Brands: don’t buy the hype

Both corporations and their critics are so obsessed with brands that they ignore the real worlds of work and politics.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

Both corporations and their critics are so obsessed with brands that they ignore the real worlds of work and politics.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a strange thing. A diagnostic technique based on sophisticated physics, it has been used to detect the psychological resonance of brands in the mind. At Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, researchers have determined that a part of the brain termed the medial prefrontal cortex seems to make people overcome their natural preference for the taste of Pepsi in favour of the higher cognitive delights of the Coke brand (1). There can be no more telling a sign of the hegemony of brands than its supposed foundation inside the brain.

Baylor College’s research has yet to be published, and to some extent is old news. Two years ago, reports emerged that the right-hand side of the brain, or the emotional side, was also the bit that recognised brand names, which it preferred in capital letters (2). The idea that we should never underestimate brands, because they are so strong in their behavioural effects, is growing.

Why, though, do brands now command the unswerving loyalty of business managers?

Risk consciousness – the origin of today’s bout of branding

Earlier this year, The Economist decided that genuine technological innovations are now beyond the capabilities of giant multinational firms: ‘[A]s history has shown time and time again, a bevy of in-house scientists gives no guarantee that their output will protect their employer from technological change. Xerox, AT&T and IBM spent billions on research but … ended up being caught out by new technologies. It is far better if big firms’ managers keep their binoculars well trained on the outside world and their minds open to any new ideas they spot there. They can then buy them and do what they do best: find innovative ways to bring them to market.’ (3)

It is managers’ concern to avoid risks that accounts for the obsession with brands. At Harvard Business School, the feeling is that it is up to the outside world to perform technological innovations (4). Since the late 1980s, American managers have had it drummed into them that their responsibility is no longer progress (if it ever was), but marketing (5). That is far safer than spending millions on factories or research and development.

For firms, brands represent the safe haven of the exhausted, not the accumulating power of the confident. Branding exercises reflect trends toward incipient recession: they are a relatively low-cost way to meet short-term demands on profitability. With brands, management horizons are intrinsically low, because innovation in a name, a logo, a pack design or a celebrity sponsor demands less effort, less investment and less risk-taking than real innovation – finding a cure for cancer, or developing a commercially successful follow-up to Concorde.

Horizons are so low in marketing that, since a seminal article written by the management consultants Bain in 1990, the task of a business has been seen to be achieving the minimum number of customer defections from a brand, rather than achieving the maximum number of new adherents (6). Branding is much more about maintaining market share through customer loyalty than about extending market share through winning new purchasers.

In her famous polemic against ‘brand bullies’, the anti-globalisation author Naomi Klein agrees with them that brands are the essence of the capitalist system. For her, the brand is ‘the core meaning of the modern corporation’ (7). Even if this were true, Klein fails to capture why hang-ups with branding have grown so large.

Firms like building brands because they tend to panic about doing much else. The prominence of brands doesn’t reflect corporate economic power or the lure of market opportunities, as Klein argues, but rather a culture of fear. Branding is a sign, not of the dynamic accumulation of capital, but of weakness and irresolute leadership. It is easier to massage a brand than take the risk of standing up for the genetic modification of crops, the testing of pharmaceuticals on animals, the development of voice-operated computers, or the mass manufacture of quality housing.

The more our society becomes de-politicised, the more both brand boosters and brand critics argue that brands make the world go round. Here brands, or an imagined future of a brand-free planet, offer two visions of the future, which seem to be more convincing than those mustered by today’s politicians.

Why are branding and anti-branding so persuasive as lifestyle options? The defects of left and right in politics explain much. But there is a new reason: both brandsmiths and anti-branders are adamant that their preferred course of action is playful, and thus A Good Thing. They see that there are fewer risks in the play of branding and anti-branding than there are in the hard work of innovation or in the clash of ideas in real debate.

Branding and anti-branding represent an outburst of unconscious displacement activity. That outburst has emerged in the noughties, a decade in which the initiative for innovation has begun to pass from America to Asia. Rather than get serious about investment in new technologies, Western brand managers abscond by taking the frivolous tangents of play. What they represent as ludic freedom in fact represents an attempt to get off the point, abandon the development of new products and instead behave in an infantile manner.

Let’s now trace (1) the growing domination of brands in current capitalist thinking and practice, (2) the role which managers classically assigned to brands, (3) the modern manager’s interpretation of brands themselves as risky, (4) the modern and increasingly playful interpretation of brands and of anti-branding, and (5) where anti-branding strategies end up.

The growing domination of brands

Brands are more central to capitalism than ever before. Though the Coca-Cola company has problems, Fortune magazine declares that ‘it’s a testament to the brand’s strength that it has remained vigorous in a time of management fiasco’ (8). Similarly, during his abortive bid for Marks & Spencer, British entrepreneur Philip Green talked of the need to rehabilitate the M&S brand with shoppers – and, significantly, with employees.

