[grid::brand] Who owns you?

This post is part of a grid blogging experiment.

Brand. If I’m not mistaken the word is derived from the practice of branding cattle, making a permanent mark on livestock to indicate the owner.

So, which brands own you? (FTR, I’m presently owned by Omm, Casio, Doc Martins, Jockey and Apple Computer)

In recent years, brand marketing has become a ubiquitous part of life. No longer is it enough to have a better product or service, or necessarily something that people what or need. It’s now all about the brand. It is the brand that takes a USD$2.50 and turns them into USD$100 merchandise. It builds desire in the heart of the consumer, which, in turn is the heart of capitalism.

Naomi Klein, in her seminal work No Logo, outlines the shift in marketing from product-based to brand-based, and how brand-disenfranchised culture has responded. She talks of the pitfalls of “brand-based” activism, and of “culture jammers” that use “sumo moves” on brands – turning the weight of a brand, in terms of it’s cultural gravity, on itself in an effort to change corporate practices. And of course the brands were quick to co-opt the energy of the jammers, throwing out new brands for the cynical generation.

I once had a conversation with a friend about what constitutes culture jamming. I was proposing that perhaps a “true jam” would be defined as “co-opting a brand for political or artistic purposes”. My friend was quick to contest this, saying that anything that fucks with public expectations of what a brand is constitutes a jam. It is an interesting perspective, and one I can’t wholly disagree with. Is Nike taking the piss out of their own brand any less valid form of culture jamming?

Feel my world close in around me
Every crevace filled with messages not my own
‘Till I no longer own the air I breathe
Sold off to someone else from under my nose

With our language now corrupted
With brand-lines and hard sells
I feel traces of them all over me
Every corner of my self
  Corporate Avatars (G. Young 02002)

How many times do we find ourselves repeating a brand in our speech and lives. From “D’oh!” to “Which bank?” to “Just do it!” to “Oops I did it again”. Our words are overtaken by brands, and our opportunities for expression are restricted as our words, phrases, and ideas are used, copyrighted and patented out of public into private space. As Anita Roddick notes: the label on a shirt often has more legal protection than the human worker that sewed it on.

It is a slippery slope. Cultures are being defined by brands, and more and more of the culture is becoming owned by the brands. Of course, the public plays a vital role in this whole pattern – we buy and support the brands. We give them their power. Our media channels support, and are in turn supported by, the brands. A symbiotic relationship.