Brand, baby, brand - show me you're real!

Thought you knew everything about branding? (After all, everybody shops.) Well, a new V&A exhibition may have something fresh to say
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The Independent Online

Fashionistas will tell you monogrammed accessories - think Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior - are one of this season's strongest looks. And, of course, streetwear fans perennially debate the relative merits of Adidas and Nike trainers. But analysing the impact of brands is another matter - something best left to earnest media studies geeks. Which is odd, given that we're bombarded by an estimated 3,000 marketing messages every day.

Fashionistas will tell you monogrammed accessories - think Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior - are one of this season's strongest looks. And, of course, streetwear fans perennially debate the relative merits of Adidas and Nike trainers. But analysing the impact of brands is another matter - something best left to earnest media studies geeks. Which is odd, given that we're bombarded by an estimated 3,000 marketing messages every day.

That statistic was provided by Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, a publication featuring hard-hitting "subvertising" - ads parodying and viciously debunking those of brands like Camel and Calvin Klein - in its fight against globalisation. A topical venture in the light of the recent demonstrations in Prague, it's one of many aspects of branding examined by a new exhibition, Brand.new, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

This includes an exploration of the history of both local and global brands; a look at the promises they make (from value for money to status); films in which consumers are interviewed about their taste in brands, and examples of brand subversion, from counterfeiting to protests in the form of T-shirts and leaflets against the biggest corporate players.

Like the museum's recent controversial installation of furniture by Ron Arad, this is no typical, well-behaved V&A show. To begin with, it's designed by Thomas Heatherwick, whizzkid architect, famous for his gazebo, the Hairy Sitooterie, whose eccentric exterior bristles with over 5,000 ash staves. On entering Brand.new, you're faced with an arty installation: 4,000 photos showing logos, balancing on wire "stalks" stuck into a huge undulating wooden structure, the entire display bears a strong resemblance to a sculpture by David Mach (the one in which hundreds of magazines are stacked into gigantic wave shapes springs to mind). Because the photos are of equal size, there's no hierarchy of brands. The inspiration, explains Gareth Williams, co-curator and Assistant Curator at the V&A's Department of Furniture and Woodwork, was a quote from brand consultancy Interbrand - "Everything and everyone is capable of becoming a brand."

"We didn't want to put on a conventional V&A-ish show," he says. "We wanted a concept-led show." By which he means a metaphorical rather than a ploddingly literal one. His reason? "Our audience is already familiar with today's branding, in the sense that everybody shops." It's a sign of Williams' enthusiasm for the show's experimental format that he describes the second room - packed with conventional historical information - almost apologetically, as "the most didactic part of the show."

However familiar he might think we are with such archetypal brands as Kellogg's, Coca-Cola, Muji or Typhoo, he hasn't made the mistake of assuming we know too much detail about their history.

There's a lot to learn from the second room, entitled "The Power of the Brand". Coca-Cola (first marketed as a medicinal drink) gets a major look-in. By 1917, we're told, there were 300 rivals to Coca-Cola in the US alone. Hard information aside, there's retro fun to be had from seeing the Seventies "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coke television ad sung by an ethnically diverse gaggle of hippies, inspired no doubt by Marshall McLuhan's notion of the "global village" (the world homogenised by the electronic media), and Hollywood's Sixties bid to woo the young, hip and multiracial, typified by blaxploitation flicks and films like Easy Rider.

The section also includes information on "non-branding" (for example, the minimalist, barely-there packaging of Muji, designed to impart a sense of "good taste") and celebrity endorsement (how the likes of George Best, Michael Jordan and Martha Stewart came to be associated with certain products).

Section two, "Individualising the Brand" presents seven categories of "branding behaviours": core qualities that lure different types of consumers. The first, "Authenticity", shows how the success of Levi's has been built on a myth of rugged, old-world Americana. (On display is a pair of pre-1900 jeans, one of only six in the world.) Then there's "Science" (new, improved products, thanks to scientific advances), "Technology" (the increasingly individualised marketing of user-friendly gizmos, children's mobile phones being a prime example), "Status" (Bond Street clothing, "premium brands" like luxury foods and credit cards), "Loyalty" (creepy, catch-them-when-they're-young brands like Hello Kitty, designed to inculcate lifelong loyalty), "Irreverence" (brands such as Benetton, whose controversial advertising bears no similarity to the bland jumpers it helps sell) and "Conscience" (advertising for the guilt-ridden - ethical banking, Fair Trade goods, etc).

But even these supposedly individualising brand behaviours are too general to ensnare the maverick or recalcitrant consumer, as the next section, "Branding the Individual", suggests. TV monitors show films featuring interviews with consumers, which highlight the yawning disparity between the impact brands think they have and how they're received. One curmudgeonly refusenik insists on only wearing M&S; another objects to consumerism per se (a member of Manchester pressure group Enough, he demonstrates against shopping outside the city's stores).

This spirit of rebellion infects the final - and most interesting - room, "Subverting the Brand", where products are displayed in huge clear plastic bubbles reminiscent of a pack of pills. There are Adbusters "ads", tacky bootleg copies (a Geri Halliwell CD is bafflingly misspelt "Hauiwell"), McLibel duo protest pamphlets, doctored slogans (eg, a lesbian pride T-shirt proclaiming "Vorsprung Dyke Technik"), sneakily tweaked products (such as China's Li-Ning trainers bearing a bastardised Nike swoosh).

The show's design doesn't always work. The installation at the entrance is confusing. Its non-hierarchical presentation overlooks the pre-eminence of certain brands. Then there's the mixed metaphors - the opening installation's organic field metaphor clashes with the closing room's synthetic pill-pack presentation. If there is a progression between the two, it's not clear what it is.

As Williams says, this is not a typical V&A show. This in itself is a sign that the museum is attempting to rebrand, or at least reposition, itself. It couldn't have picked a more appropriate subject.

* Brand.new is at the V&A, South Kensington, London SW7 (020-7942 2000) from 19 Oct-14 Jan 2001

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