Nothing like the real thing
Brand.NewEdited by Jane Pavitt
V&A Publications, £30
Went to the conference, visited the exhibition, read the books but didn’t buy the T-shirt. Overall, the “Brand.New” experience left me feeling rather empty (as befits its subject matter). There were lots of familiar faces – Coca-Cola, Muji, Nike – but they had very little to say.
The subject is fascinating, for graphic designers at least. The notion that one’s work can be so recognised and pervasive is potent, but this isn’t the whole story. What about manipulation and exploitation? What about global domination by the few and the almost systematic destruction of the small in favour of the big?
The choice of conference speakers led to serious debate. The sad story of British Airways’ failed identity change was told by Simon Jones of Interbrand Newell and Sorrell. When BA was perceived as an old-fashioned part of an essentially male establishment, the company spent millions on a relaunch that used a wide range of colourful, culturally diverse designs to suggest its global reach and inclusivity. The most striking application of this approach meant there was no single tail fin design to pull the fleet together. But, by straying from the conventions of corporate design, the rebranding was “too brand new”. It was an honest telling of an enthralling story. The brand is an asset, just like buildings or computers. In the case of BA it proved to be of quantifiable stock market value. (Consider, if all the factories that make Coca-Cola burnt down the brand would still exist; new factories could be built. But if we all woke one day with a memory loss that failed to connect the logo to the drink and the “real thing”, it would go out of business.)
With hindsight the proposal to give BA a less establishment identity was contentious. The final straw came when Margaret Thatcher registered her disapproval at the loss of red, white and blue livery by draping her headscarf over the tail fin of a model plane that carried the new identity.
Judith Williamson, author of Decoding Advertisements and Consuming Passions, was passionate in her espousal of action in place of the appearance of action. She looked beyond obviously commercial spheres, at local authorities and transport networks, where logos and mission statements have taken the place of efficient services. Just because the sign says “Wandsworth, the brighter borough” this isn’t necessarily the “real thing”.
The keynote speaker, Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, was wrong-footed by a star-struck introduction. To suggest No Logo is the new Das Kapital is unfair on the book and its author. Hers is a timely message: she reports from the frontline of consumer dissent, demonstrated by the actions at Seattle and Prague. She recognises that people have been let down by politicians who have abdicated their responsibilities to the marketplace.
The exhibition itself was impressively mounted. Thomas Heatherwick’s exhibition design (with graphic design by Stephen Coates’ August) was inventive and provided pace and variety. The entrance space presented visitors with a swaying field of logos mounted on thin metal wands. However, two of the most potent symbols ever devised – the cross and the swastika – were noticeably absent. This omission set the tone for the exhibition: plenty of detail but no depth.
In one section, products were split into categories according to their brand appeal: authenticity, loyalty, conscience. In most cases this resulted in displays of goods without much analytical commentary. However, there were some profound questions raised. The “loyalty” section featured a Bulgarian man who, in a frightening denial of personal identity, has changed his name to Manchester United. The “irreverence” section told of a Benetton campaign featuring people literally branded as HIV positive. French campaigners successfully sued Benetton for “hijacking a humanitarian cause for commercial ends”.
The final space was dedicated to voices of dissent, including display of materials for Buy Nothing Day, the campaign launched by Adbusters in the early 1990s, and No Shop (see Eye no. 27 vol. 7).
Two books accompany the exhibition. Branded? is by one of the two curators, Gareth Williams, and focuses on case studies of well known brands. Although a useful accompaniment to the exhibition, it isn’t substantial enough to stand alone.
Brand.New, edited by co-curator Jane Pavitt, features lengthy essays split into sections about the individual, the spaces in which we shop and the business behind the brands. The lavish illustrations are not always tied clearly enough to the subject matter and the shortness of the index makes accessing information frustrating.
The essays provide useful historical and social context and more in-depth investigation of the psychology of the herd. More of this, together with the passion of the speakers, might have given the exhibition more weight.