My logo: are we the new brand bullies?

The first brand to which I remember being truly loyal was Commodore. In the early 1980s, all the cool kids in my grade school had a Commodore 64 computer, and we felt collectively above those whose parents had the poor taste to buy less worthy machines such as the TRS-80 (the "Trash 80") or, worse, an Apple II. It didn't feel like brand loyalty, of course. We just considered the C-64 to be a superior product, and a convenient shorthand for that superiority was Commodore's famous "chicken head" logo.

Commodore misjudged the pace of change in the computer business, and got caught trying to launch a low-end machine just as IBM and its clones were sweeping the PC to dominance. The company faltered and the brand faded — another lost logo from my pre-consumerist adolescence. But it wasn't dead. Not quite. The brand was quietly sustained by fans in dozens of online communities, until it was acquired in January by Yeahronimo Media Ventures (YMV), a Dutch electronics firm. The company is now preparing to market a Commodore-branded MP3 player. Brands such as Atari similarly live on in retro gaming sites on the Internet, lying dormant as commercial vehicles until their manufacturers wake up to the fact there's enough of a market out there to bring them back to life.
This is brand loyalty with a twist: instead of passively adopting a brand and its corporate-defined identity, these consumers have taken a more active role in manipulating, sustaining, and promoting the meanings of their favourite brands. They're part of a recent phenomenon that is known in marketing circles as the "brand hijack" or the "culting" of brands.

The branding business is going through some odd times. On the one hand, advertising and marketing have moved from the selling of everyday goods and services into areas that have traditionally been seen as either "too good" for branding, or, by their very nature, unbrandable: universities, museums, art galleries and even churches. (Witness the "megachurch" phenomenon in the United States.)

Yet, even as they encroach, brands appear more fragile than ever. Recently, the business press has been wringing its hands over the "new consumer power" and the effect it is having on brand loyalty. Thanks to the Internet, a diversified media environment and an increasingly niche-oriented marketplace, consumers have more choices, and more information upon which to base those choices, than ever before. The travel industry has been upended by sites that allow customers to rate hotels and leave comments about their stay, while car salesmen are facing unplanned obsolescence in the face of customers who arrive on the lot knowing exactly what car they want, with what features and at what price. As the cover story in the April 2 edition of The Economist put it, all of this means that finally, the consumer really is king (or queen).

In a recent article in Wired, the economics writer James Surowiecki (author of The Wisdom of Crowds) argued that consumers no longer needed brands. He claimed that this proliferation of Web-based information, product reviews and discussion forums had destroyed brand loyalty, by transferring the balance of power from corporations to consumers. With the new consumer power comes fickleness, promiscuity and a constant search for quality. "The aristocracy of the brand is dead," he wrote. "Long live the meritocracy of product."

Surowiecki is half right. It's true that brands no longer perform what was for most of the past century their key function: to serve as a form of consumer protection. It is easy to forget that every time you spend money you are taking a risk. You might not get what you paid for, or you might not get your money's worth. A gadget might be defective; food might be stale or rancid; inventions might not work as advertised. We are so used to today's redundant forms of consumer protection, such as return policies, guarantees, consumer watchdogs and protection legislation, that we forget how, throughout the history of commerce, getting ripped off has been a constant worry. A strong brand has always conveyed a sense of trust, and in doing so reduced the amount and complexity of the information that the consumer needs to assimilate before spending his money.

It may seem, with manufacturers now losing the upper hand to consumers, that we have seen the end of Naomi Klein's corporate "brand bullies." But here's where Surowiecki's wrong. The aristocracy of the brand may be dead, but it's been replaced by a democracy that arguably values brands even more.
The fact is, many of us care deeply about brands. As the advertising critic James Twitchell has pointed out, this is not because we are materialistic, but because we are not materialistic enough. If we were materialists, we would buy on the basis of need, quality and value-for-money. But we want more than this. We want meaning from our things, which is why brands are able to insert themselves between us and our objects.

The question is, now that consumers can circumvent the brand strategies of the brands they don't like, and hijack the messages of the ones they do like, could it be that consumers, not corporations, are the new brand bullies?

The idea at the core of the brand-hijack phenomenon reflects something that everyone in the marketing business has known for ages: Ultimately, brands don't belong to companies but to the market. The classic lesson is Coke's famously lame introduction of New Coke, which was swept aside by a tide of consumer anger that even Bill Cosby's loud sweaters couldn't stem. It wasn't that people didn't like the taste; it was that the notion that Coke would change its formula was at odds with the ideal of "authenticity" that forms the kernel of the Coke brand promise.

Or there's the case of Dr. Martens, the footwear company whose boots were adopted by successive subcultures from the 1960s till the '90s. The brand ran into trouble in 1994, when it launched an overly self-conscious ad campaign that traded on the company's "alternative" credibility. Docs have now more or less disappeared.

Many people care enough about brands that they go to great lengths to commandeer them and seize control of their identities. There are age-old examples of brands that have been effectively taken over by their consumer base: Doc Martens, for one, were working-class shoes taken over by punks and then by suburban wannabes; Harley Davidson rallies are overrun by accountants. In the age of the brand hijack, the most obvious examples are the Apple iPod (for which there are hundreds of mods, hacks and tributes available, from gum-wrapper carrying cases to an iPod coffee table) and Nike, whose fanatic customers are designing their own shoes (online at nikeid.com) and getting the swoosh tattooed on their ankles.

