Brands. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. (With thanks to British Airways’ ad campaign)
I am told these days’ English homeowners use their Dyson brand vacuum cleaners to ‘Hoover’ their carpets. ‘Dry ice’, ‘petrol’, ‘video tape’, ‘yo yo’, even ‘heroin’ all started out as brand names. Brands set our style, dictating what to wear, and according to my kids, what not to wear. Brands infuse our language, our culture, our lives. Jez Framption the global Chief executive of Interbrand says they are “living business assets”.
Technically, economists tell us that the addition of a brand turns a commodity, which is “fungible” (the same, no matter who produces it) into something for which consumers can develop a preference. Oh, they are far more than that. “A brand is really an emotional connection you have with a product or service. It’s so emotional in fact that you become fairly irrational in the way you try to justify why you’re using it.” Martin Lindstrom. Here follows an ode to such irrationality:
I shop, therefore I am.
(Selfridges brand line in collaboration with artist Barbara Kruger.)
Only a rare few don’t subscribe to the cult of brand: Daniel Suelo, 51 left his last $ 30 in a phone booth and has lived the last 12 years without money, largely in a cave in the Moab desert, Utah. Except for a small lapse in 2001 when he received a $ 500 tax refund (on what one has to ask?) and blew it driving a Mercedes 600 sports coupe across America, he has voluntarily lived without brands, or in fact much at all in material possessions. Others have tried – journalist Neil Boorman burnt all his branded possestions and spent a year without branded goods – and of course wrote a book – Bonfire of the Brands. Mr Boorman suffered (apparently) from an affliction called ‘obsessive branding disorder’ which he describes as a combination of compulsive shopping and reliance on brands as status symbols to maintain his self-esteem. His year without brands was intended to purge himself of such obsessions and sounds frankly painful. Given the ubiquity of branded items, which he had sworn off, he had to avoid the high street and take to the backstreets for army surplus and second hand shops. He even had to have the tailor at his drycleaner make some of his clothes to avoid branded garb. Food shopping meant finding local butchers, fishmongers and fresh produce market. Neil never did manage to find an alternative for his branded electronic gadgets and in the end spent the entire year without a TV or DVDs.
The ugly face of brand capitalism
“I really want to do this. To everyone else, it seems like a stupid thing to do. To me, $10,000 is like $1 million. I only live once, and I’m doing it for my son … It’s a small sacrifice to build a better future for my son.” Karolyne Smith, having accepted $15 000 to have the brand ‘GoldenPalace.com’ (an online casino) permanently tattooed across her forehead. She was in good company given that the casino, famous for its stunts went onto shell out $25 000 on William Shatner’s kidney stone a year later. Makes the airhead media opportunity seem positively cheap.
Permanent brand tattoos are less rare than you may think. I believe iconic brands – Harley-Davidson, Playboy, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple are popular. Why? According to BJ Bueno the author of Cult Branding Workbook (2008), it gives one entry into desirable social groups, which share special interests and common values. They also remind customers of the memories, emotions, experiences and positive associations they have with the brand, apparently wrapping up all these complex feelings and memories into a single branded adornment of the body. It also acts as an iconic reminder of what the customer’s see as his own ideals, (which of course match with the brand’s ideals), drawing strength for the image deeply rooted in contemporary cultural mythology.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
“It is no different from the 19th century when parents named their children Ruby or Opal… it reflects their aspirations” Professor Evans, Bellevue University, Nebraska, commenting on parent naming their children Chanel, Armani and other brand names.
While ‘Jacob’ and ‘Emily’ were the most popular names for children in the US in 2002, during the year of study two years earlier,
55 boys were named ‘Chevy’ while seven boys were called ‘Del Monte’ a brand famous for amongst other things tinned vegetables and pet food. 49 boys’ parents were obviously keen photographers given their birth name of ‘Canon’. 300 girls were given the name ‘Armani’ but just six boys were called ‘Timberland’. Perhaps after the traditional cognac and cigars to celebrate the happy occasion, six boys were named ‘Courvoisier’ after the cognac. The youngsters can be relieved that few parents appeared to be particular fans of Cabel Hall Citrus Limited’s grapefruit, orange and tangerine hybrid branded ‘Ugli’.
