Autumn 2004

A waking dream

The notion of the brand and its plausible functions have been derailed and abstracted

From dry academic papers to self-help blockbusters, the literature of the branding guru is notable not for clarity or coherence, but for a tendency to lapse into a form of post-modern patois, a managerial gibberish that has infected everything from psychometric profiling and ‘third way’ political discourse to the pseudo-intellectual ‘mission statements’ of conceptual art. Readers are urged to ‘find the passion’, ‘identify lifestyle priorities’ and ‘look after their corporate DNA.’ Branding may claim to be a ‘science of communication’, but the bullet point syntax and ubiquitous jargon favoured by brand fantasists actually seems intended to blunt the critical and moral senses. Indeed, the phraseology of the branding consultant is uncomfortably close to the high-tech non sequiturs of the shampoo commercials in which account planners take such pride (and in which ‘71 per cent of 48 women’ is the height of scientific lucidity).

The archetypal prose of the branding guru manages to be both simplistic and opaque, is relentlessly optimistic, and littered with tendentious assertions. In keeping with branding’s preoccupation with facile slogans and imposing surfaces, intellectual clarity is habitually conflated with portentous incoherence. The success of this semantic manoeuvre suggests that many corporate clients are unable to distinguish between the two. Apparently, the more difficult a maxim is to comprehend, the more meaningful it is deemed to be. (Aquaveta, ‘sub-branded’ as ‘nutrient enhanced water’ was announced thus: ‘A refreshingly new and innovative functional near-water product for Cadbury Schweppes with the fashion-conscious female in mind.’)

For this tactic to prevail, the illusion of intelligence is vital, hence the relentless use of fashionable and exciting words: ‘virtual’, ‘technologies’, ‘processes’, ‘strategies’, ‘integration’, ‘synergy’, etc. Words that sound important, especially when arranged in no meaningful order. Thus, we arrive at such breezy concepts as ‘unifying philosophy statement (UPh™)’, ‘polishing the brand pyramid’ and ‘the plane of information’ – portentous phrases that are rarely unpacked or decoded.

Dream up the work
One of the reasons this branding dysphasia has spread so easily is that it appears to be taken seriously by people who don’t understand it – precisely because they don’t understand it. Maxims that are both phonetically pleasing and entirely devoid of meaning are, presumably, the pinnacle of this unacknowledged art form. The desire to borrow authority and legitimacy by using pseudo-academic jargon is perhaps too obvious to explore at length. However, one might still take a moment to scoff at the grandiose pretensions of ‘trendologists’ and the branding guru’s allusions to evolutionary psychology, ‘theories of narrative behaviour’ and ‘ethnographic models’ (otherwise known as ‘market research’).

Once such overstatement has become sufficiently widespread, even customary, hyperbolic jargon can itself become a selling feature and the pressure on designers to deliver bids framed in similar language cannot be ignored. David Wood, of the Sheffield design agency Iris Associates, offers a more measured view: ‘There is pressure to be part of this marketing mystique and package your offer with lots of charts and diagrams about how you work … One of the problems we encounter is the misunderstanding that many clients have of branding. Generally, they’re talking about a visual identity, what may in the old days have been called a ‘corporate identity’, but it seems we can’t call this work this any more, it’s not enough for them. What’s happening in the industry is that agencies themselves have gotten confused by it all; I often see press releases talking about a ‘branding’ job they’ve done, when in fact all they’ve done is design a couple of brochures.’

‘Like everyone else, I don’t really know what Branding is,’ says Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic (TDR) – also based in Sheffield. ‘It means everything and nothing to everyone and no-one because it lurks somewhere between the red flag and a red rag, depending on your perspective. I file “Branding” with other beautiful nonsense attempts to rationalise our increasingly irrational existence such as “friendly fire”, “collateral damage” and “necessary downturn”. The B-word is an opportunity for both sides of the equation to flex their pseudo-intellectual muscles and, as a designer and a consumer I’m happy to be “Lovin’ It” on both sides of the fence. Can I have a Quarterpounder with a side order of I’m-so-knowing-whinge about globalisation?’

