A new exhibition claims to have the answer. gillian orr investigates

At his busy tattoo parlour, Diamond Jacks, in the heart of London's Soho, Darryl Gates recently met with an odd request. A man, decked out head to toe in Nike garb, asked for the sports label's signature tick logo to be tattooed on to his calf. It was to join three existing Nike markings at various points over his body. Gates was unfazed. He had already inked hundreds of people with company logos.

It might sound like rather bizarre behaviour, but, as a new exhibition – Like Me: Our Bond with Brands, at the Design Museum – points out, this sort of practice is actually no longer that strange. And, it claims, there is a reason behind it. Brands are our new religion, and we are pledging our allegiance in increasingly dramatic – not to mention permanent – ways.

According to Simon Glynn, the European head of Lippincott, creative consultancy to the likes of eBay and Starbucks and the firm behind the exhibition, brands work so well because they represent things that meet three basic needs: "To simplify the frenetic world around us so we can get on; to believe in something bigger and more important than what is in front of us; and to belong to a group we identify with. We need these things, and always have done. The question is where we go to get them."

In the past, Glynn observes, we have looked to cultural icons, political movements, sports teams and faith groups to fulfil these needs. It was only recently, he says, that we started turning to the commercial world.

Gates, on the other hand, suggests that tattooing company logos on people is not a new thing, pointing to the fact that Harley- Davidson tattoos have been popular for decades. Given that a Harley marking positioned those adorned with it within a very particular rebellious subculture, it almost makes sense. Recently, however, he has seen brand tattooes become increasingly commercial. Gates has inked Prada, Gucci, and Levi's logos, among others, on to his customers. "Sometimes people are confused about what to get," says Gates. "So they just pick something that they think means something to them. A lot of people don't really have anything to grab hold of, and it might be a brand that they live their life for."

Thankfully, some are embracing big business in less permanent ways. The shaving of logos into hair, although around for years, is growing increasingly popular. But not everyone is pleased when the back of your head becomes a walking billboard. Last year, the then New York Knicks basketball player Iman Shumpert was ordered to remove an Adidas symbol he had had carved into his hair. And the lure of such commercial symbols can get them young. Zac Eccleston, an 11-year-old from Cornwall, was kicked out of the classroom in 2014 for turning up to school with the VW logo shaved into his hair.

Extreme branding has become part of our living arrangements, too. A woman in New York State was so devoted to Coca-Cola that she turned her entire house into a shrine to the fizzy drink, while a Louis Vuitton fanatic decorated the whole exterior of their bungalow in the fashion house's signature LV print.

Elsewhere, parents are even naming their children after their favourite companies. Earlier this year, a French court prevented a couple from naming their baby girl Nutella after the hazelnut spread. Sadly, no one intervened when little Ikea, Google and Facebook were registered at birth.

"Today's brands have learnt to respond directly to our basic needs, satisfying us in ways they never have before," says Glynn. "They draw on people's allegiance as strongly as other cultural, social or political groups do. To simplify, they give us something to believe in and belong to." Such practice doesn't come without it drawbacks, however. Nike might fall out of favour; Facebook could shut down; Prada may cease trading. Then there's the constant threat of a logo redesign (spare a thought for those with a permanent tribute to Google – and there are many – after the search giant changed its branding last week), proving that getting so attached to big business these days is a risky business. µ

'Like Me: Our Bond With Brands' is at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1, from 19-27 September

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