Never Mind the Politics, Here's the Brand
Essay on Brand Activism by Tom Morgan
First written in April 2018 for The Last A New Type of Imprint, Vol. 13 (Pre-Order Now!)
Download the essay as a PDF
This essay was produced for the last edition of A New Type of Imprint in April of this year, scheduled for October, but we simply can not wait for you to read it. So here it is, in digital.
Since the essay was written its relevance has become more prophetic. Mainstream media picking up on what we have captured as brand activism. We have seen Airbnb daringly challenge Donald Trump’s travel ban, the UK fashion retailer Jigsaw confronting Brexit with ‘❤️ [heart] Immigration’ stating “there is no such thing as 100% British”. The current peak, of this ever rising disobedience is of course Colin Kaepernick, the face and voice of Nike’s Just Do It 30th anniversary campaign.
But what lies behind all this? Where is it taking us? With all the frustration, anger, cynicism, twitter-storms and share price peaks’n’troughs, its good to reflect, dive in and have a long read.
Never Mind the Politics, Here’s the Brand
When they dig us up or download us in a 1000 years, it will be our brands that tell our story, painting the big social pictures of our age and the intimate portraits of our lives.
The 21st century is fast becoming its own; times they are a changin’. In the early morning of the 21st century, brands big and small, local and global, are starting to voice a new type of opinion and are fast becoming leaders of social change. They are political entities, shifting in terms of meaning, how they exist, and how we communicate through them. Democracy and post-consumerism are emerging as the big brand agendas. With the arrival of new powers, destabilised establishments, and changing opinions and values—will the old red and blue corners of the political ring be usurped by what we know as brands?
Brands & Ideologies
Brands, regardless of the era in which they exist, or their sophistication, have the same cultural function as religion, music, theatre, literature, or any other form of human expression that has existed across time immemorial. They transcend and divide national and/or political boundaries. They are tribal markers in action, from the level of local nuances right up to the big global stage—affording us the ability to empathise with a stranger. As the great Milton Glaser puts it, “if you like Beethoven [coca-cola] and I like Beethoven [coca-cola], we’re less likely to kill each other”.
By their nature, brands are the ideological platforms of our organisations and are therefore ideal barometers of our beliefs and behaviours. Social or commercial, large or small brands must respond to their environments to stay relevant; to survive the times. As in the case of us all, the world of the brand is entirely artificial; obsessed with economics, social structures, and cultural aesthetics.
Some don’t just reflect our ideas of the world but also push for change before the majority has seen the change coming. Brands aren’t simply passive barometers, they are also change agents, contributing to the flood that turns the tide of social acceptabilities; from equality and environmentalism to even our sense of identity. The motivation for a brand to jump before it is pushed is very much about relevance, getting ahead, and ultimately, surviving and becoming stronger.
Just as with actual barometers, the forecast is altering swiftly with unpredictable results. What we now, in 2018, think is going to happen in 2019, probably won’t. The logic and ideologies of brands are entering a period of revolution, because we are too.
To understand this phenomenon, it would be a good idea to jump back to a hilltop in 1971, to Coca-Cola’s ad I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke. So monumental was the advert that it was appropriated as Don Draper’s swan song. The real Don, McCann-Erickson’s creative director Bill Backer, was famously struck by the idea while his flight home was grounded in Ireland, as he observed his fellow stranded passengers coming together over a Coke—finding their common ground.
The often neglected point of view regarding the brilliance of Bill’s concept and Coke’s rise to becoming bigger than Jesus is found in the wider context of the times. By ’71, the Vietnam war had sent the US into a state of exhaustion and had eroded patriotic unity. Brand USA’s Stars and Stripes was a domestically divisive icon. A vacuum was forming in the iconography of a nation and Coke filled it—“it’s the real thing the world wants today”, so goes the bottle’s anthem.
Coca-Cola had a moment of perfect relevance for the social consciousness, and it seized the opportunity beautifully.
Four years after Coke went up the hill a soda and came down a social icon, Warhol captured the ideological relevance of Coke in our time: “A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
The egalitarian concept of a Coke to an 18th century aristocrat or peasant would be an image of a world equivalent to science fiction today; a dystopia or utopia depending on your social rank. The egalitarianism of Coca Cola and Levi’s blue denim, and the meritocracy of Louis Vuitton’s handbags and a bottle of Cristal Champagne are the entwined ideologies of our age—that is, “we are or should all be equal and if you work hard you can or should achieve anything.”
Coke’s Hilltop ad is a small but nevertheless representative act of brand communication that contributed to the global building blocks of our 20th century identities. However, the omnipresence of brands in the 21st century, with their intricate integration into our lives, is of an altogether different nature and effect.
As we choose brands to shape how others relate to us and us to them, it is a politically charged act, filled with nuances of our personal and cultural narrative, our social economic positioning, and an exposé on our needs and desires. What we buy and share, and how we buy and share, are democratic actions, a process of voting with our wallets.
This has been the relationship of brands and ideology up until now.
Welcome to The Hangover
At this moment, confidence in the political and social establishments, across much of the world and not just the West, is in decline. The value of a consumerist economy is under mounting scrutiny. The ideologies that have gotten us so far are under the microscope.
The political sphere in recent years has seen low ‘left-wing’ investment, matched with higher engagement from the ‘right’, and disillusionment in the political status quo is mutual across the spectrum. However, action regarding this disillusionment with regard to the two sides is seemingly quite different. It is apparent that politically, we are taking a right turn, while in our brand-led lifestyles, built on liberal ideologies, we’re turning left.