Dream of making money
There is, of course, another reason for the unquestioned acceptance of the implausible mythologies being ascribed to the brand, and to commerce in general. Stripped of such intoxicating fantasies, one might be reminded of the bare, uncushioned bones of that which is being justified and mythologised. As Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, famously announced: ‘We have no obligation to make history [or] to make art … To make money is our only objective.’

TDR’s Anderson picks up this point: ‘The Designers Republic’s work for Swedish telecom giant Telia’s sub-brand Department Of The Future, implied that the company was working on developing Telepathy as the ultimate communication product … We even gave it a name Com-Human-ication. Did I mean branding there? Or mythologising? I’d be disappointed if anyone believes the ruse, but I do believe people appreciate the idea that Telia was at least entertaining the idea of making the world a better place rather than claiming to improve the user’s sex life, or simply shifting units. It goes without saying that the latter is true … Telia is a business. It’s what they are there to do.’

The self-styled ‘thinker, facilitator and branding philosopher’ Mark Di Somma regularly demonstrates the branding enthusiast’s avoidance of such distastefully frank assertions: ‘A powerfully brand-aligned culture is testimony to the power of purpose …’ Another essay by this ‘brand linguist’ illustrates the obligatory tone of evangelical overstatement: ‘Those of us who believe in branding … pride ourselves on creating the platforms and forging the emotional connections that help people choose a dog food, law firm or kitchen appliance …’ Forging emotional connections is no small matter, and one must suppose that the feelings of such customers run as deep as Di Somma’s swimming pool.

In the language of branding, a whole new stratum of non-sequitur and self-deception has been defined. This is not mere everyday stupidity, but something more striking in its vacancy and wilful wrong-headedness. Let’s call it UltraStupidity™.

Branding consultant Martin Lindstrom is deemed a ‘visionary and an educator in the rapidly growing field of wireless, on- and off-line branding.’ A self-styled ‘revolutionary thinker’ Lindstrom has written several popular books on emerging branding techniques. His latest volume, BRANDchild, offers ‘remarkable insights into the minds of today’s global kids and their relationships with brands …’

Lindstrom’s book defines its target as ‘Tweens … a new type of audience. An increasingly powerful and smart consumer group, they spent $1.88 trillion across the globe last year. They are different in every way. They are more likely to have a friend on the other side of the world than in their own street, they think the TV remote is broken when they can’t find the cursor on the screen, and they drop from existence when the battery in their cell phone is flat …’

The introduction to BRANDchild continues: ‘This is a generation who spend more hours in front of a screen than outside the home, whose attention span is shorter than the break between commercials, who have lost creativity but have amazing capabilities of thinking and reacting fast. And they know current brand images better than any advertising expert …’
Evidently, before one can create an effective brand identity, one must first commodify the consumer. Thus, a person’s identity is defined not by what they think or do, but by that which they consume. Such fatalistic categorisation calls to mind the neat simplicities of astrology, rather than the scientific method for which great claims are made. (One might also note the title’s connotations of mistreatment, and the curious typographical bias – in which, rather significantly, the BRAND dwarfs the child.)

Dream of brand communities
The notion of the brand and its plausible functions have been derailed and abstracted. In the process, the quality and usefulness of the product in question has become, at best, of peripheral importance. (As Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy, assert: ‘Those businesses that relegate themselves to the diminishing world of goods and services will be rendered irrelevant. To avoid this fate, you must learn to stage a rich, compelling experience.’) From its origins as a simple trademark that served as an assurance of quality with regard to a specific type of product, the brand has been inflated, mythologised and mutated from a noun into a verb. The pseudoscience of branding is overwhelmingly concerned with consumers’ misplaced identification of themselves with their shopping habits. This peculiar psychopathology is what is meant by the term ‘lifestyle’.