Chief executives still see brands as the key to success. Giorgio Armani believed that his name alone would vindicate his strategy of brand extension, or brand stretch, from clothing into chairs and sofas. Meanwhile, the acquisition of corporate brands has revived after several years of downturn (9).

Every day, hundreds of thousands of brand managers resuscitate ‘brand dinosaurs’. They also pursue line extensions – upmarket or downmarket variants of a product, tweaked by flavour, form, colour, ingredient or pack size (think Smirnoff Ice, with Diet Coke). Occasionally and more expensively, brand managers build wholly new brands, as Toyota did with Lexus. They also rationalise by performing brand deletions. The two $40billion companies that pretty much invented branding – Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble (P&G) and the Anglo-Dutch concern Unilever – often cull their brands (10).

Firms take branding very seriously – but only a minority see themselves as brand wizards. That is why many outsource their branding effort to Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic, Grey Group and France’s Havas and Publicis. These six global groups, quoted on international stock exchanges, today take 60 per cent of the US advertising industry’s $146billion revenues (11).

Society also seems fixated with brands. The race is on not only for Western firms to build brands in China, but also for Chinese firms to build brands worldwide. Indeed, Harvard professor John Quelch has thanked Chinese brands, in advance, for providing the world with what he calls ‘an alternative to US brand hegemony’ (12).

The Chinese alternative in brands will really take off at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (13). The Athens Olympics, which come complete with £22billion of infrastructure subsidies from the European Union, stand out as a forum for both a Western orgy of branding and a Western disgust with branding. Coke’s ads, for example, are all over the trains on the Athens metro. But they have been driven underground: on the street, the Greek authorities have forced Coke to make fewer displays of its brand than it did in 1928, when it first began to sponsor the Olympics (14).

The role which managers classically assigned to brands

How do boosters of brands make their case? First, they fail to inspect the current movement of capital in its totality or in its essence, instead fastening upon just one of its phenomenal forms: brands. The power of capital is taken simply to be the power of the market. The market is then reduced to the purchasing decisions of the sovereign Self, whether in the present or over the consumer’s whole life. Even the decisions of managers of corporate procurement are represented as an emotional, consumer affair.

As a result of these superficialities, the intangibles upon which buying decisions are supposed to depend are seen as vital to capitalism.

Years ago, Philip Kotler, the doyen of marketing in the USA, anticipated today’s brand critics. Because, in his view, capital took flight to low-cost, third world countries, it had to build brand power: ‘[M]ost manufacturers eventually learn that the power lies with the companies that control the brand names. For example, brand-name clothing, electronics and computer companies can replace their Taiwanese manufacturing sources with cheaper sources in Malaysia and elsewhere. The Taiwanese producers can do little to prevent the loss of sales to less expensive suppliers – consumers are loyal to the brands, not to the producers….

‘Perhaps the most distinctive skill of professional marketers is their ability to create, maintain, protect, reinforce and enhance brands. A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol, design or combination of these, which is used to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.’ (15)

Capitalist power, Kotler claimed, does not lie in the productive, wealth-creating resources of every firm, but in the eye of the consumer, in the intangibles that distinguish one firm’s offering from another.

For boosters today, a brand has become almost entirely a matter of perceptions and sensations. In 1963, the legendary British advertising guru David Ogilvy could insist that discipline was needed to write good ads. His first rule was ‘What You Say Is More Important Than How You Say It’, and he admonished his readers that the then ‘fashionable’ word ‘creativity’ was ‘not in the 12-volume Oxford Dictionary’ (16). But despite Ogilvy’s injunctions, and the great ads he, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett pioneered in 1960s America, the irrational, right-brain factors of intuition, flair and talent soon became the central part of the brand booster’s marketing mix. The Ogilvyesque rigours of great copywriting, let alone the tough, stressful production of real wealth, quickly took a back seat to the breezy bagatelles of what, in 1970, the management guru Edward De Bono popularised as a game – the lateral thinking game (17).

Yet something has changed since the heyday of cheerfully zany branding in the 1960s. Even before their ascent today, the knowing marketing manager used to say that brands needed continual maintenance. Since the collapse of Enron in January 2002, maintenance has become more akin to life support. David Aaker, the world’s top brands professor, gives some of the reasons: ‘…. we find brands that are very strong – with high awareness, high quality, high loyalty – but are losing market share. Sub-markets are emerging where they are just not relevant.’ (18)

So, faced by the relentless possibility of corporate scandals and the loss of reputation, the brand today gets more and more management caresses.