At the same time, national metrics are expanding from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to new metrics such as Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), and even Gross National Happiness (GNH). In some corners of the West, plans are afoot for our post-consumerist future. The concept of Universal Basic Income is gaining traction amongst many, with pilot projects already in action across parts of Europe. If the measurement of national well-being is now evolving, so too will the values and metrics of brands.
Add to the mix social media, the most powerful tool brands have possessed since the birth of TV. Social media has allowed brands to become almost entirely omnipresent and fantastically intelligent. However, it is also seemingly distorting many people’s grasp of reality, all against a backdrop of raising awareness regarding inequality and impending ecological disasters. Where to turn and what’s coming next? These questions are explored by communities of strangers digging rabbit holes of ideas; all played out on branded platforms.
As in 1971, political discourse and responsibility is once again widening, and every act is becoming political. Unlike 1971, the managers of the most influential brands today have more resources at their disposal than some nation-states. Such a level has not been seen since the East India Company of the British Empire. Combine the power and influence of the East India Company of the 18th century with the omnipresence and intimacy of brands today and the power and influence is almost unbelievable—however, with power and influence must come responsibility.
Our 21st century’s evolving ideologies suggest that transparent “responsibility” is becoming more and more important to us. We are concerned about the impact of our decisions and the actions of others on the complex systems of our world like never before. Ideas put into practice, such as Universal Basic Income, will challenge and affect our current ideologies; perhaps just a tweak, or perhaps as a revolution of ideas.
In many ways, brands have an advantage over party politics in motivating us, one way or another, in our day-to-day lives, quite simply due to their frequency of their presence and immediate relevance. The way in which we interact with brands is far more technologically and socially advanced than the way in which we interact with established politics. It is a low threshold and is almost always experienced as personal with direct results, unlike the democratic process of voting, which comes around once every four to five years with no instant feedback. The latter is seemingly an antiquated experience, out of sync with the rest of our lives. It is no surprise that sharing content from an organic food brand or buying Fair Trade is more of an effective “political experience” than voting for the Green Party three years ago. It is not binary, but quite simply, the question is, what has more influence on your life: your chosen political party, or what’s in your shopping basket and on your social media feed?
The outdoor clothing brand Patagonia recently launched a campaign titled The President Stole Your Land, attacking US government policy. This act of frustration is connected to the brand’s vision and mission of a sustainability-focused outdoor clothing brand. However, the confidence to declare political opinions has become greater, the risks lower, and the expectations from consumers increased. This is laying the foundations of an entirely new type of politically motivated brand: activist brands.
We are starting to see brands engaging in a political discourse that from a 20th century point of view has no direct connection to the product or service that the brand represents. The political aspect is not an add-on, a layer of communication to increase the brand’s affinity with the target demographic, but rather, it is now emerging as the product itself.
One example of this emerging type of brand behaviour is seen in the newly created Eaton Workshop Hotel. As a service, it fits modern expectations of a hotel, with a co-working members club and wellness centre. However, its promise of extensive content and cultural programming is curated with ambitions to change the world, supporting “consciousness and impact”. The hotel “invites activists, artists and entrepreneurs from around the world to instigate meaningful and positive initiatives on both a local and macro scale”. Imagery used by the brand promotes civil disobedience and global responsibility, from a monk burning himself to death in Saigon, to masked Putin protesters in Moscow, Molotov cocktails in South America, floods and hurricanes, species under threat, Wall Street traders, artefacts from extinct civilisations and empires, and so on. All of it more emotionally powerful than any political party campaign.
Eaton Workshop’s politics is located at the core of its business: To build a community who have politics at the forefront of their minds—an expanding target group. It offers a platform, which is global in its ambition, for debate and exploration, and self-fulfilment; it is a hotel that has a political manifesto as a brand manual.
The effect of brand activity must not be underestimated, as what is created goes on creating. An image or a story once sent out into the world occupies the minds of others, informing their behaviour, consciously or subconsciously, ranging from little effects to world changing impact. The more outspoken existing brands such as Patagonia there are and the newer political activist brands such as Eaton Workshop that are created, the greater the political impact of brands will be.
A Brave New World: ReBranded
A common thread found throughout many brands today is the narrative of well-being; well-being presented as success and the ultimate ambition in life. This refers not just to individual well-being but also to societal and ecological well-being. These ideas of “the good life” attack the current paradigms of business and commerce; paradigms that brands are the ideological platforms for.
A brand’s aim in a post-consumerist age might well be to push beyond the current modus operandi to drive addictive consumerism into something altogether new—generating a new type of desire and a new type of fix. This fits with brands’ new focus on “social and cultural production” as opposed to “consumerist behaviour”.
In the 20th century, we wanted brands for their familiar comfort, social status, or distinction. They were a visual tribal signifier, a feel good factor in the connection to others, and they reinforced the social ideologies of our times. We live through their content, and the product they promote is our ballet box—the logo on our shirt, the newspaper we trust, the car we drive, even the country we visit on holiday chosen through destination branding—all a conscious or unconscious political act through the paradigm of consumerism.
The 21st century is suggesting that brands could usurp the position of political parties by being the new platforms for ideological association. The opposite of a consumerist brand, the “activist brand” will invite you to contribute to a movement of social change and responsibility. The brand is the champion of ideology and the product is the platform; a post-consumerist platform for the co-creation and shared consumption of new ideas.
Like a bottle of Coke to an 18th century aristocrat or peasant, the image of brands (as we know them) becoming the political establishment is a dystopian or utopian image of the world; we must choose. There might just be an opportunity to make the world a better place through brands; to live in a richer world with less material goods and more ideas, to transcend artificial boundaries through a complex web of shared references, to be more engaged and embrace a throw-away culture of ideas that no longer fit.
As William Gibson wrote “The future's already here, it’s just not distributed”.