How corporate branding has taken over America
Clearly the techniques of branding have both thrived and adapted since I published No Logo. But in the past 10 years I have written very little about developments like these. I realised why while reading William Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. The book's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is allergic to brands, particularly Tommy Hilfiger and the Michelin man. So strong is this "morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace" that she has the buttons on her Levi's jeans ground smooth so that there are no corporate markings. When I read those words, I immediately realised that I had a similar affliction. As a child and teenager I was almost obsessively drawn to brands.
But writing No Logo required four years of total immersion in ad culture – four years of watching and rewatching Super Bowl ads, scouring Advertising Age for the latest innovations in corporate synergy, reading soul-destroying business books on how to get in touch with your personal brand values, making excursions to Niketowns, to monster malls, to branded towns. Some of it was fun. But by the end, it was as if I had passed some kind of threshold and, like Cayce, I developed something close to a brand allergy. Brands lost most of their charm for me, which was handy because once No Logo was a bestseller, even drinking a Diet Coke in public could land me in the gossip column of my hometown newspaper.
The aversion extended even to the brand that I had accidentally created: No Logo. From studying Nike and Starbucks, I was well acquainted with the basic tenet of brand management: find your message, trademark and protect it and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergised platforms as possible. I set out to break these rules whenever the opportunity arose. The offers for No Logo spin-off projects (feature film, TV series, clothing line...) were rejected. So were the ones from the megabrands and cutting-edge advertising agencies that wanted me to give them seminars on why they were so hated (there was a career to be made, I was learning, in being a kind of anti-corporate dominatrix, making overpaid executives feel good by telling them what bad, bad brands they were). And against all sensible advice, I stuck by the decision not to trademark the title (that means no royalties from a line of Italian No Logo food products, though they did send me some lovely olive oil).
Most important to my marketing detox program, I changed the subject. Less than a year after No Logo came out I put a personal ban on all talk of corporate branding. In interviews and public appearances I would steer discussion away from the latest innovation in viral marketing and Prada's new superstore and towards the growing resistance movement against corporate rule, the one that had captured world attention with the militant protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. "But aren't you your own brand?" clever interviewers would ask me endlessly. "Probably," I would respond. "But I try to be a really crap one." Changing the subject from branding to politics was no great sacrifice because politics was what brought me to marketing in the first place.
The first articles I published as a journalist were about the limited job options available to me and my peers – the rise of short-term contracts and McJobs, as well as the ubiquitous use of sweatshop labour to produce the branded gear sold to us. As a token "youth columnist", I also covered how an increasingly voracious marketing culture was encroaching on previously protected non-corporate spaces – schools, museums, parks – while ideas that my friends and I had considered radical were absorbed almost instantly into the latest marketing campaigns for Nike, Benetton and Apple. I decided to write No Logo when I realised these seemingly disparate trends were connected by a single idea – that corporations should produce brands, not products.
This was the era when corporate epiphanies were striking CEOs like lightning bolts from the heavens: Nike isn't a running shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports, Starbucks isn't a coffee shop chain, it's about the idea of community. Down on earth these epiphanies meant that many companies that had manufactured their products in their own factories, and had maintained large, stable workforces, embraced the now ubiquitous Nike model: close your factories, produce your products through an intricate web of contractors and subcontractors and pour your resources into the design and marketing required to project your big idea. Or they went for the Microsoft model: maintain a tight control centre of shareholder/employees who perform the company's "core competency" and outsource everything else to temps, from running the mailroom to writing code.
Some called these restructured companies "hollow corporations" because their goal seemed to be to transcend the corporeal world of things so they could be an utterly unencumbered brand. As corporate guru Tom Peters put it: "You're a damn fool if you own it!" For me, the appeal of X-raying brands such as Nike or Starbucks was that pretty soon you were talking about everything except marketing – from how products are made in the deregulated global supply chain to industrial agriculture and commodity prices. Next thing you knew you were also talking about the nexus of politics and money that locked in these wild-west rules through free-trade deals and at the WTO, and made following them the precondition of receiving much-needed loans from the International Monetary Fund. In short, you were talking about how the world works.
By the time No Logo came out, the movement was already at the gates of the powerful institutions that were spreading corporatism around the world. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits and G8 meetings from Seattle to New Delhi, in several cases stopping new agreements in their tracks. What the corporate media insisted on calling the "anti-globalisation movement" was nothing of the sort. At the reformist end it was anti-corporate; at the radical end it was anti-capitalist. But what made it unique was its insistent internationalism. All of these developments meant that when I was on a book tour, there were many more interesting things to talk about than logos – such as where this movement came from, what it wanted and whether there were viable alternatives to the ruthless strain of corporatism that went under the innocuous pseudonym of "globalisation".
In recent years, however, I have found myself doing something I swore I had finished with: rereading the branding gurus quoted in the book. This time, however, it wasn't to try to understand what was happening at the mall but rather at the White House – first under the presidency of George W Bush and now under Barack Obama, the first US president who is also a superbrand. There are many acts of destruction for which the Bush years are rightly reviled – the illegal invasions, the defiant defences of torture, the tanking of the global economy. But the administration's most lasting legacy may well be the way it systematically did to the US government what branding-mad CEOs did to their companies a decade earlier: it hollowed it out, handing over to the private sector many of the most essential functions of government, from protecting borders to responding to disasters to collecting intelligence.
