Branding : Naomi Klein's No Logo

Klein's significance lies in the way she draws out and highlights the connections between the multiple phenomena around modern branding.

In Klein's analysis, companies are rapidly trying to virtualize themselves. They want to stop being organizations whose purpose is to own traditional capital, in the form of machinery, factories and stock. (And work to extract extra profit by exploiting labour.) Instead, they want to be nothing but the the nexus of multiple relationships : contracting cheap manufacturing firms in the third world to do the manufacturing, (and exploit the labour), renting retail space, hiring cheap contract staff to run them etc.

The important point, highlighted by Klein, is that brand is the key to this dematerialization. Why do companies want to be virtual? Because with ownership, of factories, machinery and stock comes friction : responsibility for maintaining the machines, managing the factories, storing the stock. Meanwhile more advanced governments have made exploiting labour hard. Companies have to be responsible for their workers' health, for holidays, for compensating them when they lose their jobs or limbs. Responsibility costs.

But a company can't virtualize itself out of existence. A company that owns nothing and does nothing, can't also claim big profits for doing it. It would quickly be squeezed out of the value chain by a rival who did equally little, but more cheaply. What companies want to hold onto, in order to cement their place in the network of relationships, is IntellectualProperty. Intellectual property is a very pleasant form of property to own in that it doesn't get sick, break down, go on strike, or incur much in the way of storage costs.

Of course, IP costs money to develop, whether it's in hiring programmers to write code, or branding consultants to think of a new name. In fact, it's good that IP costs something, otherwise

  • the barrier to entry it represented would be very, very low, and
  • companies wouldn't win as much sympathy from governments, who tend to pass draconian IP legislation to protect their investment.

But, nevertheless, something that has a one-off development cost, and can repeatedly be cashed in on, looks like a good deal, compared to pretty much any other kind of asset or dissipative activity.

Given this background context, the rest of Klein's book falls into place. Not everyone makes software, but brand is the kind of IP that every company has. And every company can play the game. That is shedding physical assets, outsourcing all real work to subcontractors, and betting the savings on brand building. This leads to a hyper-competative arms race beteen mega-brands seeking exposure. In the process, no commons can be left untouched or untarnished. Civic centres, schools and universities, the arts, all must be bought up and turned into further advertising space. Competing messages, whether the content of artistic works or academic discourse or just a kid wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on a Coke sponsored schoolday, are suppressed.

Klein's book traces the colonisation and destruction of public space by rapacious mega-brands, the effect of corporate abdication of responsibility on workers in third world sweatshops and first world retail parks, and the attempt by brands to spread themselves over increasingly large segments of the market.

She also points out the growth of brand oriented resistance. Using brands, companies hope to connect with users. And the mega-brands have become significant cultural entities in their own right. But as such, they have the power to unite people in unpredictable ways. If consumers care deeply about brand X, then they might also start to care more deeply when brand X is implicated in environmental destruction in the third world. They might start to care enough to boycott brand X. Similarly, if people find their world overcrowded with X ads, they start to resent and sabotage those ads. They might start to find parody of brand X, deeply hilarious. Hence the emergence of a spectrum of brand oriented resistance from Adbusting to boycotting is the natural response to companies attempts to virtualize themselves. And in this world of pure information such resistance has real teeth.

(It's very disappointing to note here that the No Logo site, which was a discussion forum based on SlashDot's Slash software, has been redesigned as a one way communication medium from Naomi to us. She has good things to say, and her reports are interesting but this sucks.)

Contrast :

See also :

  • OffShoring/WhyIsItInteresting? (you shouldn't mistake ownership for the next big thing)