February 18, 2011

No Logo, Revisited

The concept has been batted around for decades and seems to be settling finally into ubiquity. It’s interesting to re-read Klein’s No Logo and her certainty of brand lash back.

Ten years ago it was obvious;  culture jamming was on the lips of the cultural cognoscenti, Adbusters was in its ascendency, and the anti-globalism movement was in full swing.

Today, I don’t see it. Not in the same way.  What was purported at the time was that the anti-brand movements would result in an alternative anti-brand option. If we take the implied assertion that the opposite of brand was a pure unpackaged product; rice for instance in a barrel meted out by a store keeper into plain burlap bags; or in today’s context, a social network more akin to Craigs List than Facebook; then we can see the failure in the movement; the alternative option is dead, there is very little “non-brand” left.

Instead, the anti-brand proponents have adopted the brand ideals hook line and sinker. Brand theory is wrapped around their own movements.  Think for instance how the “localization” movement is now packaged as a “100 Mile Diet” or “Transition Town.”  At the moment, roughly half the job postings at the Foundation for Rural Living are for communications related positions.  Think about the Black Spot campaign (an antibrand yes, but still a brand by all traditional measures).

Recently, I don’t recall the source (hmmm), a christmas charity was outed for creating fictional families that they’d post to their giving tree, the idea being that these fake families were more conducive to creating the types of empathy required for soliciting donations than the real families might have been. Locally (Stratford ON) we have thinkers working on the idea that corporations will profit from transparencies of provenance.  Transparency becomes a brand idea in and of itself. Brilliant. But still a “brand” idea.  Transparency becomes something an organization can package and promote (which leads in the best sense to accountability, or,in the more likely case to brands like American Apparel; transparent yes, an asset to the nation … hm?)

I’d argue that far from struggling against the brand “idea”, our reactionaries seems to be adopting it wholesale and using it for their own purposes.  Which might fine.  Might. Brand is a powerful form of narrative,  and if one there’s one thing we know from our evolutionary history, humans are susceptible to narrative and there’s absolutely no reason why our social movements, our social entrepreneurs, and our social agencies shouldn’t avail themselves of this tool.

That said, the questions that were once being asked by purists: “should we adopt the brand idea” and “at what cost” no longer seem current, something I’d argue, is to our their (and our) detriment.  The issue is not whether we can use brand narratives to influence behaviours; we clearly know that we can.  Rather, the issue is by accepting the ubiquity of brand narratives, do we turn citizens to wholesale consumers (shoot me now) of CSAs, Transition Towns and their ilk, and by turning citizens into consumers do we then make them susceptible to more powerful narratives?

The truth is, that even by selling good, we inculcate citizens with the capacity to be sold. Anything.

There will always be another more compelling story lurking around the corner and once we’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by narrative in general, we can’t help but be influenced when a more powerful comes along.  A zeitgeist exists. The ghost of the times is. It’s there to be harnessed.  And, it’s being harnessed more and more effectively by social agencies and corporations alike.  The frightening thing (if you subscribe to the notion that it has power) is that the corporations mostly have more will and mostly have more resources.

As wonderful as it would be to believe that, as citizens, we have the autonomy to make decisions based on the answer to a simple “in the service of which master” question, our behaviours indicate otherwise. Far too often common good is subjected to corporate good or individual good.

As Director of Strategy for Sling, this leaves me incredibly ambivalent.  We know we have the power to influence behaviours.  We know that the only way not to be influenced by powerful narratives is to encourage independence from the influence they encourage. Yet, my job is to use narrative to influence behaviours.

It’s a paralyzing thought.

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