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 Wipperfurths 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 Evelyns 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 Suns 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 its 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, thats the way we like it (uhuh, uhuh).
As cultural systems go, ours is not very pretty. Its not coherent. Its 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.