Brands seen as a risky business

Today, the crisis of the brand is such that even J Walter Thompson’s top man in north-east Asia can declare: ‘There is no proof anywhere that branding works.’ (19) For US marketing guru Jack Trout, big brands spell ‘big trouble’ (20). Last year, Which? magazine featured the decline in the historic reliability of German car brands as a cover story (21). David Aaker laments: ‘It seems that just about every company I visit is struggling with this stuff. Either they are not sure which brands to grow, or they have too many brands and can’t cut through the clutter, or they have brands that are losing relevance.’ (22)

The Iraq war is also seen to have brought disaster to the brand. The revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison are widely seen to have destroyed the value of that most pivotal of world brands, the Stars and Stripes – at least in the Middle East. So a bevy of Madison Avenue advertising and PR firms has formed Business for Diplomatic Action, in the hopes of rehabilitating America’s brand abroad (23).

Brand costs are modest compared with the costs of genuine innovation. Yet though brands are the less risky alternative, the business of brand management has for some years been seen as intrinsically risk-heavy. Brands are a parachute for free-fall capitalism, but, like parachutes, they are often seen as being a bit iffy.

In 1997, the rise of Nike tempted many chief executives to follow in its footsteps. But before investing in the construction of a ‘power brand’, management consultants McKinsey suggested, chief executives had to pause and learn to walk before they ran. Their investment ‘really must be prudent’ (24). Consumers, McKinsey noted, were cautious when hitherto focused brands moved in to unrelated product areas (brand stretch); so if a company planned to take this route, it should only do so with ‘extraordinary energy, commitment, and effort’ (25).

With such warnings, it is incontrovertible that today’s bout of branding originates in risk aversion. Indeed, like many other aspects of contemporary corporate practice, brand management has become yet another branch of risk management.

In 1997, Aaker argued that moving a brand downmarket or upmarket was wisest with sub-brands – provided these were managed seriously, in a way that minimised risk (26). Jiggling brands by price, said Aaker, was most tempting when markets turned hostile. For a brand to move downmarket ran the risk of losing its stature. But when Toyota moved upmarket with Lexus, ‘changing its image took more than a decade, involved impressive product improvements, and cost billions of dollars in advertising’.

The safest bet for an upscale sub-brand, Aaker concluded, was ‘a driver-descriptor strategy… Special edition, premium, professional, gold or platinum descriptors… can be very effective…. Wineries use private reserve, library reserve, or limited edition. Airlines have connoisseur class.’

Aaker’s italics summed up branding as a search for the familiar. He posited an intriguing model for how to manage sub-brands. Earlier, under a section titled ‘Creating a different personality: the parent-child relationship’, he had observed:

‘Because family relationships are so familiar to consumers, they offer a clear and rich opportunity for creating distinct but related sub-brand personalities. The sub-brand could be a child (either son or daughter) of the original brand (the father or mother), one who cannot yet afford or appreciate the better version. Or it could be the grandparent of the original, one who appreciates good value more than premium quality.’ (27)

Aaker’s highly emotional choice of language for brands and sub-brands was not accidental. In place of the dangerous fragmentation of everyday branding practice, he offered the warm, comfortable certainties of the family. From here it was a short step for managers to go on to interpret brands in a touchy-feely manner.

Brands seen as a form of therapy

In the recessionary late 1960s and early 1970s, US manufacturing faltered and the service sector gained a new prominence. In the manager’s conception of brands, the heart began to beat the head – and since the spread of the internet in the late 1990s, the heart and hand have begun to beat the head. Yet so that managers do not lose their heads too much, McKinsey last year admonished: ‘marketers rely too much on intuition… the next level requires a more rigorous, data-edged base to branding’ (28).

So next, bizarrely, brand boosters proceed to take the feeling that things go better with Coke, that Coke is the real thing, and calculate its value in dollars (29).

In the professional practice of branding, then, feelings are monetised. The social power vested in a brand, through its appeal to consumers, is held directly responsible for its economic power.

Since 2001, Business Week and the branding consultancy Interbrand have conducted annual audits of the ‘brand value’ of the world’s top 100 global companies. To understand the modern manager’s interpretation of brands, we should consider their latest survey, published in August 2004. It confirms that the modern interpretation of brands is not simply quantitative, market-based and technocratic – it is also, more importantly, emotional and therapeutic.

Business Week and Interbrand argue that building mass consumer cults around brands is ‘a widespread strategy’, because it can ‘foster a sense of shared experience and of belonging’ (30). They claim that:

one doesn’t go to Starbucks for the coffee, but for the branded ambience;

it’s probably a good thing for the Apple brand that enthusiasts for the iPod launched a website devoted to criticisms of it;

the Nike brand has prospered by allowing customers to design their own sneakers;

On Labor Day in Milwaukee, 250,000 Americans gathered… to commune together over the Harley-Davidson brand.

Overall, Business Week celebrates what it calls a ‘seismic shift in clout from companies to their customers’ (31).

