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In The Age of Trump, there is no gainsaying the power of brands. When it comes to personal branding, the US president has shown a peculiar sophistication.
It began in 1983 with Trump Tower: architecture as corporate branding. In a dignified corner of Old New York, out went the fine old limestone Bonwit Teller luxury department store, victim of Donald Trump’s pneumatic drills, in came marble, tinkling fountains and a name writ very large indeed.
But it was Republican Rome, not Republican America, where branding first appeared. The Eternal City’s manhole covers still carry the heroic SPQR logo, a proud reference to the Roman Senate and People. The enduring prestige of the ancient Roman republic is not diminished in being attached to drains.
And the Roman Catholic Church continued this bravura corporate identity: great architecture, great art directors (including Michelangelo), terrific costumes and an articulate priesthood.
Ever since, great brands have aped the structure of religion. In his regular sermons at the annual Apple developers’ conferences, Steve Jobs held his congregation in thrall. There was an aroma of sanctity perfuming events where true believers were offered redemption by consumption of his products. Best of all, Jobs had an icon: this year’s Apple gewgaw held aloft to gasps from the floor. Like religion, Apple is itself in a continuous cycle of birth and rebirth.
But what is a brand? It is the fugitive, but precious, element that defines modern business as well as modern politics. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, thought all of life was a question of taste. He was correct, but all of life today is additionally a question of brand.
The simple accounting convention of “goodwill”, the difference between what something is worth and what someone will pay, has been transfigured by art into “brand value”, a sophisticated financial asset. A large portion of the value of the S&P 500 is attributable to brand value, not material assets. Some condemn this as voodoo. But voodoo is a religion.
So what does it mean when, as it soon will, Jaguar Land Rover moves its Discovery production to Slovakia? It means that this nameplate is an asset that can be traded profitably in the short term. But this comes with the risk of diminishing long-term brand value that depends on precious territorial associations — in Land Rover’s case being designed and manufactured in the UK’s West Midlands.
Here lies the danger. All brands depend on the consumer’s faith. This faith is based on a belief in the integrity of the product. Land Rover became a valuable brand because it was a great design, consistently developed and consistently marketed. In this way, brand value was acquired over time. What would happen if Jaguar Land Rover as a whole — now owned by Indian conglomerate Tata — moved all its production to India? No one quite knows. Can great brands transcend the circumstances that created them or are they, like regional appellations such as Champagne or Parma ham, tied to a terroir? Would we want to eat the Barilla pasta made in Poland? SPQR would make no sense in Mancunium.
When he was boss of Audi, Franz-Josef Paefgen described a brand as a “promise” — meaning that any successful brand must promise the consumer certain associations and expectations. This is almost metaphysical territory, but that is the mysterious place where brands reside. There is a lazy habit of journalists to use “brand” as a synonym for any business. But brands are subtle and complex and diffuse: the intangible aspects of a tangible thing.
Brands have more to do with religion, magic and folk art than with technology. And this is why they are so valuable in this sterile age. Brands have great power precisely because they are so indefinable. And if they are a little like religion, they are also a little like culture.
Returning to Rome, Tod’s is sponsoring the restoration and cleaning of the Colosseum, Fendi the Trevi Fountain and Bulgari the Spanish Steps. It is a mutually enriching process: luxury brands gain access to the allure of civilisation, ancient monuments are prevented from returning to dust by profits accrued from free-spending Asians and Russians.
But today brands both collaborate and compete: the designer outlet at Noventa di Piave in the Veneto, where you can buy your Tod’s loafers, Fendi frocks and Bulgari rocks, gets more visitors than the Uffizi in Florence. It is a form of worship.
Mr Trump once again gives us the best justification for brands. This most fabulous president tells us we are manipulated and duped by fake news. Maybe, but that is precisely why you want your news and opinion to come with reliable, honest, impartial branding.
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster and curator. He was the founding director of the Design Museum in London and author of books including ‘Signs of Life: Why Brands Matter’
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