In an article entitled ‘Give Your Brand Away’, Lindstrom outlines the holy grail of branding ambition: ‘What do Coca Cola, Harley Davidson, and lego have in common? All are highly dependent on brand communities. We dream of communities. Why? Brand communities hold more brand-building potential than any other communication form … I remember a friend who was so obsessed by the Coca-Cola brand he created a personal Coke museum. It contained thousands of bottles, gimmicks, and ads!’ Lindstrom’s epiphany continues: ‘These three brands developed such potent spirit that their core audiences accept them almost as personal brands. They form brand communities as permanent testaments to the brands’ excellence. Harley-Davidson, Coke, and lego no longer belong to their companies but are in the hands of consumers. The audiences own the brands – at least, they feel they do. I call this “MSP”, for ‘Me Selling Proposition’. It’s the ultimate branding achievement …’

Lindstrom’s ‘ultimate branding achievement’ is, significantly, described as a ‘community’ – one in which affiliations are reinforced by the consumer, at no expense to the company. The target audience ‘own the brands – at least, they feel they do.’ The brand is frequently spoken of as a ‘dialogue’ and ‘relationship’ between the companies and their consumers – terms which imply an air of democracy, complicity and unassailable legitimacy. However, given the frequency with which the word ‘dream’ occurs in branding philosophy, one might imagine that a state of walking unconsciousness is preferred among consumers.

The UK design agency Boxer makes similarly egalitarian claims for the redesign of McDonald’s packaging: ‘Our campaign is about getting our customers to know and love McDonald’s through storytelling. We are speaking to them in the first person customer voice, not the corporate voice of ‘we’ …’ The ‘customer voice’ in question is, of course, ‘i’m lovin’ it’ ™ – a trademarked kidnapping of language which, despite the protestations of democracy, nonetheless presumes to tell customers how they ought to feel while snacking. When this campaign has faded from the corporate imagination, doubtless another trademarked instruction to emote will follow.

Dreams that money can make
The elevation of the brand to mythical status – as both an engine of ‘empowered’ customer imagining and a yardstick of democracy – is hardly uncommon. The former creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi Paris, Jean-Marie Dru, outlined the mechanics of this fantasy in a book called Disruption, published in 1996. Disruption is littered with sound-bite pseudo-wisdom, including such ponderous maxims as ‘conventions are infinite.’ Dru famously argued that brands were of far more importance than mere material factors. According to Dru, the brand had to be ‘made of dreams’, and the more ‘audacious’ those dreams were, the better. Perhaps the most audacious and questionable of those dreams is the implicit and rather sinister notion of a ‘market democracy’ – a ‘free’ market utopia in which consumer choices are elevated as the perfect and most legitimate expression of democratic ideals, and in which those with little or no disposable income themselves become disposable.

But, in keeping with the broader mythologies of overheated capitalism, the fantasy of the brand remains untroubled by logic and practicality. As Rolf Jensen of the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies made clear, the new branded era is one in which facts and causality are dismissed as obsolete and disreputable concerns: ‘We are in the twilight of a society based on data … Companies will thrive on the basis of their stories and myths. Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories.’

Clearly, the brand no longer refers to a product’s intrinsic merit. Indeed, to assume a causal relationship of this kind would now be regarded as comical naiveté – as a failure of ‘creative imagination’ and an inexcusable reluctance to dream the Great Dream. Instead, the brand has been bestowed with supernatural powers and refashioned into something stranger and less tangible. As branding follows economic theory into territory once associated with religion, homeopathy and witchcraft, the brand has become an abstract yet saleable commodity.

The acclaimed ‘brand architect’ Scott Bedbury, whose clients include Nike and Starbucks, writes: ‘A great brand adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience, whether it’s the challenge to do your best in sports or the affirmation that the cup of coffee you’re drinking really matters … The brand is an emotional connecting point that transcends the product … it’s a story that’s never completely told. Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience …’ One might ponder what profound emotional thirst is quenched by the words ‘just do it.’ Or by bottled Frappuccino.

The Designers Republic’s Anderson treats branding as a game: ‘Listen, if someone’s got a revolution planned which will really address the undeniable downsides of capitalism and globalism, then feel free to make me your first call; but in the meantime can’t we let the Scott Bedburys and Martin Lindstroms of the world have their fun? Branding isn’t the enemy, we are by our compliance. So until the phone call comes, I’m keeping my combats designer and I’m going to enjoy the game with clients and consumers alike, because I like to entertain the idea I’m good at it.’

