Reading On Brand
A fresh look at Wally Olins’s highly regarded branding manual, now in paperback
On Brand by Wally Olins, Thames and Hudson, £12.95 paperback
Branding used to involve stamping your symbol on the flank of some dumb creature, and nowadays involves stamping it across their T-shirts. Wally Olins, a man who one suspects would brand his own kneecaps if there was profit to be squeezed from it, has written a suitably slick account of a supremely shallow phenomenon. Olins is the kind of corporate consultant who believes that rebranding may help solve the problems of Uzbekistan: the problems of this country (which is reputed to boil its enemies alive) is that it doesn’t have a sexy enough image. Perhaps boiling people alive simply needs to be rebranded. In this book, which sometimes reads as though it has a marketplace where its mind should be, a relentlessly trivialising practice has found its true chronicler.
Trivialising, but not trivial. Olins believes that branding is becoming more vital than both technically and financially based business, and as someone who chirpily reassures that ‘when you package it effectively, you can even sell water expensively’, he should know. The corporate types he advises are not the sort of people to whom one would entrust the water bottles on a trek across the desert, unless you had a well stuffed wallet. Like many of his tribe, however, he is an odd combination of cynicism and naivety. On the one hand, he churns out chillingly Orwellian injunctions such as ‘Train your people to live the brand’; on the other hand he earnestly informs us that car companies are ‘product-led’, just in case you thought Toyota spends its time marketing its fire drill techniques rather than its motors.
When Olins tells us that under Napoleon, ‘the whole of France was rebranded’, he is clearly unaware that this kind of boneheaded comment is usually to be found not in a sleek Thames and Hudson volume, but among a coachload of American tourists who miss seeing the Acropolis flash by their window because they are too busy fiddling with the air-conditioning. In one sense, he is perfectly aware that much of what he is peddling is garbage. Branding, he writes with what is supposed to be winning candour, is a question of ‘persuading, seducing and attempting to manipulate people into buying products and services’. Seducing is certainly the word: most of us have felt thoroughly screwed by the corporations at one time or another. A few pages on, however, we are confidently assured that brands ‘are the most significant gifts that commerce has ever made to popular culture’. Olins may regard being manipulated as a gift, but not all of us share this psychological kink.
More than once in this bloodlessly written book, he agrees with the No Logo camp that branding is often ‘manipulative and misleading’, and that their arguments against brands are ‘not negotiable’. (The double negative is typical of his wary way with anti-capitalist arguments). Having conceded that much of the practice is indefensible, however, he then proceeds to defend it. ‘Global companies’, he reminds us, ‘do not claim they are in business for philanthropic purposes.’ Well, neither do their critics. But that transnational corporations choose profit over people is the problem, not a line of defence. It is rather like arguing that muggers do not claim to be vicars, and so cannot be faulted when they scamper off with your handbag.
The trouble is not that Nike is a heavily camouflaged charity, but that professional cynics like Olins regard even charity as a commodity. (‘The product that a charity sells is caring for the less fortunate’). ‘Greenpeace’, he tells us, ‘like any other clever brand, stands for a few simple values … all expressed through a powerful visual presence and some pithy soundbites.’ Political justice is on a level with junk food. Greenpeace is a brand rather than a campaign, and so are nations (‘America is a brand’).
On Brand’s view of the world is as nastily dehumanised as a workhouse. ‘A cleaner at Banjul airport in Gambia’, Olins writes, ‘scrapes and saves to buy Nike running shoes as a signal to himself and others that he is able to share at least some of the rich world’s glamour and fashion’. There is no hint that he regards this obscene situation as anything but acceptable. Naomi Klein and co., he comments, ‘demonise’ big corporations for ‘grinding the faces of the poor in Third World countries, suborning and subverting the education of children in the West, charging too much and giving too little to customers everywhere, brainwashing people with relatively little money into buying products they don’t need and don’t really want and that might harm them, and generally acting like bully boys, thugs and profiteers’. After this searing (if grammatically maladroit) indictment, one expects a spot of refutation from a top adviser to Renault and Volkswagen. Astonishingly, it never come up. Unable to address these charges point by point for the best of all reasons (namely, that they are plainly true), Olins resorts instead to some feeble chaff-scattering.
