Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The difference engine

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.


Charles Edward Frith said...

I must write up some day how a small but growing percentage of copy brands are almost indistinguishable from the originals. Simulacra?

Richard said...

Ironic choice of picture. In the original Saint books, Charteris had Simon Templar driving a fictitious British marque called a "Hirondel" which fitted with his image. The Volvo P1800 on the other hand was actually made in the UK on the Jensen line until the mid-60s. Of course, had he driven a Jensen, he'd probably not got it out of Mayfair before it collapsed in a steaming heap.

LC said...

Brands exist to save consumers the trouble of thinking. You buy a Volvo because it is safe, and you know Volvo is safe because the people who manage that brand have worked hard over several decades to associate it with that characteristic in the public consciousness.

You could do your research and find out if another car has similar or better safety ratings and offers other benefits, but that's all rather a lot of effort. Everybody knows Volvos are safe - decision made.

The public doesn't care who owns the company, so long as the brand behaviour (i.e. the products and communications it puts out) stays the same.

Tim F said...

Interesting point, Charles. If it's identical in all respects to a branded product (after all, it's probably made in the same factory) exactly how is the punter being ripped off?

Hirondel sounds like a horrid 70s wine, Richard. Roger would have gagged.

Brands were fine when they were simply a guarantee of physical quality, LC. It's when they get tied up with aspiration, self-image, ethos etc that I start to get bored. What exactly does Nike *make* these days?

LC said...

You're right - it's all incredibly wanky - but it's far more profitable to create a brand which represents a particular lifestyle that people can buy into, because then you can sell them practically anything with your logo on it, and it's easier to generate customer loyalty.

If Nike just stood for "we make good shoes" then people would abandon the company as soon as somebody came along with a brand that said "we make better shoes".

Witness the technology sector - tech brands are largely built on being able to say you have the most technically advanced products. So as soon as a competitor can trump you, your customers jump ship. The singular exception in the tech industry is Apple, which doesn't compete on technical superiority or price, but instead has created a lifestyle brand, and built a rabidly loyal fan base.