Currently Reading: Brand.New (exhibition catalogue). ed. Jane Pavitt (co-curator). 2002. V&A Publications, London.
“Published to coincide with the exhibition, Brand.New takes a challenging look at consumer culture and the proliferation of brand identities at the beginning of the 21st century.
The idea of the brand is central to contemporary society. Businesses, personalities, political parties and even nations ‘re-brand’ themselves in order to influence public opinion. With the emergence of e-commerce, the status and value of well-established brands – many of which have been with us for a century or more – may well be challenged by a host of new brands. Today’s brands promote themselves as more than just a logo, a slogan or a distinctive package, they promise to deliver a host of emotional benefits too. But what do we really think of the brands we buy?
Ranging across fashion, design and media, Brand.New sets out some provocative and entertaining debates about branding and consuming habits. Five key sections look at the history and development of brands: the economics and business of branding; the architecture of the shopping environment from mall to website; personal and social identities in a global commodified world, and the ethical and social questions for both brand and consumer. Eighteen short features complement the main text, presenting snapshots of retail, branding and consumer behaviour from around the world. Critics, historians, sociologists and designers, as well as voices from the business world, explore topics as diverse as shopping in China or individual acts of ‘brand’ subversion.
With over 200 colour illustrations, Brand.New’s stunning design deliberately reflects the dynamic character of the subject. The book is essential reading for students and observers of modern culture, those with an interest in advertising, product design and fashion – and anyone who shops.”
V&A sent me an email recently advertising their book sale. Amongst the discounted books was this title Brand.New (2002) priced at £4, reduced from £19.95. I read the blurb and thought it seemed relevant and a bargain at £4, then I remembered a.) P&P would likely double that and b.) I have a University library card and, with the book being 10 years old, it was bound to be in the library (it was).
So I read through the library copy of Brand.New – stamped and stickered and tagged (although not graffitied or with bent pages of note).
The first chapter In Brands We Trust? begins with a look at brands and the consumer consumption that brand = quality. Pavitt outlines the brand-packaging link with a short history of the standardisation of consumer goods that were previously dried/cured/loose and packaged in store (c.1900), then packaged and competing on the store shelves next to each other (p.33). She looks at brand values (p.38) and and adverts and the shift from object to experience in what is considered branded (p.38). The notion of aestheticisation of everyday life (Featherstone 1991) is explored where “the primary role of commodities becomes to express emotional and symbolic value – as a sign to be decoded by ourselves and others.” (p.44) Branding here is defined as “a process by which products become signs.” (p.44)
In the study of rubbish, a huge amount of domestic waste is branded product packaging. Far from being devoid of any value, the packaging can tell us a huge amount of information about the consumer in ethnographic studies. In some cases the packaging of the original consumer product can retain monetary value when the packaging has become an integral part of the consumer ‘experience’. Clever packaging has immediate re-use value. A branded biscuit or sweet tin that is reused to contain other food stuffs or oddments will continue acting as a subliminal marketing tool or brand reinforcement whilst other plastic and card packaging is being shipped to China to be recycled.
In Brand.New, Pavitt highlights Barbara Kruger’s work examining the relationship between identity and consumerism epitomised by the famous slogan “I shop therefore I am”. (p.44)
A case study ensues: “American beer label Schlitz parodied this in its press advert featuring a rummage through celebrity dustbins and the tagline “You are what you trash.” As Celia Lury has commented, “Is garbage the husks of a personal selection of consumer goods, to be understood as a self portrait?” Lury p.323.
On globalisation, Pavitt goes onto to discuss the shift from a production to consumption-orientated economy which gave rise to planned obsolescence and the emphasis on service and marketing rather than manufacturer. (p.45) She references socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (author of The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective): “Instead of creating homogeneity it can be argued that globalisation promotes and sustains difference and plurality in everyday experience.” (p.48) He describes this as a series of imaginary landscapes, where our view depends upon our location within that landscapes (1996) – not so dissimilar from Hito Stereyl’s essay in The Wretched of the Screen: In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective.
The second chapter: Ties that Bind: Brands, Consumers and Businesses (co-authored by Patrick Barwise, Andrea Durham and Mark Ritson) begins by examining what a brand is. Traditionally brands symbolised production (John Sherry). David Aaker considers brands to be the logo/symbol/trademark/packaging. Jean-Noel Kapferer describes them as the product’s essence/meaning/direction/identity. Stephen king (no not that one, an advertising man) says “A product is something made in a factory; a brand is something bought by a consumer. (p.73) A Brand’s symbolic meaning (in the long term) is termed ‘meaning flow’ by anthropologist Grant McCracken which involves the inward reassertion of self and the outward projection to others. (p.82)
Chapter 3: All the World’s a Store: The Spaces of Shopping (Aaron Betsky) examines the affect of spaces on buying and selling where Betsky describes malls as social spaces’ (p.111)
An important point raised in this chapter is that of the “environments for exchange of goods that are mediated by the consumer, rather than brand owner. Barter and labour exchange second hand networks, car boots, jumble sales, children’s toy libraries – alternative systems for exchange and consumption.”
“Democracy begins at the [Greek] agora or outdoor market.” (p.114)
Back to the central notion: “Brands mediate between object and ideology, while archaeology offers a cut, a division or critical break between them.”
Betsky discusses the marketplace as a spectacle and “is the stage for freedom of expression.” (p.114) and the introduction of the arcade as the formalisation by the state of the open market place. He takes us through the chronology of department stores, supermarkets, malls, catalogue shopping and the move to online shopping where stock is in “anonymous volumes” (p.116)
Skipping most of Chapter 4: Branding and the Individual (Jane Pavitt) as perhaps surprisingly mostly irrelevant, an ethnographic case study by Alison Clark: Brand not-so-new (p.182) looks at the second-hand, informal economy of children’s used clothes. Clark highlights the value systems of the household vs the individual with the example of a pink 101 Dalmatians pyjama set for a six year old. “What’s happens to branded goods once they have become part of everyday lives and social worlds?” she asks. “Charity shops and social values of branded goods circumvent the intention of the market.”
Chapter 5: The Point of Purchase by Gareth Williams looks more precisely at rubbish. The first point of interest is that Williams about ecopackaging/green packaging.”The potential of recycling post-consumer waste is enough to persuade most shoppers that they are contributing to improving the environment. ‘This carrier bag is biodegradable’ can only be effective of the consumer acts upon it. Little information is published to show that landfills, where most so-called ‘biodegradable’ waste ends up, are specifically managed to reduce biodegradation and so control the emissions of harmful gases.” This consumer power/knowledge relationship is at the heart of the eco-agenda and the chapter moves on to discuss ethics and brand boycotts and protests.