BOOK EXCERPT: What is this thing called brand?

Published on .

Advertising is a means of contributing meaning and values that are necessary and useful to people in structuring their lives, their social relationships and their rituals.

-from a British pamphlet introducing account planning

What is this thing called brand? Wherever one wandered in the gleaming mansions of the "New Economy"' one heard about its awesome powers. It was the brand that lifted the stock valuations of the people's bull market, quietly filling the pockets of the faithful. It was the brand that stood like a rock while all other aspects of industry were tossed to the winds of "change." Companies could re-engineer themselves; entire industries could delayer down to the essential core; whole workforces could be cut loose, chopped down into "units of one," but the brand remained solid and unyielding despite it all.

The brand was hailed as the model for personal life, as the model for urban rebuilding, as the model for national identity. According to some, the brand was even the single greatest factor in geopolitics. Now that the market had seen fit to move manufacturing to those lands whose populations could be made to work for next to nothing, what distinguished the U.S. from what used to be called the "developing world" were its brands. We had brands. Other people didn't.

They made for quite an impressive edifice, these theories of the brand, a great monument of "New Economy" thought that had only one flaw. Americans hated brands. Or, to be more precise, they hated the advertising through which brands were built. While the rest of the business world talked of brands as a sort of economic Old Faithful, coming through on schedule regardless of circumstances, the leaders of the advertising industry spoke of crisis, of failure, of collapse. The public no longer believed. America was, as the principals of the Kirshenbaum & Bond agency put it, "in the midst of an epidemic of cynicism." The people had learned to distrust advertising, to change channels, to scoff and guffaw, to look beyond the surface. . . .

But just as the democratized, soulful corporation had arisen to resolve the problems of the hierarchical, elitist corporation, so a new breed of marketing thinkers proposed a new conception of the brand. To think of the brand as a static thing, as a rock of Gibraltar or one of the great books, was to miss its dynamic nature.

The brand, according to the new cognoscenti, was a relationship, a thing of nuance and complexity, of irony and evasion. It was not some top-down affair, some message to be banged into consumers' heads. The brand was a conversation, an ongoing dialogue between companies and the people. The brand was a democratic thing, an edifice that the people had helped build themselves simply by participating in the market. The brand, in short, was us.

Naturally the construction of this new, more democratic brand universe required an entirely new army of advertising people, men and women of learning and subtlety who could adjust the brand's every nuance to accommodate our views, our side of the discussion. In July 1998, I traveled to Boston to spend a few days in the company of these people upon whom so much depended.

They call themselves "account planners," and while their field was then a relatively new addition to the organizational flowcharts of Madison Avenue, account planning had already captured the imagination of "New Economy" enthusiasts everywhere. Its orderly sounding name notwithstanding, Planning was insurrectionary stuff. Not only was it identified with the most creative and innovative of advertising agencies -- the sorts of places where future-envisioning change agents were always making heroic revolution on the old rules -- but Planning promised to restore legitimacy to the brand. Its every advance hastened the achievement of full consumer democracy, that free-market utopia where each empowered customer would make his or her voice heard in the great public agoras of shopping mall or Internet, participating in a system of choice vastly more complex, more lively and more interactive than the sterile two-party plebiscites of our industrial past. . . .

What permitted Planning to infiltrate the world of American business with so little notice, I suspect, was its name. The term "account planning" seems to have been designed to disguise the profession as just another unremarkable component of the old Taylorist order, just the usual paper-shuffling corporate mandarins who pass their days parsing pie charts or securing some raw material or other. But nothing could be further from the truth.

While we had an extensive corps of management theorists and op/ed writers to tell us how perfectly the market reflected our desires, the Planners were the foot soldiers responsible for actually doing the job, for seeing to it that business knew our needs and desires. This was where the market populist rubber hit the road.

Back in the Taylorist days, maybe, it was possible to say that a brand meant, simply and unproblematically, what its makers said it meant. But in this age of public skepticism and heightened sensitivity to every subtle shading of the advertising form, it is hardly enough simply to dream up a pleasant-sounding jingle and a sleek-looking logo back at corporate headquarters.

A brand's meaning is as complex and as contested and as socially constructed as, say, gender, and it was the job of account planners to monitor and study the brand's relationship with us in its every detail. As corporate figures of every kind were learning to understand markets as the ultimate democratic form, as an almost perfectly transparent medium connecting the people with their corporations, Planners functioned, or believed they functioned, as interpreters of and advocates for the popular will. Planning thus turned out to be virtually the opposite of what its name implies: Planners were the vanguard of economic democracy, at least as it's understood today, the lively and irrepressible voice of the people against the cold pronouncements of corporate rationality.