In fact, the real shift that is taking place is very different from this. Over the decades, product brands such as Tide have tended to give way to corporate brands such as Sony. Yet corporate brands can’t be reduced to hard-edged product qualities and attributes. Their task goes further than the clarification and differentiation of product benefits. They now work ‘at a different level, often relating to the values and purposes of the organisation, what sorts of relationships it tries to build with its stakeholders, how it contributes to the wider community’ (32).

Since 2000, branding experts have come to agree on the organisation’s chief purposes, and thus the purpose of the brand. By behaving ethically, the management of an organisation can get its corporate brand to win the trust of consumers. That way, the brand can help consumers avoid suffering the strains of everyday life, and in particular the modern tyranny of branded choice (33).

So the brand must come to the aid of human beings who apparently have moved from Abram Maslow’s ‘perpetually needy animal’ to today’s stressed-out, diminished selves (34). Consequently, the language that surrounds brands is very therapeutic.

Despite a baffling range of typefaces on it, a rebranded Barclaycard will be issued in late 2004 to act as an ‘enabler’ to consumers (35). Equally, it is thought that brands are needed to edit, simplify, signpost, solve problems in or even run parts of people’s lives (36). But Business Week brings up something new. It advises that Apple, Nike and Harley-Davidson now beat established brands such as Coke, Microsoft and Nokia because, respectively, each of the first three is better able to build interactivity, customisation and community among consumers.

In short, brands try to make people feel good about themselves and their creative talent to design their own modifications of brands; they help us feel part of something and so gain a clearer sense of who we are. This is what Business Week means by brands as cults.

There is one more piece in the brand booster’s jigsaw. Most recently, the spread of IT, and the increasing desperation of brand managers to connect with their audiences, have helped turn the broadly therapeutic concept of branding toward a particular kind of therapy – toward the buzz that people get out of play.

Brands as play

As early as 1999, during the dotcom boom, two Harvard bestsellers on management theory discovered the advantages to firms of playfully engaging consumers in second-to-second, tactile experiences (37). Since then, hip, web-orientated brands have gone right over, in practice, to the task of absorbing people in an endless series of inclusive games. With brands, and especially with the help of the web, people can learn new tricks, juggle with different identities, and arrange and re-arrange miniature logos around their own identities (38).

Brands are like a solitaire for the noughties.

The most popular aspect of the US giant General Electric, Business Week announces, is that part of its website that allows people to doodle in a variety of colors and styles before emailing their handiwork to a friend. Since launching last year, it has received more than 43million page impressions. When the site went down for a few days so that it could be upgraded, GE was inundated with complaints. Summing up the experience, Business Week asks:

‘Does it help the company sell more ovens or advertising on NBC? Probably not. But it certainly gives users a warmer feeling about GE. These days, anything that makes fans out of fickle consumers can be priceless in building a brand.’

It seems that what matters to the US elite is not sales, but warm feelings – and winning fans. But the very word ‘fan’ is all about losing the Self in play: it means a fanatical supporter of a sports figure, an actor or a musician.

The fastest-growing trend in the promotion of US brands is to drop TV commercials in favour of…computer games. In a front-page article, the Wall Street Journal announced that such games are ‘beginning to attract the attention of some of the USA’s most-coveted advertisers, many of whom are investing in this area at the expense of traditional outlets, which are struggling to prove they’re as powerful’ (39).

Who are those most-coveted advertisers? They include giants such as Procter & Gamble and Levi’s. Then DaimlerChrysler has a portfolio of 23 ‘adver-games’ on Yahoo!, which have received 2.8billion hits over the past year. Ford’s Volvo is so pleased with the effect of its games that it has put gamesters into a TV commercial, and plans its own game for consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation.

The US Army has spent several million dollars on videogames in order to recruit people for its ‘war on terror’. Players go through a virtual boot camp (but not, so far at least, a virtual Abu Ghraib). A US Army survey has found that more adult Americans know about its games than know about many of its other communications (40).

How playful critiques of brands end up as ethical regulations

So all kinds of managers see the brand as indispensable, benign magic. Meanwhile, critics hold it to be capitalism’s main, but very mean, kind of play – a ruse conducted at the expense of consumers. Moreover, critics of the brand like to play games at the brand’s expense.

For Naomi Klein, brands dominate our lives as workers, citizens and consumers. As workers we are in a ‘branding economy’ in which the strongest brands are the ones generating the worst jobs. It is branding that forces firms to sever their traditional ties to steady job creation, seek out youth culture for more aggressive branding, and use ‘real-live youth’ to pioneer ‘a new kind of disposable workforce’ (41). It is brands, defended by lawyers, which restrict our choice of writing, music, movies and internet content. It is not state regulations, but brands that limit civil liberties and call free speech and democratic society into question (42). Finally, Klein argues, brands invade our lives as consumers (43).