This hollowing out was not a side project of the Bush years, it was a central mission, reaching into every field of governance. And though the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state, leaving behind only a shell – or a brand – was approached with tremendous focus and precision. One company that took over many services was Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defence contractor. "Lockheed Martin doesn't run the United Slates," observed a 2004 New York Times exposé. "But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it... It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security cheques and counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft."
No one approached the task of auctioning off the state with more zeal than Bush's much-maligned defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Having spent 20-odd years in the private sector, Rumsfeld was steeped in the corporate culture of branding and outsourcing. His department's brand identity was clear: global dominance. The core competency was combat. For everything else, he said (sounding very much like Bill Gates), "We should seek suppliers who can provide these non-core activities efficiently and effectively." The laboratory for this radical vision was Iraq under US occupation. From the start Rumsfeld planned the troop deployment like a Wal-Mart vice-president looking to shave a few more hours from the payroll.
The generals wanted 500,000 troops, he would give them 200,000, with contractors and reservists filling the gaps as needed – a just-in-time invasion. In practice, this strategy meant that as Iraq spiralled out of US control, an ever-more elaborate privatised war industry took shape to prop up the bare-bones army. Blackwater, whose original contract was to provide bodyguards for US envoy Paul Bremer, soon took on other functions, including engaging in combat in a battle with the Mahdi army in 2004. The sprawling Green Zone, meanwhile, was run as a corporate city-state, with everything from food to entertainment to pest control handled by Halliburton. Just as companies such as Nike and Microsoft had pioneered the hollow corporation, this was, in many ways, a hollow war.
And when one of the contractors screwed up – Blackwater operatives opening fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007, for instance, leaving 17 people dead, or Halliburton allegedly supplying contaminated water to soldiers – the Bush administration was free to deny responsibility. Blackwater, which had prided itself on being the Disney of mercenary companies, complete with a line of branded clothing and Blackwater teddy bears, responded to the scandals by – what else? – rebranding. Its new name is Xe Services. The Bush administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand America" for an increasingly hostile world.
Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure of its policies. "I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House," Floyd told Slate magazine. "They'd say: 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd say: 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving us trouble.'" A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn't have a branding problem; it had a product problem. I used to think that, but I may have been wrong.
When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered – Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn. So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding – it's just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today's tough market.
The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desirée Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public Strategies, a PR firm which, according to Business Week, "has quarterbacked campaigns" for everyone from Cable vision to AT&T. Together, the team has marshalled every tool in the modem marketing arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama ringtones); product placement (Obama ads in sports video games); a 30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally heralded as "authentic"); and the choice of strategic brand alliances (Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end of hip-hop stars for street cred).
The first time I saw the "Yes We Can" video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther Kingesque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the presidential elections, Obama beat Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers' top annual award – Marketer of the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the 1990s, brands upstaged politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on Obama's caché (Pepsi's "Choose Change" campaign, Ikea's "Embrace Change '09" and Southwest Airlines' offer of "Yes You Can" tickets).
Indeed everything Obama and his family touches turns to branding gold. J Crew saw its stock price increase 200% in the first six months of Obama's presidency, thanks in part to Michelle's well known fondness for the brand. Obama's much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been similarly good news for Research In Motion. The surest way to sell magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama on the cover, and you only need to call three ounces of vodka and some fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of "the Obama economy" – the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires - at $2.5bn. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Rogers got into trouble with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with The Wall Street Journal. "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand," she said. "Our possibilities are endless."
The exploration of those possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory. Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further, turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-90s branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional "experiences" – branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the personality of their favourite brands. The problem is not that Obama is using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.
Though it's too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison – while going ahead with an expansion of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who authorised torture. He will boldly appoint the first Latina to the Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy, while championing the fantasy of "clean coal" and refusing to tax emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in Iraq, and will retire the ugly "war on terror" phrase – even as the conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States).
Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is "big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy". And then their highest compliment: "Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player." Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party monopoly through dogged organisation and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued "bipartisanship" with crazed Republicans once in the White House.
Does Obama's failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him? It didn't at first. An international study by Pew's Global Attitudes Project, conducted five months after he took office, asked people whether they were confident Obama would "do the right thing in world affairs". Even though there was already plenty of evidence that Obama was continuing many of Bush's core international policies (albeit with a far less arrogant style), the vast majority said they approved of Obama – in Jordan and Egypt, a fourfold increase from the Bush era. In Europe the change in attitude could give you whiplash: Obama had the confidence of 91% of French respondents and 86% of Britons - compared with 13% and 16% respectively under Bush. The poll was proof that "Obama's presidency essentially erased the battering the US's image took during eight years of the Bush administration," according to USA Today. Axelrod put it like this: "What has happened is that anti - Americanism isn't cool anymore."
