Brands: fresh and frozen


Is there a voice in blogland more astonishing than that of Evelyn Rodriguez? The rest of us are sleep walking by comparison. Evelyn is very smart, very well informed, fearless in her choice of topics and treatments, and she writes like a dream.

My question: how can anyone this smart be this wrong?

Yesterday, she was thinking in that effortlessly mobile way of hers about the inclination of people and brands to freeze into place. She reproduces, with approval, this passage from Alex Wipperfurth’s Brand Hijack.

The next type of brand will provide consumers with a higher purpose. Think of brands like Apple and Linux, which have been elevated beyond their functional and emotional performance. Their purpose, if not political, is at least of a social nature. The next type of brand will declare a worldview, not just an individual benefit, and play a meaningful role in people’s lives.

I cannot think of a more wrong headed notion of the brand. And to make my case I will use the opening paragraphs of Evelyn’s post.

I recently read that until the 1830’s, the typical daily newspaper was sold by subscription to a small audience whose interests were purely business and politics. “Just the facts, mam” fit neatly into four pages. Then in 1833, The New York Sun transitioned into a Penny Press and began telling “stories” with a “relevance to their reader’s lives.”

The Sun’s first issue sold out immediately, and contained numerous “human interest” stories (a form practically invented by the Penny Press) that drew an audience of readers “starved for information about other people like themselves, distressed souls from other lands or from upstate farms – people marooned in a rapidly growing city that was often inscrutable, uncaring, or unintelligible,” writes historian George H. Douglas.

We may think of brands as stories from the Penny Press. They are definitional resources that consumers scrutinize for notions about who they are and how they might live. This is a biggest value add of the brand proposition, and, as it happens, one of the toughest thing for the marketing to wrap its head around. The key here? Consumer paging through the press looking for stories on their own and assembling them for their own purposes.

The moment that brands presume to tell a larger story, this is the very moment when brands cease to serve us well. “Declare a world view”? Alex, you little fascist. The very point of the exercise is consumers browsing the world of ads and retail looking for concepts they can use to constitute their private and/or public sense of self. Some of this is “eureka, this watch is me.” Some of this is “Maybe, just maybe, this is who I might someday be.” There is lots of noise, contradictions and dynamism here.

But it’s all choice followed closely by assembly. There may have been a time when consumers looked for all-embracing, pre-fabricated concepts. (“I am a Audi kind of person.”) There was a time when some brands thought they could sell more or less embracing concepts (“I am a Nike kind of guy.”) There certainly was a time when intellectuals got their knickers in a knot at the idea that either of these fictions might come to pass.

But in point of fact, the consumer society works as a cultural system precisely because consumers are free to choose products but also the cultural meanings contained in this products. There are no sole-source suppliers of these meanings. Consumers must cast the net wide. They must make their own choices and do their own assembly. The moment we begin talking about brands with a world view, of brands with a comprehensive set of meanings that will offer comprehensive definitions of the consumer, this is the moment when our cultural/commercial world does indeed get “hijacked.”

This is the power of the commercial world as a cultural system. It supplants other meaning making systems and most of these are comprehensive in their claims. Ideology offers a sole-source, comprehensive set of meanings. Religion did the same. As Philip Kotler, Peter Drucker, Syd Levy, and Theodore Levitt told us, it is the genius of capitalism that it decentralizes the meaning suppliers and multiplies the meanings supplied. Now we have Audi pitching one notion of driving (and driver) and Volkswagen another. We have made the great engines of capitalism cultural players.

And what a good thing this proves to be. The meanings that prevail in our culture are at any given moment emergent. They do not come from elites. They do not come to us as whole cloth. They do not make imperial claims on our selfhood or our world view. They offer bits and pieces which we variously embrace, deploy, consume, and, eventually, throw off. The moment brands take a Wipperfurthian turn, this is the moment that brands begin to act like ideologies or religions and it is time to reach for our pistols.

When all those consumers are surveying all those meaning sources, embracing and using them and throwing them off, in all those various ways, we create a net out of which our culture comes. This is what we use instead of the wisdom of elites and the presumption of ideological or religious world views. This is what it is to live in a society of strangers, this is what it is to share a society with strangers. This is what it is for us all to pursue our separate projects and somehow create a single universe. In the great voting procedure that is the consumer society, we all act for ourselves in millions of consumer choices and in the process construct something like a single cultural world. It is of course a world that is multiple, fractious, contested, confusing, conflicted, changing and for all of these and other reasons, dynamic and emergent. And unless I am very much mistaken, that’s the way we like it (uhuh, uhuh).

As cultural systems go, ours is not very pretty. It’s not coherent. It’s not at all predictable. But it is a treasure, the single best way for strangers to make up their collective mind in the absence, and now free from, the presumptions of elites and their ideologies. The last thing in the world we want is brands that act like emperors. And this should give us pause about the courtiers who argue this course of action and the intellectuals who embrace it.


Wipperfurth, Alex. 2005. Brand Hijack: marketing without meaning. New York(?): Portfolio.

The exemplary work of Evelyn Rodriguez here.

11 thoughts on “Brands: fresh and frozen

  1. Steve Portigal

    I guess this is my Evelyn Rodriguez tipping point. I’ve seen her blog cited constantly in just about every corner of the web I inhabit (hmm, well not every corner) and can never get any mental traction on the person/the brand/the voice/whatever. She’s sort of like Seth, people quote them both. But no one ever steps back and explains or analyzes them, you are just supposed to know who they are.