Naturally many brands are named after people, the most memorable being John Cadbury, Seymour Cray (Cray super computers for the non geeks amongst you), Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, William Colgate and Michael Dell. One can only hope that Ms ‘Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii’, who at the age nine legally ‘divorced’ her parents in New Zealand so that she could change to a more conventional name, finds similar fame, perhaps in P.R.
Buy and burn
‘Buy nothing day’, popularised anarchist pop group Chumbawamba (yes the folk who gave us the better known Tub Thumping / I get knocked down we have all gotten drunk to) is typically ‘celebrated’ on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US and the following Saturday everywhere else. Never heard of it? You aren’t alone. Conspicuous consumption is frankly more popular, particularly amongst, I understand, wives. Thorstein Veblen first described conspicuous consumption in Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Naturally he was married, (to one Ellen Rolfe) in what is described as a ‘hateful marriage’.
Burning designer shoes, ripping up thousand Rand branded shirts or sloshing famous label whisky into the dust – ‘Izikhothane gangs’ take the conspicuous in conspicuous consumption to entirely new heights. Psychologist Simphiwe Sinkoyi says “…their art consists of little more than branded clothing and face-offs with rival crews who compete over who has more money.”  Originating in communities on the East Rand, the phenomenon soon spread to Soweto. Often the children of factory or shop workers, the Izikhothane assimilate the power of the brands they destroy by proving they don’t need them, supposedly because they can always afford more. The entire performance is rounded off with a ‘gloating dance’. As outsiders it easy to be critical, especially given the gangs’ dependence on hard working parents to financially support their ‘art’. From a brand point of view however, what greater demonstration of the intrinsic power of brands that the physical manifestation or even future possession of the product becomes inconsequential?
Methylenedioxymethamphetamine – not much of a brand is it? But ‘Ecstasy’ now that’s much more alluring. You may be surprised to learn that there are in excess of 300 separately recognisable brands of illicitly produced Ecstasy. You can find a comprehensive catalogue of “e” brands here: http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/mdma/mdma_images_gallery2.shtml . Most of the brands borrow established brands such as ‘Apple’, ‘Bacardi Bat’, ’Chanel’ and a plethora of car brands from Ferrari and Honda to Mitsubishi and Mercedes. (Isn’t that illegal?!) Perhaps the most refreshingly honest brand of these particular pharmaceuticals is ‘Caution’ a green table with a warning triangle containing an exclamation mark.
Not all banned brands are quite as harmful. ‘Marmite’, the dark brown sticky paste made from yeast, much loved by the English on morning toast, was famously banned in Denmark under food safety laws last year. It joined Rice Crispies, Shreddies, Horlicks and Ovaltine all banned for, wait for it – containing added vitamins.
In the same vain of giving the finger to authority, Pepsi famously trumped Coca Cola’s (official) sponsorship of the 1996 Cricket World Cup in India with its “Kaha na war hai” or “Nothing official about it” campaign. Based on research that “official” had negative connotations for the youth market, being ‘unofficial’ became a winner. Closer to home Kulula received short shift from FIFA with is ‘Unofficial National Carrier of the You-Know-What’ campaign.
Brands no longer just reflect of our personalities. Brands shape our behaviour, our culture, our language, our appearance and our position in society. Brands make us who we are.
First published in Brands and Branding in South Africa annual 2012
 http://thoughteconomics.blogspot.com/2012/02/role-of-brands-in-human-culture.html Retrieved 22 July 2012
 The man who quit money. Mark Sundeen 2012
 The Star 18 July 2012