Altogether, Klein shares with brand boosters the view that brands accumulate vast power. The difference is that she thinks that workers, citizens and consumers are victims of brands. It is because Klein accepts the social weight of brands that she favours ‘consumer jujitsu’ – another playful metaphor – against them. She accepts the boosters’ naive polarity between brands and consumers as her chosen terrain for debate. She thus approves of ‘culture jamming’, playfully parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to alter their messages drastically, in what she calls ‘semiotic Robin Hoodism’ (44).

Despite its flagging fortunes after 9/11, the anti-globalisation movement’s critique of brands has had its effect. For all the rhetoric of play by both brandsters and anti-brandsters, the everyday conduct of branding centres more and more on the far-from-playful religion of corporate social responsibility (45). In just a few years, management has incorporated Klein’s ethical critique of brands and the state has enforced that critique in its regulation.

At Starbucks, every aspect of the supply chain is subjected to ethical investigation (46). Today Wal-Mart is, among businessmen, America’s most admired company; but its brand looks quite likely to be tarnished in the courts, as a class action against its discrimination against female employees gets underway. Meanwhile, Britain’s high priest of corporate social holiness, Jonathan Porritt, takes time off from advising Blair on environmental matters to attack Philip Green. The retailer’s crime? Failure to provide evidence that he ‘really understands that critical nexus between brands, trust and performance’ – performance as regards corporate responsibility, sustainable development and, of course, ‘fish sourcing’ (47).

Like brands, anti-branding has become a staple of mainstream discourse. Today, it is the Financial Times that tells brand managers ‘to endure a long and frustrating trip on Virgin railways next time some bored executive is tempted to expand into hairdressing or dentistry’ (48). It is the elite luxury brand Prada that has opened playfully unbranded stores, designed by Rem Koolhaas, in Tokyo, New York City and Los Angeles. Indeed, Prada intends to bring its knowing, anti-brand message to further unbranded outlets in China and Europe. Last, managers have identified anti-globalisation people themselves as an important market segment, making up 13 per cent of consumers worldwide, and reinforcing the need for brands to display social responsibility (49).

Even before 9/11, many in the West felt that they had lost a sense of community. Many also thought that they had lost family and job security, too. Since 9/11, then, brands have striven to help us overcome our sense of loss and replace it with expressions of identity and even personal meaning (50). To buy, display and play with the right brand at home and work is to try to do right, be creative and gain self-esteem.

What, then, about today’s critics of brands? Politically, they have roots that go back to the nineteenth century of American pastoralism and trustbusting, and of European social democracy and state regulation. But critics of brands do not just represent a rebranding of old philosophies. Consumers active against consumerism, they strongly resemble enthusiasts for brands. In their tasteful revolt against commerce, they want to express identity and personal meaning – often using playful tactics in their cause: the graffito, the spoof, the Demonstration-as-Game-Of-Monopoly. They, too, try to do right, be creative and gain self-esteem.

What boosters and critics of brands have in common is the premium they put on ‘passion’ in general and the exhilaration of play in particular. While critics believe that they and only they resist the Sin of Avarice and Sameyness with the Fun of the Right Brain, brand boosters believe that they, too, have a role in this enterprise. In brand circles, indeed, ‘it has become a truism that brand marketing is in the business of communicating and selling emotional connections and benefits rather than just products and services’ (51).


The pro and anti passions that now surround brands show that, aided and abetted by today’s IT, hundreds of millions of people are more exercised by real-time, mindless, branded games of suggestion and association in the present than they are by thoughtful debate about production or the future.

Starbucks-branded froth tastes bad: its coffee has been a poor innovation. But, in their playful approval and disapproval of brands, many fail to notice such a substantive matter. Meanwhile, Starbucks likes to brand itself as an inviting ‘third space’ between home and work, and would no doubt agree with Peter Weedfald, senior vice-president for strategic marketing and new media at Samsung Electronics North America, when he argues that, in brand-plays of the anti-iPod kind, ‘consumers are empowered in a way that’s almost frightening’ (52). Yet for all their supposed ability to bring an errant brand down over a liberatory latte, nobody in Starbucks engages in the sparkling but earnest discussions of democracy that characterised the eighteenth-century coffeehouse.

Brands are now not just about ethics and community, but also about the expression of personal identity through play. In a society defined by identity politics, they form a quiver of pointers as to who one is and who other people are. They are spiritual; they are, as the highly esteemed Manhattan marketing consultants Yankelovitch observed, a religion. Nowhere is this clearer than in the world outside the supermarket – the world of work.