    I have checked out her blog, and I can’t get a handle on it; who is this person? What do they do? I want to understand the brand – what is it a producer of? What is the history of the brand? What makes it an authentic and credible brand? I’m not willing to invest the brain cycles to fully explore every touchpoint of the brand and decide for myself if it is authentic, I need some cues.

    I can’t find any cues. Who is she? What does she do? What has she done?

    But I guess this tips it for me and I need to just suck it up and put her in my RSS reader (I was gonna construct some metaphor about on my radar but I couldn’t figure out if she is on my radar now or she will be after this).

    Alex, I’ve had hands-on experience with, so I’m good there.

    But can someone tell me who Joyce Wyckoff is? She’s probably in the ring beyond Seth and Evelyn – glowingly cited, but I can’t get a handle on.

    Sorry for the tangential comment.

  2. Steve Portigal

    Is part of your response Grant to say that the meaning if brands is partly (or greatly) constructed by the consumers of the brand, rather than (solely) by the producers of the brand? If I understand you correctly, isn’t that a key component of what Alex has been saying for years?

    Instead of Pabst trying to force their counter-culture message down the throats of those who had co-opted it as a counter-culture beer (nominally slacker bike couriers in Portland), very much just let it be, and allow the success to grow where it finds root?

    That’s my take on Alex’s stories and approach, be bottom-up and not top-down.

    I have yet to crack the book (sorry) but from experience, other writings, and conversation, that’s how I’ve understood it, so I wonder if the Evelyn-filter has repurposed some of his approach in a way that struck you funny?

  3. Rob

    I agree, Grant. The last thing I want is to have to think about a “higher purpose” before I can buy a pair of jeans. I think she’s wrong about Apple, too. Apple isn’t about a higher purpose, it’s about quality.

    By coincidence, I blogged about this very thing today:

  4. Grant

    Steve, she is discursive, I grant you. And she engages with several topics at once. And on both these counts, she breaks the anglo-american rules of style. But I think there is substance here, I think, and a great act of ideas in progress, blog as intellectual reconnaissance vehicle, as it were. We are grateful for the reports and we devoutly hope the driver returns to us whole. Actually, there is a better metaphor, one that comes from her blog. I think Evelyn is always living in a Tsunami aftermath, aka our culture. I am grateful to anyone who is prepared to put themselves in harm’s way.

    I think the “bottom up” position fails to see that there are still lots of formative people and institutions, still a great big diffusion effect in effect in our culture. Slewing from top down to bottom up because to down no longer operates is just too easy and its certainly wrong. Thanks, Grant

    Mish, thanks you very, very much. Your devoted son, Grant

    Rob, I guess I end up in the middle here too. I do think Apple manufactures meanings in a consumer society, and it represents a particularly interesting experiment and someday someone will write a book about brands like Apple, Volkswagen, Snapple that shows them to be innovators of both form and content. (You know that something interesting is taking place when a brand makes an add that is simply mysterious to the mass of consumers: see the Nike bounce synchronicity ad, or the VW ad in which kids arrive at their destination and then leave again.) But as I say I dont want them building comprehensive images of me or my world. That would be presumptious of them and slavish of me to respond to. Of course, every brand aspires to a kind of commercial solpsism, (there is one brand, it’s name is apple,) but I for one, thank god that this is overweening ambition that meets with punishment swift and sure.) The other, the older, the traditional meaning makers of church and state were not so well constrained even with lots of checks and balances in place. Thanks, Grant

  5. Anonymous

    Steve has a point – Who is this person? Not a hint of biographical detail on the blog. Or none that I could easily see! Am I alone in wondering what’s up with that? Am I being asked to evaluate her opinions purely on their own intrinsic merit? Am I old-fashioned in asking – “by what authority…?” And wondering if this obscuring of identity – however innocent or well-intentioned – is ever so slightly suspect. Is this the future: “Never mind the source, feel the opinion?”

  6. Grant

    Anonymous, I think that’s a good point, that we are entitled to know something about the person we are reading. And so it is with some reluctance (and a good deal of pride) that I reveal that the author of Evelyn Rodriguez’s blog is me. It’s true. I should also point out that I ghostwrite all of the work that comes from Tyler Cowen and Virginia Postrel. Oh and instapundit, truetalk, and any thing that appears to be from the pen of LK and SP. This does leave me much time for the presidential speech writing, but W has been most patient. SO FAR! For all we know, you are ER and just playing with us. I guess my feeling is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And it’s not as if ER is holding anything back. Thanks, Grant

  7. Patrick

    Alternately, you could just click on the “About” link on the blog or look here:

    It’s not exactly a CV, but you’ll get the drift.

  8. Steve Portigal

    I guess I wasn’t suggesting that there was no information available about her, but that her “story” in the culture emerged in a strange way, with no bio (after pounding out hardboiled detective novels by the fistful), or no by-way-of-explanation affiliation (Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO), or no two-word description (management guru Tom Peters), she’s just Evelyn Rodriguez. It’s hard for the newcomer to get a handle on it, as a brand.

    If your suggestion is “well, go look it up” then I haven’t made my point very clearly. No one talks about her in a way that makes her story clear.

    Steve, amused that the soaring-with-eagles intellect of GMcC would deign to take credit for the ham-fisted trotter poundings of simple-minded J.D. Roberts-quotin’ SP or LK. I just *wish* I was smart enough to use a word like quotidian in here or something.

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