About 10 years ago, I thought I had a fabulous job. To be more precise, the job I thought I had was fabulous. I thought I was in charge of the content and production of a book, one that had been part of my childhood, one that people recognised from Manila to Montevideo. But I’d been misinformed. Certain people in the know started reminding me that I was in fact the custodian of what they called A Brand, and A Global One at that.
Under normal circumstances, I might have been able to smudge over the distinction between the two, dismissing it as little more than a question of emphasis. But my arrival in the plush chair coincided with my reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which argued (among other things) that the dominance of The Brand was a vicious con trick, a way to persuade the gullible to pay a premium for something that essentially doesn’t exist. I could paint the end of that particular gig as some sort of fairy story, with myself painted as the kid pointing out that Capitalism’s New Clothes are pretty threadbare. In truth, it was more messy, personal and boring than that. But the whole experience left me with a pretty cynical attitude to branding and advertising and marketing and all their attendant infernal disciplines.
So Stephen Bayley’s jeremiad about the Chinese takeover of Volvo leaves me rather cold. His argument is that the shift in ownership is unfeasible because Volvos offer a sort of quiddity of Swedishness, all aquavit and Wallander. The brand may be the same, he says, but what it communicates is lost, even if the cars remain entirely the same. Now, there are probably many good reasons why the move might be a bad one, including workers’ rights and environmental concerns. But even Bayley admits that his autophilia is an “often irrational affection”; does it really matter to the consumer where his or her car comes from, provided the wheels don’t fall off?
At least, amidst all this geo-economic turbulence, the notion of a Chinese Volvo might wake consumers from their dream; what Bayley calls “a diaspora of patiently acquired brand value” might encourage us to look more at the product, less at the packaging. Which is something Naomi Klein probably didn’t foresee when she was sowing the seeds of my professional destruction; The Brand, having done the dirty work of globalisation, is dismissed as casually as any wage slave, with no thank yous.