Waging a War on Branding
Anti-corporate activists take issue with the ubiquitous use of logos
Naomi Klein does not exacdy look like the stereotype of the counterculture radical. In her neat grey jacket and black skirt, the 29-year-old freelance journalist could easily be applying for a job at the most conservative of blue-chip firms. But Klein has come to talk about her much-touted book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, an analysis of a growing worldwide opposition to not much less than the entire global economic system. And like much of that opposition, Klein focuses her attack on the public face—and most prized possessions—of transnational corporations: their brand names. “Branding is a specific, predatory corporate ideology,” Klein explains, characterizing what she sees as an effort to privatize common culture and public space. “And what I describe are attempts to use the power of branding against itself.”
Nike, Pepsi, Mercedes-Benz and other corporations with famous brands and instantly recognized logos—and their ad agencies—might want to pay attention to Kleins account. For one thing, the Toronto writer is clearly not alone in her views. The thousands who took part in the chaotic mass protests that accompanied the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle last year clearly displayed a deep suspicion of big business. And Seattle, widely viewed as a victory for their side, has had a galvanizing effect. A decade ago, Klein says, left-wing political activists were enmeshed in “an incredible apathy that accompanied the shift from national economies to globalization.” But by the mid-’90s, activists, angered by what they saw as the abuses of global multinationals—moving capital and jobs across borders at will, making cozy deals with unsavoury regimes—began to shift their tactics to direct attacks on corporations.
Activists have brought to North America $2-a-day Third World clothing workers, including teenage Gap seamstresses from Guatemala and Indonesian Nike union orga-
nizers. The point: to have them see—under the glare of TV lights—the prices their sweaters and shoes fetch in gleaming mall stores. Protesters have convinced local authorities, from the Los Angeles Board of Education to the Fort McMurray, Alta., city council, to ban purchases made by child labour. And on the cutting edge of anti-corporatism are the “culture jammers”—people who parody brand ads to reverse their messages. They “skull” the faces of models in posters—using a few deft strokes of a marker to turn them into deaths heads—or alter billboards bearing Nikes Just Do It slogan into Justice. Do It.
Having their logos and names tarred with such associations can hit corporations where it hurts: at the bottom line. Businesses see their brands as an essential shorthand way of symbolizing their products to customers. Corporations like Macleans owner, Rogers Communications Inc.—which last week unveiled a new logo to symbolize its reorganized structure—remain wedded to a strategy that keeps them in the public eye in a crowded marketplace. And for many of the most aggressive advertisers, their names are their assets. According to Neale Halliday, senior vice-president at the Toronto office of ad agency BBDO Worldwide Inc., more than 90 per cent of the $238-billion market value of Coca-Cola Co. is based on intangibles. Part lies in the famous—and literally priceless— secret recipe, but most of the value resides in the brand name.
Other firms are almost as dependent on their names, according to brand consultancy firm Interbrand Group, which assesses Nike, Apple and BMW as each having 77 per cent of their market capitalization tied to their brands. The importance companies ascribe to their good name has combined with a steady flood of new products to fuel a tremendous increase in ad spending in the past two decades—from $70 billion in 1979 to
$290 billion in 1998 in the United States alone. Industry observers say that corporations selling directly to the public have done their best to keep their brands associated with every good thing in the lives, real or imagined, of potential buyers. In Canada, hockey—which invokes passion, nostalgia and patriotism—has always been a favourite.
For Klein, this corporate strength is actually a weakness, a huge opportunity for anti-corporate forces. So much shareholder value is tied up in brands that the relentless drive to keep logos visible has seen them creep into every nook and cranny of previously ad-free space, even washroom stalls. It is a strategy that BBDO’s Halliday jokingly refers to as “jumping out in front of people wherever they are, shouting your message, slapping your logo in all sorts of weird places.” But Klein says that pervasiveness has alienated many ordinary consumers. Others are even more troubled by the brands’ intrusion into public-sector space. There are university chairs endowed by—and named after—brands, like the Taco Bell Distinguished Professor of Hotel and Restaurant Administration at Washington State University and the Lego Professorship of Learning Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Toronto, Pepsi has an exclusive contract with 560 public schools that allows it to distribute Pepsi Achievement Awards and other logo-emblazoned giveaways.
But the most subtle and unpredictable outcome of branding derives, ironically, from the ad agencies’ success in establishing emotional connections between product and buyer. The result, writes Klein, is a relationship akin to that “of fan and celebrity: emotionally intense but shallow enough to
turn on a dime.” Brand buyers, she argues, no longer simply shrug off reports of sweatshop conditions or lax pollution standards. Instead they feel complicit, and turn readily to the other side of celebrity worship—toppling icons. That’s what happened to TV talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford in 1996 when the news broke that child labourers in Honduras sewed her line of sportswear. Only Gifford’s immediate conversion to the anti-sweatshop cause saved her carefully crafted image as a doting TV mom—and her ability to sell clothing.
After four years of research, Klein herself has a surehanded grasp of the uncanny mutual reinforcement of corporate branding and anti-corporate response. She has even turned the very design of her book into her own culture jam, complete with a slash through publisher Knopfs greyhound logo. At the book’s recent launch party, the No Logo logo was prominent on bright-red thread pickers, suitable for removing clothing labels. But can jamming rout the branded world? Some of the new anti-corporatism—that concentrating on Third World social justice issues—does, in fact, mesh with middle-of-the-road causes among church and union groups. But the shock troops of the resistance to the branded world— the poster-defacing jammers—will probably prove to have limited appeal in mainstream, mall-shopping Canada. They are not, after all, the brand of choice for most consumers.