Monday, May 25, 2015

Burn Me Mark Me Brand Me



Nation branding? 

Product Branding?

Personal Branding?



The notion of “branding” seems ubiquitous, as if everything – and everyone --were a commodity that has to be sold, with real value of no consequence, only trendiness.  Ah, Karl Marx you have won!  The fetishism of appearance triumphs.

The irony is that most people bandy the branding meme around without any sense of what it means. 
In fact, the idea has been around for at least 3000 years – it predates language – as a symbolic expression of identity.  When the first hunter stylized the handle of his fling dagger to individualize it, he was creating a brand

The word “brand” of course, comes from the marks or marques creating by burning.  Brands were originally symbols burnt into wood or flesh to indicate ownership or membership in a group.  Scarring. Ouch.



Tattoos are an extension of the concept -- with less of the Ouch Factor.   Body art identifies a person with a certain group – and often their status and affiliations. No, that little dragon on our ass does not make you an individual – i’s just trendy – and in twenty years you will regret it.


The Ainu, the Maori, native Indians in the Americans – and of course criminals worldwide --all write their promises of loyalty on the bodies.   Along with twenty-something’s who want something to complement their body piercing.  And idiots to inscribe their armpits with the name of this month’s girlfriend.


The ever organized Nazis tattooed numbers on Jews.  It defined status while serving the German fetish for orderly accounting.
OK… so a  ”brand” is  traditionally indelible.    

It's a sign of commitment -- like a wedding ring.   Yes, marriage is branding too -- complete with rituals and emblems and titles (Mrs) -- even name changes.  Oh, it's forever -- even though  statistics tell us most people cheat.  

Nothing is really forever. And the absurd lengths we go to prove otherwise are...well...absurd -- like heaven.


The  brand is “Identity" it must not change, right?  I yam what I yam – I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.   

How often have you said, “That’s just the kind of person I am”?  Society demands consistency.  So does the individual -- mostly of other people, mind you. So social indebility -- proofs that everything will be the same forever -- that people are who they say they are --are a very, very BIG thing.   

Because you are that person -- except when you are not.


Add to indebility:  ownership.  Another tricky subject in any hierarchical society, with a concept of property. And very obvious in the concept of marriage.
 

The brands on cattle tell you

 a.) they are private property
b.) the identity of those who own them 


Which is why slaves were branded too.


How about the tattoos of the Russian Mafia or a Triad member or Biker?  Yes they also define ownership –   ownership by the Group.    


You can not belong -- without also being, at least in part, owned. 

No, you are not your own person.  They are things you can and cannot do.   

Marriage is the obvious example. You choose to belong.  Then you are no longer free.  Your partner owns a large chunk of you, as you will discover in the divorce later.  Property rights, sexual rights.   

All codified?  Why?

Because, in reality, nothing is forever -- and "ownership" is never complete.
  

Nationality is also figures into this concept.   


Let’s say you are an American, keeping in mind that most of North America is not...um..."American", which just goes to prove my points in this article, about the deceptive nature of branding.

But I digress....

Let's say America is at war with Germany.  If you sympathize with the Germans and help them – that’s treason.  If you are a German and kill Americans that’s AOK because, well, you are a German.  Americans belong to America, which then owns them, with the right to hang them, if they repudiate their allegiance.  Apostasy can be political too.


Ask John Walker Lindh.  Or Omar Khadr.  Or Chelsea Manning. Or Edward Snowden.  

Or Julian Assange.  Oh, he's not American?  Well, he's Australian, isn't he? And Australia belongs to us.  

Of course, your average American does not have nationality burned into his flesh or written on his skin.  
 
Average Americans (Actually French)

His identity is established externally through DNA testing, surveillance, data chips and the like. And internally through education, social indoctrination and the like.  The national brand is very much a programmed emotional response – people weep at football games watching the stars and stripes fly and singing the national anthem, tone deaf or not. 

No your heart is not there. That's your wallet

  
Which brings us to another important point: brands have no intrinsic content – they connote instead a narrative.  So Brand America references, among other things, a national mythology that includes but is not limited to: 

An origin myth – how the nation was created.

And after desert, they killed the Indians


 Gods and demons – heroes, such as Washington and Lincoln and especially "our boys in uniform"  versus Evil, George III, slavery, Hitler, Communism.



Morality – values of patriotism (my country right or wrong), individualism, free trade, Christianity, etc.



 Exceptionalism – America as the Chosen of God.




As Dwight Whitney of Trinity Communications says, behind every brand stands is a story --thinking back to the earliest peoples, sitting around the campfire -- part of a tribal mythos, with its own logos and ethos – a kind of secular religion, inherently tautological. 

Of course, our modern mythologies are a little different. But still about impossible things.


Neither religions nor national mythologies -- or for that matter corporate or personal mythologies --  impart any real information – or have much to do with historical fact or social reality ==other attributions of  identity and affiliation – their symbology is as abstract as the decorative scar on a cow.    


 History classes in school don’t tell you what really happened.   You believe – because you have to – you are after all, an American – and you are owned--and there is a test.


What you know of Apple Computer is not what happened at all.  But Apple stuff has style and you want to have style too and be an Apple Person. 


And the persona you call "me" has nothing much to do with who you are or what made you -- and a lot to "fitting" in, your best imitation of someone else.

So branding is about "looking good" which brings us back in a circular way to – the fetishism of appearance.  Content is mostly irrelevant.  Value?  They are all fakes!

A Rolex that costs 10,000 dollars is not much better at telling time than a 10 dollar watch – and often has basically the same mechanism inside.  It looks good is all….. And that perception is temporary.  Twenty years from now it’s:  like old, man – you gotta get an Apple Watch”.  All that is gold is still not an Apple.

Fake or Real?  Branding takes us a step away from reality -- it is always emblematic, symbolic, and reductive. 



 Take “Cool Japan”.

Japan is complex, insular, yet dependent on international trade and much influenced by global trends.  It is in many respects most ‘un-cool’.  But it thinks other Nations are “cool” and it wants to join the club.  Identity. Membership. Affiliation.


So “Cool Japan” is right from the get-go somewhat disingenuous.
Japan creates things -- but it does not create trends – it follows them – always about five to ten years behind.  Ironically, even "Cool Japan" was created abroad (as we have seen in previous posts) by foreigners. 

Dead babies are uncool
“Cool Japan” is also a kind of identity theft -- stealing from   the UK’s belated ad campaign for “Cool Britannia” – which began after the Blair era and New Labour put an end to all that creativity that had begun under Old Labour.  


Japan's "branding" also lacks what Brand America has – a national mythology – a story.  Granted the American Story is rather passe – clearly a fiction – but, at least, it exists.    Japan's story is like one of those handouts you get in supermarkets.  Beef at 2.99.  Ketchup for a dollar.  And little plastic thingies, cheap. 


Indelible? Nope.  As far as real brands go, this is the kind you can wash off with a little soap and water. 

And if the brand connotes a story, it is a sad one, of immature, frustrated people who desperately want to be what they are not.