I heard again and again over the course of the weekend how advertising people must change their ways to acknowledge the democracy of markets, how they must learn humility and abandon their arrogant, top-down ideas of the brand, how they must "talk to consumers," initiate an "agenda-free discussion" and "let consumers direct your plan." And to assist them as they went in search of the common man, Planners used any number of audience research techniques.

Over the course of the weekend I heard about getting at the "essence of the brand" with the help of tools like "beeper studies," "fixed camera analysis," "shadowing," "visual stories," brainstorming sessions with celebrities and, of course, focus groups, which some Planners seemed to invest with an almost holy significance.

Even more than it resembled a youth subculture, Planning seemed like postmodern cultural radicalism come home to Madison Avenue complete with all its usual militancy against master narratives and hierarchical authority, its cheering for the marginalized, its breathless reverence for the cultural wisdom of everyday people and its claim to hear the revolutionary voice of the subaltern behind virtually any bit of mass-cultural detritus.

Only one thing was wrong: These enthusiastic, self-proclaimed vicars of the vox populi were also, almost to a man, paid agents of the Fortune 500.

It was appropriate that the Planners were addressed on the first day of their conference by Geraldine Laybourne, introduced as someone "known for creating incredibly profitable media brands by always putting the consumer first," but more familiar as the former head of Nickelodeon. A woman who confessed to having "epiphanies" during focus group sessions and who referred to target demographics as "constituents" for whom she aimed to "make life better," Laybourne seemed to embody market populism's combination of concentrated corporate power with an effusive, philosophical love for the little people.

She described for us the bleak world of TV programming before the dawn of Laybourne, back in the top-down days when one of her former employers "believed you should shout down a pipe" to reach your audience. The Planners murmured scornfully at this tale of corporate arrogance: They knew that the key was listening, respect, dialogue, interactivity -- and they also knew what was coming next. The audience would have to talk back. Laybourne described the focus group where the breakthrough happened:

"[W]e asked kids a very innocuous question: `What do you like about being kids?' And in four different rooms, with these kids who were 10 years old, we got a barrage of stuff back. `We're afraid of teen-age suicide; we've heard about teen-age drunk driving; we've heard about teen-age pregnancy; we're terrified of growing up; our parents have us programmed; we're being hurried; we don't have a childhood.' "

Laybourne, no doubt, sensed a breakthrough every bit as momentous and people-empowering as the Hawthorne experiments, when the elitism of scientific management yielded to the lovable logic of human relations.

"So I stopped the research and I said, `Just go in and ask them what Nickelodeon can do for them.' And in all four groups: `Just give us back our childhood.' . . . And that became our battle cry. That became our platform."

Now, with childhood back in the hands of its rightful owners, with access to "Rugrats" and the eternal return of "Bewitched" assured in perpetuity, the demographic battle lines had been drawn and fortified. The people's brand squared off against the top-down brands. "We were clearly on the side of kids," Laybourne continued, "clearly their advocate, and we were never going to turn our backs on them."

But the work of empowerment-through-listening went on. There were other demographics to liberate, and Laybourne told the Planners how she and her new organization, Oxygen Media, were preparing to launch a new entertainment brand for women, a group that sounded just as lovable in Laybourne's telling, as misunderstood, as monolithic and as desperate for accurate media representation as kids.

While the exact nature of the programming and even of the medium to which Laybourne's new brand was to be affixed was still a mystery at that time, she did show a clear affection for the Internet, which she described as a living embodiment of her notion of democracy through marketing.

She also took great pains to assert that this vision of the Internet as democracy incarnate -- despite having already become a cliche from incessant repetition in all media -- was utterly beyond the constricted comprehension of the pipe-shouting authoritarians "who are running the big entertainment companies." Growing audibly indignant, Laybourne switched into protest mode, railing against the arrogance of those who "think that they can put a structure on this thing.

"But the Internet is an organism, and they are trying to put mechanisms on top of an organism. It won't work. It's too powerful. Once people taste freedom -- this is the United States of America; we've got that in our blood. This is a revolution that will be led by kids, primarily, and I hope women as well."

But while the kids got ready to turn the world on its ear, others were surely going to find the new regime distasteful. No revolution is complete without reactionaries, real or imagined, and so Laybourne let us know where she and her new brand drew the line, stopped listening and started excluding -- namely at Southern Baptism, which had recently made the subjection of women an official element of its credo. "I don't think that our brand is going to appeal to those Southern Baptist men," she remarked tartly. The ad execs erupted in laughter and applause.

Readers familiar with the logic of mass marketing might find Laybourne's hostility to Southern Baptists a little odd. Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the country; shouldn't their sheer numbers (as well as their streak of consumer militance) cause a sales-minded executive to pause before writing them off altogether?