Dream the great dream
Published in 1987, Tom Peters’ Thriving on Chaos was one of first major artefacts of business thought to be couched in mythological language and to announce an impending ‘revolution’ in management theory. Here can be found the seeds of the idea that brands would overshadow and supersede the products to which they were notionally attached, while adding staggering value to company portfolios. Subsequent tomes, including Peters’ 800-page Liberation Management and The Circle of Innovation, set the tone for much of what would follow, and spawned a literary genre of hyperbolic claims, absurd syllogisms and meaningless diagrams. (Curiously, many such ‘revolutions’ have apparently occurred, with Peters’ later theories often debunking the ones that went before – even his own.) However, amid all of the nonsense, the less amusing implications of this ‘endless upheaval’ could be detected. In The Circle of Innovation, Peters echoed the tacit ‘philosophy’ of his former employer, business consultancy McKinsey & Co, asserting: ‘Now the people who lift “things” are the new parasites, living off the carpal-tunnel syndrome of the computer programmer …’

The shift from manufacturing to service industries and ‘lifestyle’ products dovetailed with this mix of fanciful theorising and unsavoury politics, and branding has since been used to justify bizarre stock market valuations, most notably during the ‘dot com’ phenomenon. As many business concerns have become increasingly ephemeral, managerial theory and corporate culture have become ever more susceptible to the influence of account planners and their cod philosophies. While brand eulogising can easily be mocked, there is a more troubling aspect to its pervasive influence. As Thomas Frank pointed out in his excellent critique One Market Under God: ‘Yes, the business revolution is hilarious, but it is also deadly serious. Its members may spend their weekends howling at the moon, but on business days they are helping shape the world in which the rest of us live.’

For the academic and former Clinton adviser, Robert Reich, the brand is a template for individual advancement, indeed for survival itself. Reich’s The Future of Success is a hymn to the ‘weightless’ economy – a world of mercurial capital, chronic career insecurity and ‘soft money’ (i.e. alarmingly variable incomes). According to Reich, we will thrive in this ‘new’ deregulated world, reinventing ourselves at almost yearly intervals to suit the ever more rapid changes around us. We will, apparently, all become short-term freelancers, armed with ‘personal brands’ – as we thrill to career changes over which we have little or no control. (The ‘we’ in question is, of course, a selective, middle-class ‘we’, but even those of us who fit Reich’s model might blanch at the scenario on offer.)

Dreams and nightmares
In a chapter titled ‘The Sale of the Self’, the good professor maps out his road to tomorrow: ‘To make a name for yourself in the emerging economy, [the individual] needs a means of continuously attracting new business. Success depends on linking up with a name that already has the power to draw business, and using it as a springboard to develop your own. It is directly analogous to the symbiotic relationship between small niche businesses and big brands.’

The nearest Reich gets to registering the implicit downside of this world of ‘boundless innovation and dynamism’ is a single, fleeting paragraph: ‘My students view the world they are entering in far more temporary terms than my generation saw it. They don’t plan to spend more than a few years in any job. They don’t anticipate any loyalty from any organisation or institution, and rarely from another person – and they don’t expect to be loyal in return …’ Clearly, this frantic job-hopping and aversion to forming stable bonds reflects the ‘philosophy’ of stock market day trading and its anxious opportunism, currently the zenith of the capitalist ideal.
According to Reich, the thrusting talents of tomorrow will be both branded and mercurial – they will be identified with their work in new and intimate ways, yet they will also be expected to reinvent those identities with increasing frequency, and often with precious little warning. Faced with this scenario, questions necessarily come to mind. When the job with which one has become so intimately identified is downsized, outsourced (or threatened with such), what happens to that person’s ‘brand’, and the emotional identification that goes with it? How often and how frequently can one reinvent one’s ‘employment psyche’? And how long can one endure the repeated threat of its destruction?

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14 2004

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