That was certainly true, and had very real consequences. Obama's election and the world's corresponding love affair with his rebranded America came at a crucial time. In the two months before the election, the financial crisis rocking world markets was being rightly blamed not just on the contagion of Wall Street's bad bets but on the entire economic model of deregulation and privatisation that had been preached from US-dominated institutions such as the IMF and the WTO. If the United States were led by someone who didn't happen to be a global superstar, US prestige would have continued to plummet and the rage at the economic model at the heart of the global meltdown would likely have turned into sustained demands for new rules to rein in (and seriously tax) speculative finance.
Those rules were supposed to have been on the agenda when G20 leaders met at the height of the economic crisis in London in April 2009. Instead, the press focused on excited sightings of the fashionable Obama couple, while world leaders agreed to revive the ailing IMF – a chief culprit in this mess – with up to a trillion dollars in new financing. In short, Obama didn't just rebrand America, he resuscitated the neoliberal economic project when it was at death's door. No one but Obama, wrongly perceived as a new FDR, could have pulled it off. Yet rereading No Logo after 10 years provides many reminders that success in branding can be fleeting, and that nothing is more fleeting than the quality of being cool.
Many of the superbrands and branded celebrities that looked untouchable not so long ago have either faded or are in deep crisis today. The Obama brand could well suffer a similar fate. Of course many people supported Obama for straightforward strategic reasons: they rightly wanted the Republicans out and he was the best candidate. But what will happen when the throngs of Obama faithful realise that they gave their hearts not to a movement that shared their deepest values but to a devoutly corporatist political party, one that puts the profits of drug companies before the need for affordable health care, and Wall Street's addiction to financial bubbles before the needs of millions of people whose homes and jobs could have been saved with a better bailout?
The risk – and it is real – is that the response will be waves of bitter cynicism, particularly among the young people for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics. Most won't switch parties, they'll just do what young people used to do during elections: stay home, tune out. Another, more hopeful possibility is that Obamamania will end up being what the US president's advisers like to call "a teachable moment". Obama is a gifted politician with a deep intelligence and a greater inclination towards social justice than any leader of his party in recent memory. If he cannot change the system in order to keep his election promises, it's because the system itself is utterly broken.
It was a conversation about changing the system that many of us were having in the brief period between the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999 and the beginning of the so-called war on terror. For the movement the media insisted on calling "anti-globalisation," it mattered little which political party happened to be in power in our respective countries. We were focused squarely on the rules of the game, and how they had been distorted to serve the narrow interests of corporations at every level of ¬governance – from international free-trade agreements to local water privatisation deals. Looking back, what I liked most was the unapologetic wonkery of it all.
In the two years after No Logo came out, I went to dozens of teach-ins and conferences, some of them attended by thousands of people, that were exclusively devoted to popular education about the inner workings of global finance and trade. It was as if people understood, all at once, that gathering this knowledge was crucial to the survival not just of democracy but of the planet. Yes, this was complicated, but we embraced that complexity because we were finally looking at systems, not just symbols. In some parts of the world, particularly Latin America, that wave of resistance spread and strengthened. In some countries, social movements grew strong enough to join with political parties, winning national elections and beginning to forge a new regional fair-trade regime. But elsewhere, September 11 pretty much blasted the movement out of existence.
What we knew about the sophistication of global corporatism – that all the world's injustice could not be blamed on one rightwing political party, or on one nation, no matter how powerful – seemed to disappear. If there was ever a time to remember the lessons we learned at the turn of the millennium, it is now. One benefit of the international failure to regulate the financial sector, even after its catastrophic collapse, is that the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as "free market" but "crony capitalist" – politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support. What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate greed is at its highest point not just in my lifetime but in my parents' lifetime as well.
Many of the points supposedly marginal activists were making in the streets 10 years ago are now the accepted wisdom of cable news talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages. And yet missing from this populist moment is what was beginning to emerge a decade ago: a movement that did not just respond to individual outrages but had a set of proactive demands for a more just and sustainable economic model. In the United States and many parts of Europe, it is far-right parties and even neofascism that are giving the loudest voice to anti-corporatist rage. Personally, none of this makes me feel betrayed by Barack Obama. Rather I have a familiar ambivalence, the way I used to feel when brands like Nike and Apple started using revolutionary imagery in their transcendental branding campaigns.
All of their high-priced market research had found a longing in people for something more than shopping – for social change, for public space, for greater equality and diversity. Of course the brands tried to exploit that longing to sell lattes and laptops. Yet it seemed to me that we on the left owed the marketers a debt of gratitude for all this: our ideas weren't as passé as we had been told. And since the brands couldn't fulfill the deep desires they were awakening, social movements had a new impetus to try. Perhaps Obama should be viewed in much the same way. Once again, the market research has been done for us.
What the election and the global embrace of Obama's brand proved decisively is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change – that many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves. Those kinds of transformative goals are only ever achieved when independent social movements build the numbers and the organisational power to make muscular demands of their elites. Obama won office by - capitalising on our profound nostalgia for those kinds of social movements. But it was only an echo, a memory. The task ahead is to build movements that are – to borrow an old Coke slogan – the real thing. As Studs Terkel, the great oral historian, used to say: "Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up."