An Introduction | Is Branding Bad?

The Nike ‘swoosh’ is now the most popular tattoo in the USA (Klein, 2000).

To some it is a symbol of personal development through sport, success and the American dream. Brands drive them to excel in their personal goals, help them create social groups and assure them of consistent quality in the sporting products that they consume. They celebrate the role of marketing in permitting endless consumer choice, the existance of our plentiful media and the growth of the C20th capitalist economy.

To others, brands are the face of a corporate adversary, used to imply fictitious cultural relevance to commodities in a destructive consumer culture. The trivialises once powerful ideas, corrupting cultural and personal identity with dangerous effects on the economy.

Eitherway, branded commercialism is part of our social history, personal identities and economic bedrock. The corporate landscape is dominated by big brands. Marketing aims to create brand equity and generates sales, both of which lead to increased economic value. Proctor & Gamble boast that they are “a force in the world. Our market capitalization is greater than the GDP of many countries”[1]. In fact, of the world’s largest 150 economic entities, 95 are corporations[2].

Naomi Klein claims that the “astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to [the idea] that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products” (Klein, 2000, p. 3). Notably, I am not talking about the roles of multinationals but specifically on the role of the intangible aspects to their propensity to sell, and the repercussions of their efforts to maximise it.

Though the words are often confused, branding, advertising and marketing are not interchangeable. A piece of advertising is just one of many marketing tools contributing to the branding process – alongside the logo, package design, sponsorship, celebrity endorsement, product placement and so on. The brand identity, brand personality and brand values all reflect the core concepts that the corporation would like the consumer to associate with their products or services. Effective marketing creates a brand identity that is recognized by all targeted consumers and motivates them to buy the products that have been branded.

The broad nature of the criticisms, and their respective defences, means that I must address a number of disparate topics. However, by addressing each issue within a historical framework, I feel I have found some underlying points of contention that connect them. For many of the issues that I will discuss, there is an imbalance in the literature available. More often than not, the moral questions are raised by anti-corporate activists, while the economic questions are debated by industry supporters. There is little work done on the over-arching concept, putting together both positive and negative aspects to the growth of big brands and the branding process from an objective standpoint.

Drawing from studies in evolutionary psychology, social and visual anthropology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience – I will begin by analysing the history of marketing, how firms build brands today and the influence of advertising on human behaviour. This will follow on to a discussion of the impacts of brands attaining cultural significance and an overview of the economic contribution of marketing activities.