North London designers Wolff Olins are some of the world’s leading practitioners of branding. They have done corporate identities for Akzo, BT, Bovis, Orange, Pilkington and Prudential. But as early as 1978, Wally Olins, one of the company’s chiefs, gave a speech in which he stressed that corporate identity was not just about staff uniforms, but also about ‘the way in which people who work for the company think about themselves in relation to it’ (53). Later on, he pronounced the visual side of his profession as secondary to giving a company’s employees ‘a sense of belonging’ (54).

Today, exhortation in the world of brands is chiefly to do with the absolutist, but rarely challenged demand that employees change their behaviour – that they become team players, from the Monday morning retail shelf stacker’s team meeting to the paintgun shootouts and brainstorming sessions on management corporate awaydays.

The best way to control or at least influence what other people say about your organisation is, we are told, ‘to earn their good opinions: through your behaviour’: indeed, getting employees to embody the brand’s values ‘becomes an imperative’ (55). Brands, according to the Medinge Manifesto of international brand boosters who gather annually just south of Stockholm, allow employees to ‘identify with their company through its brand’ (56). For McGraw Hill, ‘branding strategy was critical in uniting formerly divided business-unit and product-oriented management factions behind new shared goals’ (57). For Dave Ulrich, who combines roles as human resources guru, Michigan professor, and president of the Montreal Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, it is evident that ‘Shared Mind-set and Coherent Brand Identity’ go together (58).

The blindspot of brand critics is management’s increasingly desperate attempts to elicit what Olins calls ‘a sense of belonging’ on the part of employees. Ignoring all this, Klein sees the rise of brand power in trade union terms: as a result of denationalisation. But the trends she fastens on – the sharper grip of market forces, leading to corporate sponsorship of otherwise impoverished public space – form only part of the story of brands.

The rise of market forces has made people feel more impotent. As a result, they feel they need relief and reassurance more than ever. Unlike politics nowadays, brands appear to provide some of those things. So, too, does work. For many employees, work provides sociability and is one of the more durable fixtures in their lives. Many therefore want to work for brands that are ethical. Many want to see the right kind of brand values at work.

With brands, modern management has a green light to press all aspects of the working Self into a mould that is formally empowering and playful, but actually professional and conformist. It is not always successful in this. But more and more human resources departments are teaming up with internal communications departments to engage in branded schemes of change management. Even more insidiously, HR departments want balletic corporate brand values and parlour-game corporate etiquette followed when employees are on the move, and when – as more and more do – they work from home. They want to put their own organisation’s brand on the very personal domain of what government handwringers call work-life balance.

The upshot of all these trends is that, under the guise of play, there is a tendency, in the workplace and beyond, toward corporate groupthink and the dissolving of the Self in the organisation. And in Britain, at least, this corporate tendency gets much of its inspiration from the state. Among private sector posts in HR, after all, many of the new recruits are people who have experience of leading branded schemes of change management, complete with awaydays, role-plays and prizes, in the public sector.

It was New Labour that popularised rebranding – not just the rebranding of Old Labour, but of Britain itself (59). It is New Labour that has done so much to get members of its organisation on-message and on the same page, and members of the citizenry inside its Big Tent. From Cool Britannia through Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy to Lord Anthony Giddens’ Third Way and Tony Blair’s ‘eye-catching’ initiatives, New Labour has set the tone for UK management’s own branding games.

In the £16.5billion laid out annually on advertising in Britain, it is the government that forms the largest single client. In each of the financial years 2000-01 and 2001-02, the Central Office of Information alone received more than £250million, at 2000-2001 prices, from government departments – to spend on advertising, and especially on campaigns in the arenas of health, welfare, safety, social exclusion and ‘Influencing Behaviour’ (60). Here, a new, puritan aristocracy of policy wonks, government ministers and marketing types pumps out branded initiatives to ensure that we sort our rubbish properly in the kitchen, learn parenting skills in special classes, and keep out of the sunshine.

Meanwhile, government bodies, quangos and initiatives are constantly being rebranded. The need to refresh the New Labour brand still weighs heavily at 10 and 11 Downing Street.

The fusion of brand boosters and brand critics that now afflicts both the private sector and the state confirms that no amount of branding, or brand restraint, can deliver on the promises made by either camp. The twenty-first century’s problems of personal identity and meaning can be solved neither by a new adver-game, nor by new laws against adver-games.

It’s a mistake to believe that play around brands can successfully overcome the isolation and alienation of the modern Self and replace these things with a sense of belonging, democracy and play. It’s also a mistake to believe that ethical curbs on brands can bring a better world. The fundamental difficulties of life can only be mastered by broader social means – not least, by the genuinely collective and democratic production of a great deal more wealth.

Branding and anti-branding have real roots in society today. But they are part of the problems of the world, not part of its remedies.

