Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Friday, July 01, 2005

Book Review: No Logo

No Logo is an important book. The core of the book is an investigation by Namoi Klein as to the difference between traditional advertising and branding. Over the course of the book she persuasively explains that they are entirely different beasts and she examines the impact this change is having on society.

Klein describes the rise of the virtual, 'branding', company. These are modern apparel, food, entertainment and durable goods companies whose main function is no longer the design and production of consumer goods but the propagation of a brand image. The production process is incidental to the core of the business and is often done by sub-sub-sub-contractors in the developing world. Construction of the brand illusion is done through ever more intrusive advertising, sponsorship, partnerships and corporate controlled events and people. The key difference between this type of branding and traditional advertising is that once upon a time advertising was designed to sell a concrete product and was at its heart informative. Modern marketing aims to sell a desirable brand/lifestyle image and then impute this image into an incidental product/logo. The sort of companies Klein targets for investigation are the usual suspects – Nike, Diesel, Gap, Coke, Disney, Sony, Virgin and so on.

This kind of advertising occurs most heavily in concentrated oligopolistic industries and, from an economic perspective, represents a dead weight loss due to the zero sum nature of this competition. Innovation isn’t directed primarily towards improving the product but towards improving the brand image and its propagation. Some of the most talented and creative minds of our generation spend their lives in the construction of this brand illusion, attempting to instill the corporate entity with the characteristics of personhood.

Klein describes the alienating effect this advertising has on our public landscape and how the areas of our life which aren’t subject to branding are steadily shrinking. From the public streets to the public square to the public school, advertising is becoming ever more intrusive. She describes Coke’s sponsorship of school curricula where students are instilled with the values of the Coke brand and ultimately spend their school hours designing marketing material for the company. She describes the co-opting of social movements and cultures for marketing purposes and the harmful effects psychologically targeted advertising has on children who are unable to tell the difference between TV programming and advertising. She describes the deceptive practices of guerrilla marketing and how ‘product placement’ (and the Chinese government in one instance) is increasingly dictating the content of entertainment media.

Ultimately she declares the brand vulnerable. By instilling the brand with desirable human characteristics such as integrity, fun, family and trustworthiness the disconnect between the image and the reality of third world sweatshop labour, environmental degradation and shady government deals creates a strong backlash fuelled by the emotional response which marketing has attempted to inspire in the brand. Klein explores the limit of this type of brand-based activism - it's obviously somewhat less effective on large mineral companies and the like which have less of an end user brand image.

The fundamental case the book presents is, I think, sound. Modern branding is categorically different from traditional advertising and, if successful, socially detrimental. I do remain something of a skeptic as to how much most people actually buy into the branding lifestyle. Marketing types talk up the power of branding but does the average person really choose to buy Nike over Adidas because of the superior lifestyle they associate with the brand? I'm not sure. I am somewhat more sure of the power brands have over young people, I know quite a few kids obsessed with the brands associated with their favourite rap artists and clothing brands seem to be the first thing they notice when they see you.

The book doesn't offer any solutions to the issues it identifies, it's a diagnosis not a prognosis. Klein does explore protest movements such as critical mass, adbusters and take back the streets campaigns, but seems to hope that by highlighting the issues and the nature of modern companies she can inspire change. It's a worthy goal and a worthy method - persuasive marketing is a subtle form of theft and individuals should see through the illusion and stop rewarding modern marketing practices.

I came across a document from a very large multinational apparel company in my employment a while ago which explained their marketing strategy. It was premised on the basis that there was no real difference between their and their competitor's products (in terms of quality and fashion). The documents were exploring ways that they could maintain their significant price gap by obscuring this fact. It's a sad fact of modern life that this is standard business practice and the best way to fight it is with information. No Logo is a welcome step in that direction.


  • Hi again. Time has come to admit that I worked in marketing for a number of years and have sat through my share of branding conference. There is a dynamic that did not come out in this review that I'd like to touch on.

    Most product selections must at some point be defended by the purchaser -- to the community, to colleagues, to auditors and so on. An established brand provides a degree of cover for the purchaser by appealing to conventional wisdom.

    There was once a saying in the computer industry -- No one ever got fired for choosing IBM -- that pretty much sums it up. It is not the IBM product line that provides this level of security; it is the brand.

    By Blogger Charles Watkins, at 3:23 PM  

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