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Sunday, November 21, 2004
The Decline of Brands, by James Surowiecki in the current Wired, (via Boing Boing, who expounds on it in Brands aren't worth as much as we thought). We got into trouble for saying a similar thing a while ago. There appears to be very little debate about branding, so any oppositional talk about the contention that brands are in someway a logical evolution of production and marketing is worth a closer look.

As we said before, the brand is a phantom, a cypher, figments of the popular imagination that have somehow become the essential conduit for cultural information about objects. It's not a thing, yet without the idea of 'brand', we would think of many things in totally different ways. Bowblog, in a post entitled Brand Fanaticism considers a new book, The Cult of Mac. He notes how 'somehow, the brand survived the extended suicide attempt of the 90s and has now been translated into an utterly unique luxury brand meets cult product.' Without the carefully created brand mystique, the claim that Apple produces 'cult products' couldn't stand up. The mystique has created the cult.

Ultimately, this is a dangerous idea. While the Wired piece goes on about 'a new breed of hyperinformed superconsumers' making the concept of branding obsolete, this smacks of a marketing guru (indeed, branding guru) looking to find a professional way out of the situation. In The World in Two Footnotes, Design Observer's musing on the 'brand madness'-themed issue of Eye magazine, Michael Bierut's main focus is on how one of Eye's authors (Nick Bell's essay The Steamroller of Branding) neatly divides the designer's approach into two fundamental choices (passive or creative). However, we're more interested in the anti-branding rhetoric of the Eye issue as a whole, in particular Terry Eagleton's Reading On Brand.

Eagleton revisits Wally Olins' 'seminal' branding manual, On Brand and finds it a thinly-veiled uncritical apologia for the creation of concepts and ideas - brands - that overrule the physical reality of the marketplace - e.g exploitation of workers and consumers. Eagleton counters Olins' caveat emptor that big business is ultimately about the bottom line, and should therefore be forgiven the occasional transgression (be it of human rights or moral good sense) by saying '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.'

In fact, caveat emptor ought to be our mantra against the whole concept of branding: don't believe a single thing about anything. Eagleton concludes that '... everything [Olins] has to say on the subject goes to confirm what the Marxist tradition has long argued about alienation, reification and the fetishism of commodities.' Olins' conclusion that 'brands represent identity' isn't yet quite true, thankfully. However, that anyone would even will it to be true is deeply worrying.

An aside: Eye is a somewhat pricey read and we rarely get to sample its beautifully-designed pages, so it was a delight to discover that a good chunk of each issue is put online.

Elsewhere. What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch, via this thread on the evaporation of the unexplained / this post, listing The Top 40 Bands In America Today, is getting a lot of linkage. Is it just us, or is this a rather uninspiring and predictable set of artists?

Glass desk collapse (via caterina) / slick t-shirts sold slickly at molgam / photos from the Vietnam War / Luxo, a Pixar blog / amazing Tokyo Sewers / Photograph Collection Gallery at the Rasmuson Library.