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Where branding leads, society follows

Branding predicted Brexit. This bald statement points to a fascinating truth about the art of branding. Because branding feeds on, and feeds into, popular culture, it’s often a leading indicator of bigger, political phenomena. Where branding leads, the rest of us follow. Let me explain.

2016 was the year of populism. Among other things, the phenomenon of Brexit and Trump was a popular backlash against the globalisation – the corporate mainstream of the last 30 years. It signalled the end of an era: the political and economic consensus that started with Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganomics in America. Suddenly, people rose up against the negative effects of globalisation – the inequalities it has produced, and its failure in the last ten years to increase household incomes.

So have people also rebelled against branding? Branding is a phenomenon that’s similarly global, also corporate, and that also reached its peak in the last 30 years. Reagan and Thatcher championed the idea of the market, and wherever there’s a market, there’s branding. Competitors in any market need to signal what they stand for, how they’re different, why they’re better – and that’s what branding does. Rejecting pure market economics, you could argue, also implies questioning the whole business of branding.

There’s certainly a spectacular growth in mistrust of large branded corporations. In a 2017 survey by the PR company Edelman, only 58% of people trusted businesses, and this figure was falling in 18 countries. Powered by the internet, people are better informed, more sceptical and less deferential. Consumers are certainly less loyal to the big brands. According to a 2015 study, 90% of the leading household goods brands in America are losing market share.

But people continue to buy branded goods. We might reject unfettered market capitalism, but that doesn’t stop us going shopping. In many ways, branding is more powerful than ever. The VW emissions scandal did terrible damage to the company’s reputation, but somehow its brand emerged unscathed. People still like the brand, and still buy the cars.

In fact, branding responds very quickly to changes in the popular mood, to shifts in the zeitgeist – faster than politicians. For that reason, it pays to watch what’s going on at the frontiers of branding, because it may tell you what’s about to happen more broadly in society. And in particular, it pays to have a look at what big companies are doing that seem to break the conventional rules of branding.

For example, branding prefigured the populist rejection of the global in favour of the local, in a phenomenon called ‘debranding’. Starbucks has stores in Seattle that look like neighbourhood coffee shops. The bookseller Waterstones has stores disguised as (for example) Southwold Books. Companies like this want to look like citizens of somewhere, not citizens of the world. And there’s a remarkable new demand for things – from bread to beer – that are local, artisan, craft-based and, seemingly, unbranded

Branding for a while has championed the past – the good old days when America or Britain were ‘great’ – another feature of populism. Dozens of companies, particularly retailers, now include their heritage in their logo. The supermarket Morrisons is now ‘Morrisons since 1899’. Marks & Spencer is ‘M&S est 1884’. John Lewis is ‘Never knowingly undersold since 1925’.

Branding even anticipated populism’s support for the ordinary person against the institution. To take a trivial example, in 2013, Coca-Cola replaced its name on its cans with people’s names – Ahmet, Cristina, Laura and hundreds more. Superficial perhaps, but a significant gesture by one of the world’s most valuable brands.

How does this happen? As the popular mood changes, often at a subterranean level, branding people notice. As people started to feel uncomfortable about globalisation, branding started to respond. This isn’t usually sinister manipulation by cynical strategists: more often, it’s creative people responding intuitively to the atmosphere around them. Branding people are very finely tuned to twitches in contemporary culture. And sometimes they start the twitches themselves. Or branding that’s a response to a mood change in one country becomes a stimulus to that change in another.

So branding is an example of how the corporate mainstream preserves itself. Global business can quickly morph, or put on a new coat, in order to survive.

But more interestingly, it’s worth watching where branding goes next. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen the rise of ‘brutalist’ design in user interfaces with brands like Instagram. Simpler and more childlike visuals for Häagen-Dazs. And in the branding consultancy where I work, the emergence of branding based on Chinese philosophy, and on the aura of artificial intelligence. What does all this tell us about the referendums and elections of the 2020s?

Meanwhile, as globalisation falters, branding as a cultural practice seems unstoppable. All those local, artisan craft breweries are, of course, exquisitely branded.

Robert is our Head of New Thinking and his new book, A Very Short Introduction to Branding, is available now.


Illustration by Danny Skitsko

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