Why can't we say no to brands?

The shiny labels that saturate our daily lives are hard to avoid
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The Independent Online

What is the most successful rebranding exercise in human history? Surely it has to be the astonishing turnaround in the image of branding itself. Once reserved for cattle, criminals, and slaves, branding is now the motor of consumerism, the key to marshalling the desires of every human on the planet.

What is the most successful rebranding exercise in human history? Surely it has to be the astonishing turnaround in the image of branding itself. Once reserved for cattle, criminals, and slaves, branding is now the motor of consumerism, the key to marshalling the desires of every human on the planet.

Collectively, we do still recognise that branding is a kind of bondage - we talk of style slaves and fashion victims. Even though many of us are deeply susceptible to the manufactured allure which inveigles us into making "buying decisions", we are not necessarily that keen to admit it.

The Victoria & Albert Museum opens a new exhibition called Brand New on Thursday, dedicated to decoding the mysteries of marketing's holy grail. To concur with the show, it commissioned a Mori poll of 1,918 adults, asking them how much branding influenced their shopping habits.

Almost 85 per cent of those questioned believed that "people are often misled into paying extra for named brands which are no better than the other products on the market", while 35 per cent maintained that they were "interested in the top brands because they offered better quality". Which essentially means that a good portion of the sample know that other people are being conned, but still manage to pretend to themselves that they're not.

Interestingly, when answers are split among the genders, men admit far more openly to being seduced by image than women. When asked if they were influenced by brand image, a quarter of men admitted that they were, compared to only 17 per cent of women (a statistic that will draw a cynical smile from any luxury cosmetics manufacturer worth their mark-up).

Certainly, anecdotal experience would suggest that men are more upfront about their desire for branded goods, while women are more secretive. Men's sportswear often carries enormous logos, for example, while the logo on the expensive lipstick worn by many a woman remains at the bottom of the handbag, to be flashed only discreetly, in the powder room.

In the same vein, women claim brand awareness of everyday items, such as household products or cosmetics, while men are more fixated on the branding of clothes, alcohol, cars and electrical goods. The difference is obvious really, an affirmation of everything we know about the kind of stuff that keeps men's magazines in the money, and the sort of things that keep women's magazines ticking over.

Nevertheless, the percentage of both men and women who admit that brand image and status are important is pretty low, which would suggest once again that people do feel embarrassment about being manipulated in this way by corporations. And even though people are keen to disassociate themselves from stereotyping by shopping preference, they still believe that they can do that with other people.

Nearly half of male respondents, and 40 per cent of women, claimed that "you can learn a lot about a person from the brands they buy". Which must be the most naive delusion of all. That would explain why, when the research is broken down into 16 to 34-year-olds and those 35 or older, there is a marked difference in responses. Among the younger age group, 35 per cent admit that they are influenced by brand image, while only 13 per cent of the over-35s claim susceptibility.

However, nobody really needs a Mori poll to confirm that it is the youngest consumers who are most vulnerable to the seductions of marketing, image and branding, and the older ones who are most impervious, or perhaps least willing to admit it.

For those unsure about their own identities, or overly concerned about how others may judge them, brands are a disguise more than a projection, which is why it is surprising that so many people believe that you "can learn a lot about a person from the brands they buy". Sometimes you can learn a few things about the person they want you to think they are, but mainly all you can learn - if anything - is which sociological group they wish to hide themselves in.

In the case of the world's most popular brand, Coca-Cola, you can tell nothing at all about a person from their soft drink, not even what continent they might be on at the time. That's the dichotomy about successful branding - the more identity the brand has, the less identity the consumer.

As the most successful brand in the history of the world, Coca-Cola features prominently in the V&A's exhibition. One simply wonders at seeing the hundreds of products which were similar to the world's favourite, jostling for consumer attention at the close of the 19th century, all stuffed with cocaine and caffeine, and all offering a quick quick-me-up. All these drinks were known as "dope".

If branding itself has managed spectacularly to throw off all negative associations, and reposition itself triumphantly, then so has the world's brand leader. The early Svengalis behind Coca-Cola, would now be "branded" dope dealers, and considered "the scum of the earth". Instead, this sticky brown liquid, well known for its ability to dissolve pearls, maintains a healthy, youthful image which has nothing to do with the product itself.

What staggers most of all is the sheer, bewildering alchemy of branding, the way in which a brand can remain untouched by sweatshop scandals, child labour revelations or even the continued failure of the sporting teams it sponsors. Likewise, we remain untouched by our brands, benefiting in the playground of school or work by their status, but essentially no better or worse for our badges. In one section of the V&A's exhibition, branded products are gathered into separate spaces, and exhibited thematically according to the kind of appeal they encapsulate. In the room which displays the goods we buy because of their luxuriousness, there is hardly an item which does not seem to me showy, vulgar and ugly. I'd rather drag my worldlies around in a torn Kwik-Save carrier than be seen with a Louis Vuitton handbag, but I suppose that's just some genetic thing connected to lack of breeding.

Interestingly, though, despite the almost complete failure of logic which surrounds the whole business of branding, logic is indeed what the corporations struggle to impose on their brands. Jane Pavitt, the curator of the V&A's exhibition, found it quite difficult to get across to some companies why she wanted their products for exhibition. Most companies eventually co-operated, but one did not.

Nike, when viewing early proofs of a book published to coincide with Brand New, spotted photographs of counterfeit products, a T-shirt which used the company logo to strike a blow for alternative lifestyles with the legend Dyke, and riot police stationed outside their Nike Town store in Seattle during last year's world Trade Organisation conference. The company withdrew its big tick, after attempts to suppress the material had failed.

I think this says more about the nature of branding than anything else that is in the show. If you won't do what we want, you can't have our logo. Branding may have redefined its image, but it's still all about being in control, and showing it.

* d.orr@independent.co.uk