James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and co-author of Why Is Construction So Backward? (Wiley, 2004). Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

(1) See Emily Singer, ‘They know what you want’, New Scientist, 31 July 2004, pp36-37

(2) ‘Brand names bring special brain buzz’, New Scientist, 13 August 2002

(3) ‘Less Glamour, More Profit’, editorial, The Economist, 22 April 2004

(4) Henry Chesbrough, Open innovation: the new imperative for creating and profiting from technology, Harvard Business School Press, 2003

(5) See for example Regis McKenna, ‘Marketing is everything’, Harvard Business Review, January-February 1991

(6) See Frederick F Reichheld and W Earl Sasser Jr, ‘Zero defections: quality comes to services’, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1990; and also Reichheld, The Loyalty Effect: the Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits and Lasting Value, Harvard Business School Press, 1996

(7) Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, HarperCollins, 2000, p5

(8) Betsy Morris, ‘The Real Story’, Fortune, 31 May 2004, pp34, 36

(9) For example, France’s Pinault Printemps Redoute recently paid €7.2billion (£4.8billion) for Italy’s Gucci – a luxury brand quite outside the French conglomerate’s business in timber trading, cheap furniture, bookselling, consumer credit and African car dealerships

(10) Nirmalya Kumar, ‘Kill a Brand, Keep a Customer’, Harvard Business Review, December 2003

(11) Devin Leonard, ‘Nightmare on Madison Avenue’, Fortune, 28 June 2004, p44

(12) John A Quelch, ‘The Return of the Global Brand’, Harvard Business Review, August 2003

(13) Legend, a $3billion Chinese maker of PCs, has sponsored the 2008 Olympics. For that, and to put its brand all over the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, it probably paid $65million. On Western car brands in China and the hurdles facing Chinese brands abroad, see Jason Hoffe and others, ‘Branding Cars in China’ McKinsey Quarterly 2003 special edition, and Paul Gao and others ‘Can Chinese Brands Make it Abroad?’, McKinsey Quarterly, 2003 special edition

(14) Kerin Hope and Gary Silverman, ‘Athens sponsors sold on the “less is more” message’, Financial Times, 13 August 2004, p20

(15) See Philip Kotler and others, Principles of Marketing, second European edition, Prentice Hall, 1999, pp570, 571. The definition of a brand is from Peter D Bennett, Dictionary of Marketing Terms New York, American Marketing Association, 1988

(16) David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), Pan, 1987, pp107-111

(17) Edward de Bono, The Five Day course in Thinking. Introducing the L (lateral thinking) Game, Penguin, 1970

(18) Quoted in Simon London, ‘Why it pays to jump on the brand-wagon’, Financial Times, 8 April 2004, p8

(19) Tom Doctoroff, quoted in Alexandra Harney, ‘China Offers Brand New Opportunities’, Financial Times, 22 April 2004, p13

(20) Jack Trout, Big Brands Big Trouble: Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Chichester, John Wiley & Sons, 2001

(21) ‘Reliability revolution: German brands lose their shine’, Which?, August 2003

(22) Quoted in Simon London, ‘Why it pays to jump on the brand-wagon’, Financial Times, 8 April 2004, p8. For Aaker, ‘AOL faces a relevance challenge with seasoned Internet users in the broadband category because of its legacy as a friendly interface for new users in the dialup category’. See ‘The Innovator’s Prescription: The Relevance of Brand Relevance’, strategy & business, Summer 2004

(23) Quoted in Gary Silverman, ‘America’s new brand of anger and resentment’, Financial Times, 24 June 2004, p15

(24) David Court and others, ‘If Nike can “just do it,” why can’t we?’, The McKinsey Quarterly, 1997 Number 3, pp24-34

(25) David C Court and others, ‘Brand leverage’, The McKinsey Quarterly, 1999 Number 2, pp100-110. McKinsey was not kidding. A year earlier, Aaker argued that brand managers, brand equity managers, range brand managers, global brand managers, brand champions, category managers, brand committees and communications coordinators were all in charge of the brand: David Aaker, Building Strong Brands, p343-8. By 2000, when Aaker and Eric Joachimsthaler had built a ‘brand relationship spectrum’ of 27 elements to ‘help brand architecture strategists to employ, with insight and subtlety, sub-brands and endorsed brands’, they gave a good hint of the frightening, irrational complexity that now attends brand management: see Aaker and Joachimsthaler, Brand Leadership, Free Press, 2000. Today, Aaker has generalised his approach to cover every aspect of managing a ‘portfolio’ of brands: see his Brand Portfolio Strategy, Free Press, 2004

(26) David Aaker, ‘Should You Take Your Brand to Where the Action is?’, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1997

(27) David Aaker, Building Strong Brands, p304-6

(28) Nora A Aufreiter and others, ‘Better Branding’, McKinsey Quarterly, 2003, Number 4. Similarly, a Stern School of Business professor of accounting wants better auditing of intangibles like brands: see Baruch Lev, ‘Sharpening the Intangibles Edge’, Harvard Business Review, June 2004