But in dissing the churchgoing squares, Laybourne was in fact following a well-established brand-building strategy, one thoroughly explained a few years before by French advertising executive Jean-Marie Dru in a book called "Disruption." Asserting that mankind had entered a new era in which the value of brands mattered far more than any material factors, Dru argued that successful brands would have to invent some high-profile scheme for identifying themselves with liberation; they would have to identify and attack some social "convention" (one of those "ready-made ideas that maintain the status quo"); and would have to align themselves with some larger "vision" of human freedom.

From a longer perspective what Dru was proposing was the colonization by business of the notion of social justice itself. For a brand's vision to succeed, Dru wrote, it must be "audacious," it must be "made of dreams," a quality he illustrated with quotes from various figures of the historical left.

So just as the left's terminal retreat in the '90s paved the way for the pseudo-progressive fantasies of the "business revolution," so it also left in its wake a whole array of glamorous and unconventional cultural niches ripe for corporate occupation. The brands that would prevail, Dru seemed to believe, would be those that identified themselves with some former aspect of radical politics. In the '90s, we would have brands for social justice rather than movements.

Dru did not invent this strategy: He merely described what was going on in advertising as the decade unfolded. Benetton was working to equate its brand with the fight against racism, Macintosh with that against technocracy; similarly, Pepsi owned youth rebellion, while Nike staked a claim to "revolution" generally. Even as unthreatening a brand as the humble Duncan Yo-Yo could be moved to smash "convention," running a commercial in 1999 in which young people in various postures of rebellion flipped off the camera while a voice-over sneered, "Give us the finger; we'll give you the power." The Christian Right was, of course, outraged.

But in the revolution against convention, hierarchy and arrogance that embroils the republic of business, Dru and Laybourne were but moderate and slow-moving Girondins compared to the Jacobins of the British St. Luke's agency, which dispatched Planner Phil Teer to the conference to inspire his American comrades with tales of upheaval and progress at "the agency of the future."

While white-collar workers in America, a land unfamiliar with degrees and shades of leftist politics, tend to imagine the "business revolution" as an analogue of the demands for better representation found in the Declaration of Independence, corporate thinkers elsewhere have a much broader palette of social upheaval to choose from. And St. Luke's was said to be nothing less than a syndicalist advertising agency, its ownership shared uniformly by each employee and its chairman paid only as much as its lowliest copywriter.

Significantly, Teer came to advertising only after working as a critic of the tobacco industry, and this actual leftist experience bestowed upon him a credibility that not even Laybourne's focus group epiphanies could match. His irreverent, self-effacing way of talking won the instant enthusiasm of the audience. He showed slides containing the word "fuckin.' " He spoke in a thick Scottish accent, which, he acknowledged, made him difficult for Americans to understand but which also demonstrated the progress of the revolution: "It used to be, a year ago, we always sent nice, middle-class Oxford-educated, public school boys to talk at conferences for St. Luke's." Surely this was the real thing at last.

Teer did not disappoint. He spent an hour fervently extolling the artistic idealism that burned at his agency and tersely proclaiming the slogans of the business revolution. "If we stop exploring, we'll die," he told the Planners. "Work is leisure," read one of his slides. "Transform people," insisted another, flashing on the screen while Teer recounted the liberation of the admen, the story of the security guard who now "dances to jazz funk as he does his rounds," the former suit-wearing executive who had become "a shaven-headed deejay."

Not only had St. Luke's freed its employees to participate in the subculture of their choice, it had also invented such boons to productivity as "hot desking," a system in which people worked wherever they wanted in the company's unstructured, loftlike office. "Abolish private space, and you abolish ego," Teer proclaimed. "[Collective] ownership abolishes demarcation and hierarchy."

Even agency performance reviews had been revolutionized (the chairman was reviewed by a receptionist) along the lines of the criticism/self-criticism sessions once fashionable on the Maoist left. But this was advertising, and the people of St. Luke's were less interested in smashing the state than in "killing cynicism," that pernicious anti-brand feeling. . . .

I do not want to imply that the Account Planning Conference was a hotbed of social discontent, a meeting of some new, energetic, well-funded and spectacularly well-connected Socialist International. As it happened, in the same year I went to the Planning gathering I also attended several conferences of the actual political left, and the differences are worth remarking. The word "revolution," for one thing, came up at these affairs about as often as did talk about "hot desking."

Usually they were held in university classrooms or decrepit hotels. There was less blithe enthusiasm and more hissing, booing, interruption and accusation. Attendees were generally older, squarer, poorer and less white than the Planners. Sometimes they fell asleep during plenary sessions. Interaction with officers or institutions of state or national government was extremely rare.

But after the Planners had talked enough chaos and upheaval for one day, they descended on gleaming polished escalators past the Palm steak restaurant, the fountain pen boutique and the Westin's indoor waterfall, and were ferried by buses disguised as trolleys across town to the Massachusetts Statehouse, where they were welcomed by a platoon of faux soldiers dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms and ushered up to one of four or five open bars dispensing microbrews and Maker's Mark.

Most Popular
In this article: