It's hard for many people not to feel some sympathy with the protestors. After all, who among us has never felt the intrusive touch of brands on our private life? Yet corporate leaders have largely responded with a shrug. After all, their PowerPoint decks show, just as conclusively, that people love brands and pay dearly just to be near them; in the case of Nike and Apple, they're literally tattooing them on their forearms. Who can argue with such success?
Both sides in this debate get it wrong. The cultural politics of brands are complicated and ambiguous, and can't be reduced to leftist slogans or corporate marketing platitudes. To move the debate forward, both the anticorporate activist and corporate leader will have to embrace the marriage of brands and culture, and its deeper - and messier - reality.
For starters, brands aren't invading the culture; for many, they are the culture. The marketplace has trumped other "meaning making" institutions in people's lives, from political parties to religious institutions. Ask an average citizen to name his elected representatives and you'll get a disinterested stare, but everybody has a passionately held opinion about Walmart. Brands have become the tools with which many construct their personal and social identities. Survey the brandscape and you'll find websites that match singles by whether they are a "Coke Person" or a "Pepsi Person." You'll find a Starbucks that just opened in the lobby of a Midwestern megachurch, and people getting buried out back in Harley-Davidson-branded caskets.
Antibrand activists see this as a corporate assault on culture, but for the people having them, these brand experiences are intimate, meaningful and cherished cradle-to-grave companions. It's time for the antibrand activists to stop condescending to people who find this kind of meaning in the marketplace. And it's also time for corporations to stop treating culture like a commodity. Now that brands are in public space, they must learn to behave appropriately. The mores of the cultural commons are not those of the market.
America has always had a mercantile culture, but the intimacy between people, brands and culture intensified in the early 1980s when state and federal governments began to deregulate markets and curb public sector spending.
Depending on your perspective, this led to either a virtuous or vicious cycle: as governments retreated, the role of private institutions expanded, justifying even more government withdrawal. Today, one quarter of California public school students now eat fast food in their cafeterias. Their principals are forced to cut deals with the likes of McDonald's and Taco Bell to fund extracurricular arts and sports programs, because sufficient monies are no longer provided by the state. Government Acquisitions LLC, a company in North Carolina, recently started offering small-town police squads free police cruisers covered, Nascar-style, in corporate advertising. We might blanch at the idea of seeing the Golden Arches on our schools and squad cars, but the companies see themselves as simply responding to a market opportunity.
And here we have the crux of the problem. A company looks at the side of a building and sees a potential building-sized billboard - an opportunity that they must take, or lose to a competitor. On its own, the decision has, arguably, little consequence, but add up thousands of such decisions and you get the unchecked brand sprawl that blankets many urban areas - at a huge psychological cost. This lack of rules and rewards for cultural stewardship also leads companies to see their brands as intellectual property to be protected, not cultural property that is shared. Whether it's TimeWarner's lawsuits aimed at shutting down Harry Potter fan sites or Paramount's similar efforts with Star Trek, companies have routinely proved themselves incapable of discerning between the competition posed by real trademark infringement and the beloved products of children's emotional investment. Ultimately, this leads companies to treat the public sphere as a zero sum game to be won or lost - an attitude that, in a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons, erodes everyone's belief in the public sphere's value.
There is a way, however, to bridge this divide and make real, valuable and lasting change. It involves three simple steps. Call it an agenda for Post-Logo Politics. First, antibrand activists need to tone down their rhetoric. Blaming corporations for their public-sphere stumblings is like blaming the bull for the bullfight. With a few notable exceptions, companies are not malevolent - they're amoral, responding with the Pavlovian programming of their private sector roots. The activists need to move beyond complaint politics and partner with the institutions they want to change. Becoming shareholders is a good first step. Buying shares would be much more productive than buying bricks.
Second, we need new ways to measure the value of companies and brands. The standard metric for measuring brands captures only their most basic financial aspects. Coca-Cola is the most valuable brand in the world. The value of its brand is measured by examining such things as the pricing advantage the company can charge over its competitors; the geographic reach of its products; and the length of its customer relationships. Cultural context is all but ignored.
Third, the activists, the corporations and all of us must decide together what the limits of the market should be. Do we want McSquad cars for our police, Coca-Cola in our school cafeterias and Starbucks in our churches? We should commit to keep the market separate from anything that falls beyond our agreed boundaries. And we should all be advocating for a re-energized role for government in public life, to fund those areas of society we wish to protect. This will allow companies, and the communities they serve, to avoid bad deals where everyone loses, without fear of losing out themselves. The potential market may shrink, but the actual market, and our society, will do better.
Andrew Zolli is the founder of Z + Partners (zpluspartners.com), a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based "futures research, ideation and design strategy think tank."