(29) See If in doubt, brand, by James Woudhuysen

(30) Diane Brady, ‘Cult brands’, Business Week, 2 August 2004

(31) Diane Brady, ‘Cult brands’, Business Week, 2 August 2004

(32) Alan Mitchell and others, The New Bottom Line: Bridging the Value Gaps that are Undermining Your Business, Capstone, 2003, p212. Two years before Mitchell, a ‘great’ brand was likewise defined as a compact with a customer about not just quality, reliability and innovation, but also ‘community’. Stephen B Shepard, ‘Editor’s Memo: the Best Global Brands’, Business Week, 6 August 2001, p1

(33) Rita Clifton, The Future of Brands, pp xiii, xv, Macmillan 2000; Michael Wilmott, Citizen Brands: Putting Society at the Heart of Your Business, John Wiley 2001; Michael Wilmott and William Nelson, Complicated Lives: Sophisticated Consumers, Intricate Lifestyles, Simple Solutions, John Wiley, 2003; Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Harper Collins, 2004

(34) Abram Maslow, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review, September 1943

(35) Barclaycard marketing and communications director Alison Hutchinson, quoted in Anne Konopelski, ‘Interbrand restyle for Barclaycard’, Design Week, 3 June 2004, p3

(36) Rita Clifton, The Future of Brands, pp xiii, xv, Macmillan 2000; Michael Wilmott and William Nelson, Complicated Lives: Sophisticated Consumers, Intricate Lifestyles, Simple Solutions, John Wiley, 2003

(37) See B Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore, The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, Harvard Business School Press, 1999; and Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access: the New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life is a Paid-for Experience, Harvard Business School Press, 2000

(38) For more on these and other aspects of play, see James Woudhuysen, Play as the Main Event in International and UK Culture, in Policy Studies Institute, Cultural Trends, Issues 43 & 44, 2003, pp95-145

(39) Kevin J Delaney, ‘Advertisers engrossed in a screen dream put money on videogames’, Wall Street Journal Europe, 28 July 2004, p1

(40) Kevin J Delaney, ‘Advertisers engrossed in a screen dream put money on videogames’, Wall Street Journal Europe, 28 July 2004, p1

(41) Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, HarperCollins, 2000, p275

(42) Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, HarperCollins, 2000, pp166-188; p182

(43) Thus, as passengers and pedestrians, we find that brands invade the world of transport vehicles: buses, streetcars and taxis are merely ‘ads on wheels… just as Hilfiger and Polo turned clothing into wearable brand billboards’. Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, HarperCollins, 2000, p37

(44) Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, HarperCollins, 2000, p280

(45) See for example the illustrious Journal of Brand Management, special issue on corporate social responsibility, May 2003

(46) Elliot Schrage, ‘Supply and the Brand’, Harvard Business Review, June 2004

(47) ‘Does Philip Green understand nexus between brand, trust and performance on social issues’, letter, Financial Times, 10 July 2004, p14

(48) Dan Roberts, ‘When Do You Stop This Brand Promiscuity?’, Financial Times, 11 August 2003

(49) Douglas B Holt, John A Quelch and Earl Taylor, ‘How model behaviour brings market power’, Financial Times, 23 August 2004, p10

(50) Alan Mitchell and others, The New Bottom Line: Bridging the Value Gaps that are Undermining Your Business, Capstone, 2003, p214

(51) Richard Woods, ‘Exploring The Emotional Territory for Brands’, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, Vol 3 No 4, June 2004, p388

(52) Diane Brady, ‘Cult brands’, Business Week, 2 August 2004

(53) Wally Olins, speech to the Royal Society of Arts, December 1978 quoted in ‘The brand is born’, RSA Journal, April 2004, p13

(54) Wally Olins,’Corporate Identity and the Behavioural Dimension’, Design Management Journal, Winter 1991, p45. See also Wally Olins, Wally Olins On Brand, Thames & Hudson, 2004

(55) Alan Mitchell and others, The New Bottom Line: Bridging the Value Gaps that are Undermining Your Business, Capstone, 2003, p214

(56) Nicholas Ind, editor, Beyond Branding: How the New Values of Transparency and Integrity are Changing the World of Brands, Kogan Page, p14

(57) Victoria Pao and Steve Lawrence, ‘External Branding’s Internal Impact’, strategy & business, Spring 2003

(58) Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood, ‘Capitalizing on Capabilities’, Harvard Business Review, June 2004

(59) Mark Leonard, Britain TM: Renewing our Identity, Demos, 1997; Design Council, Creative Britain, 31 March 1998

(60) See National Audit Office, Government Advertising: a review by the National Audit Office, April 2003, Chart 1, p5, and Appendix C, p18-25

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