29 September 2005

Brand is dead

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker finally iterated for me something I've been pondering for some time now. In an article for Wired (here), that people have had this whole brand thing bass-ackwards. He puts it in plain English: "Marketers looked at these companies and said they were succeeding because their brands were strong. In reality, the brands were strong because the companies were succeeding."

According to Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide (who, for a fancy-schmancy firm, has what I consider to be a lame Flash site): Brands are dead, I think. We've seen this incredible journey that started off years ago with products. Products were invented to supply a benefit, a functional attribute to make you feel better. They morphed very quickly into trademarks, which is all about protection: Protect the manufacturer; protect the consumer. And then in the 1930s Neil McElroy at Procter & Gamble invented brands. And what were brands? They were based on what I call "ER words": whiter, brighter, cleaner, stronger, fitter.

Essentially a bunch of buzz was created over brand because the company itself was doing what it was supposed to be doing, and doing it rather well. Of course, Sony has a brand, Dolce & Gabbana, Apple, Wal-Mart, et cetera, but it's because they're leaders in their field. (Goes to show how a whole new context can be built out of elements of the immediate now, thrown together with some unique semantic. See: Y2K.)

Unsuccessful companies will be starved if their not innovating, in the name of the consumer.
This is all, of course, a bad thing for marketers. A brand is supposed to provide a haven from competition, offering what Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila calls insurance against missteps. But the disappearance of loyalty means that insurance is vanishing, too — which is great for consumers. When companies can't count on their reputations to carry them through, they're forced to innovate to stay alive. The erosion of brand value, then, means heightened competition — and everything we know about economics tells us that the more competition, the better off consumers will be.

Now I know there are the counterculturalists out there swashbuckling their way free of the consumer lifestyle, but guess what? It may be necessary. The faster we can figure out how to create a balanced social system in which equality is earned, we move closer to a libertarian state of responsibility. At least in spirit in mind. In our parents' and grandparents' eras, the lack of innovation and choice provided barriers in perception and opportunity. Does it mean that one brand of salt or cola can radically revolutionise the world? I don't think so. The best analogy I can make to the number brands and new companies out there is akin to the music explosion of the 1960s. Prior to that, those few companies offered the equivalent social and consumer vernacular as did Newspeak in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The more choices to shape one's environ, mental and manifest, the more variety in interpretation of one's life.
Five years ago, Sony charged 44 percent more for its DVD players than the average manufacturer. Today, Sony DVD players cost just 16 percent more than the average. And yet, even though the price of Sony's most expensive DVD player fell 60 percent between 1999 and 2003, CyberHome, maker of absurdly cheap DVD players, has knocked off Sony to become the biggest DVD-machine seller in America. Similarly, in the fashion industry, a stronghold of brand identity and obsession, prices fell an average of 9 percent between 2001 and 2003.

It's an interesting age where creative commons and international standards are being moulded for the betterment of the world, of technology, of ideas, and all the while designers and companies are forced to really answer to the subconscious of society, in its need for a wider interpretation of products.

I grew up sympathetic to Adbusters, too, don't get me wrong. But, by intuition, I left that camp. I believe that this painted context of consumer as gluttonous and corporations as insane entities is accurate to an extent, but on the other hand we must remember that is just one of many gestalts we could use to answer the problems at hand.

If we look at this from an occult point of view, taking a cue from the little I know of Steiner's ideas… or even Grant Morrison's, if humanity is moving forward — always evolving as a whole to embrace, incorporate, and process more knowledge — then a wider array of products is akin to a wider wardrobe or more expansive grasp of language or more time spent in different regions or countries around the world. Or more distinguishable trance states, for that matter. The more elements that are available to build up one's paradigms, the more paradigms we'll have co-existing.

The more paradigms we have co-existing, the more the analogy of the social prison construct can come tumbling down as we each define ourselves, differently, uniquely, and explore our own subjective views of the world in stronger contrast to those others in our environments. And someone may argue that this is all shallow, skin-deep, but as much as I'd be willing to agree — perhaps in the case of many individuals, some of whom I am sure we all know, those shallow goofy folk who dress up but think down — I must say this is the language and fashion of humanity. And for those still struggling to "catch up" with the developed nations of the West (which I take for granted, mind you, being a member), I can only figure that there is a myth and journey for them that is shaping their egregores, their group spirit, their aeon. And as the global community grows and embraces more and more, what I see written above about the power of the consumer leads me to believe that eventually everyone will be living on a more level playing field.

Hopefully what will come of this will be that everyone has the opportunity to achieve their goals. And while I believe everyone has the capacity to break free of the archons and the social constructs which they believe harbour them into jobs making minimum wage, doing shit they hate, this increased variety in gestalts will lead the way for those to truly shine that have it in them.

For those who do not, all the poseurs and the try-hards, or perhaps they're the hylics of Gnostic myth — just as the hapless victims of Neo, Trinity, and Co. were portrayed in The Matrix — those bound to matter shall die of matter. And I am sorry, I have yet to find a place for them in my heart outside of the deeper realms of my soul.


Victoria said...

I am very pleased that you have done some good research on the concept of "branding." It brings to light the need for a new approach to the question of "how."

channel null said...

I can see why the procession of market goods might lead to the dissolution of the "social prison" construct--I can imagine a world where it's the case. the problem is, though, that I'm not totally sure "The Market" can work that way. While in, say, a "marketplace," this might make more sense--think being able to buy jewelry from one vendor and some kid selling hash in a dark corner, or more like Donald Trump versus Richard Branson--The Market's means of production are hopeless monolithic and based in some pretty shitty ideas, like the yearly model change, planned obsolescence, and the truimph of new over repair of the old/creation of the durable. Many programs that "Free" Market types support, like "Free Trade" programs, exist to exploit cheap labor. They're more "efficient" but the goal isn't choice--like Von Mises said--it's the accumulation of wealth.

Until "The Market"--i.e., the concentration of power evident in the "insane corporations"--comes to change fundamentally, it's not going to open to the freedom necessary... currently vested interests, the pirate narcotraffick-oil-banking barons, have strong control over things. The "Invisible Hand" is more visible than ever, it controls the Market, and has a vested interest in surpressing various avenues. And it does so through extra-market means, like politics or street-level shootings.

I am totally opposed to the way that a corporation eliminates responsiblity; there's been some backlash recently in the US courts, which is "good," to the extent that locking anyone up for twenty-five years is good.

More illustratively, when I can walk to the local vending machine and get a single-use disposable DMT inhaler along with a high-fiber microwave dinner, then I'll concede completely.

channel null said...

To add on, I have a hard time working out a way to create an alternative. Regulations are completely necessary--just as individuals have incentive to steal, so does business--but generate inefficiencies, both for and against business, and the Legion of Lawyers does an excellent job exploiting them.

I sometimes wonder whether, in an anarchic situation, labor unions would rise to prominence--currently, most rulings are anti-labor, which seems like it would generate inefficiency to me--not everyone is allowed to act to their full potential to protect their interests.

E.g., in DC, if a building goes up for sale, law requires that the owner give the tenants as a whole an oppurtunity to buy the building--that's a good law for many reasons. Now, to circumvent it, the owners started offering ninety-five percent stakes in their buildings, and the city ruled that 95% was not a "sale." In one case, the original owner sold everything except the front door frame. This is currently a pretty big issue, and people have been protesting for a good ten years now with nothing done.

I don't know how to handle something like that.

Fell said...

The complimentary images continue vanishing from this post. I used them from the Wired article. I wonder if Google somehow has some way to scan over this shit to remove copyrighted materials?

I will reply further later!