Some brands have their meanings entirely subverted by customers. In the year 2000, the classic Burberry plaid began showing up everywhere. Developed for English officers during the First World War, Burberry subsequently developed an association with the genteel lifestyle of the English countryside. The brand was reinvigorated in the late '90s through a brilliant marketing campaign, featuring aristocrat-turned-model Stella Tennant, the granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Yet Burberry quickly ran into trouble. A contestant on the reality TV show Big Brother 4, Tania do Nascimento, paraded about in a Burberry bikini and bandanna, week in week out, in front of an audience of millions. This was hardly good exposure for the brand, since Nascimento attracted attention mainly for boasting about her sexual exploits and vowing to spend the $150,000 prize money on breast implants if she won. Burberry was subsequently hijacked by the hip-hop crowd in the U.S., and the trainers-and-tracksuit "chav" crowd in the U.K. The company went so far as to stop manufacturing its extremely popular baseball cap, because it didn't like the sorts of people who were buying it.

(More unfortunate still is what has happened with brands such as Lonsdale and New Balance, which have been adopted as integral elements of neo-Nazi fashion in Germany. Official Nazi insignia may be banned there, but the kids know that the "N" in the New Balance logo means "National.")

Some see a political dimension to all of this, in that it points to a new market-based democratic egalitarianism. We used to covet brands as markers of status — how they reflected our taste, class, education, or income level; now, in the world of the cult brand, brands serve to unify communities. In his book Brand Hijack, the brand consultant Alex Wipperfürth writes, "Harley democratized motorcycles. Starbucks democratized coffee. Apple democratized computers. These brands were hijacked in part because they are brands `for the rest of us'." Partly, this is the usual marketing self-aggrandizement. But there is a kernel of truth in the claim about the democratization of markets. Wipperfürth's point is similar to the one made by Virginia Postrel in her book The Substance of Style, that the new consumerism embodies a sort of aesthetic populism, in which the democratization of taste and style is part of the ongoing triumph of free markets and liberal individualism.
To the extent that this is correct, it raises some serious questions for those who believe that our obsession with buying stuff is at odds with our capacity to act as good citizens. This anti-consumerist stance has always assumed three things: first, that a major cause of consumerism was that corporations had the upper hand in their relationships with their customers; second, that given an honest choice between citizenship and consumerism, any sane person would choose citizenship; and third, that these are indeed opposing ideals, that our obsession with stuff hinders our ability to function as citizens.

But what if consumerism was always something caused by consumers, and what if, having gained the upper hand in the market, they are willing to wield it? As corporations fall all over themselves, desperate to cater to the fickle needs of the new brand bullies, the upshot could be an increasingly fragmented marketplace offering more and more choice over what, where, and how to consume.

What will the effect of this be on political citizenship and on our social identities? Having grown accustomed to the absolute sovereignty of the dollar, will we be satisfied by old-fashioned political sovereignty, with its one-person, one-vote mentality and the inevitable need for compromise? What if, given the choice between becoming citizens and becoming consumers, we choose to be consumers? More to the point, what if we find the ideals of the marketplace to be a more congenial model for how our politics ought to function?

Consider last summer's federal election. It was the most competitive in 15 years, but the substantial issues were overshadowed by the standard litany of grievances from the "alienated voter" corner of the room. This was the refrain: "there is no real difference between the political parties," "none of the parties speaks to me/reaches out to me/represents my views," "politicians always change their minds/never do what they say they will do," "my vote doesn't really matter anyway."
Yet one could argue that the disaffection of these supposedly "alienated" voters is a product of their having internalized the ideology of consumer sovereignty. They have confused the norms and expectations that govern the political arena with those that govern the marketplace. Fundamentally, what they dislike about politics is that it isn't more like shopping. When you go to the mall, obsequious salespeople will trip over themselves to find a product that is perfectly suited to your own particular needs and desires. We have become so accustomed to this sort of highly individualized service that some people, particularly the young, are tempted to wonder why their politicians can't be more like their favourite brands.

The problem is that in a democratic society, we seek to govern ourselves by consensus and agreement. This means political parties are necessarily charged with the task of creating platforms that reconcile, in some way, the opinions of millions of individual citizens. In a pluralistic and multicultural country, it is hardly surprising to find that there is very little overlap in these views. Thus, what political parties wind up presenting, in the way of a platform, cannot possibly be tailored to fit each individual's personal predilections. That's simply not how democratic politics works.

It's conceivable that the marketplace and the polity might one day merge. Perhaps we are headed for something like the future sketched in Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, where the logic of globalization and branding dominates all other forms of social organization. Citizenship has been commodified and de-territorialized, and everyone purchases political and legal services from one of dozens of quasi-national "franchulates" run by diverse groups such as hacker communities, the Mafia, and Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong.

That would be magnificent. In the meantime, there is a civic lesson to be learned from the phenomenon of cult brands. If you want individualized service from a well-serviced brand that you own, go to your local Starbucks. There you can get a coffee made that is exactly suited to your own particular needs and desires. But don't go to the Conservatives or to the Liberal Party of Canada, because they're not there to make you happy; they're there to make you and 30 million other Canadians happy. And that necessarily forces everyone to make compromises — something the logic of the new consumerism tells us we never have to do.

Author: 
Andrew Potter
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