logo, and I don’t wear Nike.’

The woman speaker cited these characteristics as articles of good faith, setting her apart from traditional corporate culture (male and monolithic). With these credentials, you might envisage her as an anti-brand activist en route from Gothenberg to Genoa. But far from fronting street protests, she works for advertising giant McCann Ericson – and the revolution she is involved in is the corporate world’s ‘cultural turn’.

She made her comments at Youth Marketing Reaches 40, a conference hosted by Kingston University at which ‘alternative marketing consultants’ declared that the production of inclusive experiences should be the main business of business. This means turning away from old models of business practice, oriented towards maximising profits, and turning business into creative practice designed to maximise inclusion, with profitability demoted to a mere by-product.

The alternative marketers’ message was lifted from Naomi Klein’s No Logo and New Labour’s social inclusion policy. Their deliberations often sounded like a planning meeting for anti-brand activism. Trend forecaster Sean Pilot de Chenecey – aka Captain Crikey – summarised the presentations he makes in blue-chip boardrooms all over the world:

‘We tell them that nothing happened in the 1990s except for Seattle, 1 December 1999.’

Captain Crikey reported varying degrees of success in getting the message across: the Mid-West was hard going; but companies like Starbucks have been asking him to ‘come and talk to us about why everybody hates us’.

While Naomi Klein has refused to take her ministry directly to corporate sinners, disciples such as Captain Crikey are going about their mission with evangelical zeal. The heathens of the Bible belt may be resistant to the new gospel, but expanding client lists indicate a multitude of corporate converts elsewhere.

The stock footage of ‘new global protest’ usually shows protesters on one side, men in suits on the other, with mounted police, barbed wire and rubber bullets in between. True, on occasion, brand owners and anti-brand activists are miles apart – but their consistent ideological differences are thinner than the proverbial cigarette paper.

Astute observers have commented on the strangely close relationship between corporate culture and counterculture. But, for the most part, they have also tried to preserve some distance between them. So there is an insistence that anti-brand activists are authentic, while business, like politics, is associated with ‘spin’.

But personal motivation is not paramount here. The degree of cynicism (they are saying it but don’t believe a word) or naivety (these people really believe what they say) is secondary to the key development – namely that corporations feel the need to address the ‘anti-capitalist’ agenda and to present themselves as anything but profit-centred organisations.

Whatever is whispered behind closed doors, capitalism is now in public denial.

Some critics have emphasised capital’s capacity to incorporate successive countercultures. In their account, today’s capitalists continue to dominate in the same old way. Incorporation is depicted as a continuous blood-sucking process of which the assimilation of new protest movements will be only the latest instance.

Commentary in this vein is essentially an update of the Frankfurt School’s ‘critical theory’ of the commodification of culture, in which commerce preys on creativity and renders it banal. But such singular emphasis on continuity misses what’s different about today. While the commodification of culture occurs as before (it is traceable all the way back to the marriage of art and the market, and the divorce of art from the church), today it is offset by the inverse process – the culturalisation of commodities.

It is not just that cultural production is an increasingly significant aspect of commodity production in general. More significantly, commodities in general are drafted into the system of symbols and signifying practices defined as culture. Entry is made by means of branding. Branding is the process through which commodities in general are invested with cultural connotations and meanings, which in turn means that branding expresses not the commodification of culture but its opposite, the culturalisation of commodities.

A century ago, the ‘brand’ was a mere mechanism for identifying products made by a particular company: a straightforward response to market competition between producers for consumers. But ‘branding’ is a far more recent invention. It is a nearly-neologism which speaks volumes about capitalism’s ‘cultural turn’.

Instead of capitalism taking cultural forms and making them banal by putting them into saleable packages identified by brands, today’s corporate branding is the attempt to make banal products and services (steel/Corus; delivering a letter/Consignia) into something cultural.

The epigones of the Frankfurt School are only half-right: corporations typically co-opt countercultural creatives and assimilate their work into a commercial operation (a real, if unwelcome, instance of capitalist inclusivity). But to leave it there is to miss a crucial new development in the balance of forces. Fear and loathing once characterised the attitude of the capitalist class to the masses. Today its fear of the masses is matched by a self-loathing so intense that its core activity – business – has been redefined as anything but. In ideological terms, the corporate world has been co-opted by the counterculture.

The counterculture’s agenda is hegemonic. Branding is cultural politics for corporations. Brand planners aim to dramatise and mythologise, just like their counterparts in the new protest movements. The prioritisation of creativity and the relative devaluation of profitability also are common to both.

And the readiness of corporations to fling open their doors to Naomi Klein soundalikes is one more indication of the common culture beneath the phoney war of Genoa.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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