Once upon a time, children used to want to grow up to be doctors and lawyers. Or, at least, policemen and famous rock stars. Admittedly, speaking of the latter, as those of us forced to sit through the Justin Bieber docu-bio will know, that rock star actually dreamed of being a crossing guard but – well, we’ll ignore that. Because nowadays it seems the thing to be, whether you are a person, place or thing, rock star or editor, is a brand.
Recently, for example, while having a career discussion with someone who is as close as I get to a mentor, I was advised to do what I could to turn myself into ... a brand. This has become a popular approach among journalists, ever since Andrew Ross Sorkin created DealBook, a financial website, turning himself into a brand and thus changing the power structure in his relationship with his nominal employer, The New York Times, in his favour.
Then I received an e-mail touting “The Vogue Experience” at Harvey Nichols, as hosted by Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani and featuring various designers and “fashion personalities”. The idea, it seemed, was for consumers to enter the Vogue world, which, as far as I can tell, is yet another step in the transformation initiated by Anna Wintour with the CFDA/Vogue fashion fund and Vogue’s Fashion Night Out, of the name Vogue from magazine into ... a brand. (This word is going to get tired very fast, yet the alternatives provided by my thesaurus – marque, logo, trade name – don’t really capture its essence.)
And then I found out Andy Roddick is creating a line of shorts and shirts for Lacoste, that will be – yes, you guessed it – branded with a tennis player silhouette (Roddick’s) and his autograph. Put another way: everyone wants to be Gucci now!
Now, I know I could have substituted Crest or Coca-Cola for the luxury name in that sentence but they don’t quite have the same seductive ring, do they? They don’t, despite the mega-enormous size of the companies that own those, yes, brands, have quite the same ka-ching implication as Gucci. And it’s the ka-ching, plus the worldwide recognition, the glitz and the insider-ness that comes with a desirable club card, even if it’s just a set of initials, that attracts us now. I mean, would you really like to be, say, saran wrap (or what the English know as cling film)? We want to be brands at least in part because of what fashion and luxury have done to transform the idea of branding from a mass consumer goods thing into a glamourous, elite thing.
After all, brands have been around since Mesopotamia (if you believe David Wengrow, an archeologist from University College, London, who wrote about this in the journal Current Anthropology as far back as 2008). But we haven’t been obsessed to the point of wanting to become them until recently – at least we, the general populace, haven’t. People who were arguably commodities, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Marley and other performers, probably reached this point a long time ago out of necessity: they were their own product. But they were the exceptions rather than the rule.
Similarly, magazines have been glossy information journals – conduits between industry and consumers – until now; now they no longer want to be the middleman, they want to be the arbiter. So what changed?
. . .
I blame the usual: globalisation and the internet. In this case, they changed the reach and relationship of fashion to consumers, and that erased any plebian, marketing-man stigma attached to the idea of, you guessed it, a brand.
Until the internet, brands were actually inanimate products with logos; they required people to animate them, advertise them and model them, and they didn’t really reach beyond the borders of those people. Maybe we wanted to be those people (the chief executive, the actress, the guy who writes the Oscar Mayer jingle) but no one wanted to be the object. You didn’t want to be Vogue; you wanted to be written about in it.
Now, however, brands have Facebook pages, just like people, and fans, just like people, but they have a lot more than most people. They also have Twitter followers. They are on Tumblr. They don’t need middlemen to get them to their consumers, who have no longer become “consumers” but “a community”: hence the middlemen (magazines) have to make their own communities and create their own justification for being the lord of those communities. And that justification is that they are ... a brand.
For what makes people join a community? Well, it’s desirable. And full of people who like the same things you do. Kindred spirits. It represents a set of values, as encapsulated in ... a brand!
Yes, there are people behind the brand but, as we are continually told, especially in fashion and luxury, “the brand is greater than any one person”. And if we accept that as true, what intelligent, self-aware, power-hungry person wouldn’t want to be the brand itself, as opposed to the suckers that serve it?