First, he maintains, corporations are in business to make money and not to care for people. In short, he joins the critics rather than beating them. Second, branding is used by non-profit outfits such as charities, nations, sport, literature and theatre as well. It is true that you can probably only produce Shakespeare’s The Tempest nowadays if you have the sponsorship of Marine Insurance and a well crafted commercial identity. It is just that the disastrously philistine extension of branding into culture and politics is more an argument against it than in its favour. Third, Olins insists, real power lies with the consumer: ‘The brand’, he writes, ‘is controlled by us the customers.’ In the end, it is up to us to decide which brand to opt for. Here, in fact, is the kernel of the book’s defence of the indefensible – though this, too, turns out to be rather a rotten nut.
For one thing, the suggestion that true popular power lies in choosing between Mars Bars and Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars suggests a certain decline in the democratic ideal from the days of Thomas Jefferson, not to speak of the Athenian city-state. Freedom now lies in deciding which particular set of grubby little deceptions to resist. A genuinely democratic society would be able to decide not just between Mars and Fry’s, but between what resources it wanted to plough into chocolate production and what resources into hospital-building. Olins supports a capitalist order which makes genuinely popular decision-making impossible.
He writes pussy-footingly of ‘traditionally insensitive oil company’ behaviour in places such as Columbia, which must surely rank among the spineless euphemisms of the decade. Most such companies, he remarks with exquisite delicacy, ‘have a history which by today’s standards of political correctness does not bear very close scrutiny’. He is aware, of course, that not only the champions of PC but any half-humane person would find this history disgraceful; but he does not have the courage to say so, so he hides behind the convenient straw target of political correctness.
The argument about consumer power is in any case circular. If the customers control the brand, the brand influences the customers to plump for it. For another thing, Olins scuppers his own argument. To defend branding against charges of brainwashing, he has to suggest that it’s not nearly as effective as we might suspect. But in order to stay in his line of business, he argues, for example, that in Third World countries a branding programme ‘can act as a catalyst for change’. Curiously, what can transform whole nations can’t lay a glove on individual freedom of choice.
Olins’s whole case works on the assumption that branding works marvellously well, an assumption he also has to deny if he is to avoid looking like an advocate of exploitation. He is in the position of the pornography king who insists that nobody forces you to watch videos of women being sexually humiliated. ‘People’, he remarks, ‘know perfectly well what they are doing.’ But so do drug dealers. We don’t permit ads urging people to push heroin or kidnap toddlers on the grounds that they can always ignore them.
What branding exploits is not just people’s gullibility, but their poignant, entirely reasonable desire to belong to some form of corporate existence larger than themselves. Since a social order given to greed and self-interest cannot fulfil this role, Krug, Starbucks or Manchester United have to step in instead. In writing about branding, Olins has produced an impeccably Marxist study, quite against his intentions. More or less everything he has to say on the subject goes to confirm what the Marxist tradition has long argued about alienation, reification and the fetishism of commodities. In fact, the only rational explanation for the crassness and callowness of this book is that Olins is a left-wing infiltrator among corporate types, out to discredit them by exposing the logic of the logo with such cruel candour.
‘Brands’, argues Wally Olins in On Brand, ‘represent identity.’ It may be that he himself only knows who he is because of his brand of underpants, but the more discerning among us have not yet been reduced to this tragic condition. To avert any such dreadful fate, the reader would be well advised to give this pile of cold-hearted cynicism a miss and buy Naomi Klein’s No Logo instead.
Terry Eagleton, writer, teacher, Manchester
First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14 2004
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