“Pro Logo: Why brands are good for you” stood on the title-page of “The Economist”, issue Sept.8. In a “special report”, the magazine tackles the arguments presented in Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”, and (surprise, surprise) finds them exaggerated, or misguided, or inaccurate.
As the Economist doesn’t offer free online access to the article in question, here’s a summary of some aspects that I find interesting, though the conclusions drawn from them are no doubt debatable. As I haven’t read Klein’s book, I can’t comment on whether the Economist’s presentation of her arguments is fair and accurate, so I leave things just as they stand:
Klein’s arguments are based on the assumption that helpless consumers are seduced by all-powerful multinational corporations through alluring brands. This picture of helpless, defenseless and passive consumption, argues the Economist, does not match reality: consumers have become very fickle. According to a study of American consumers by the advertising agency DDB, the percentage of consumers between the ages of 20 and 29 who said they stuck to well-known brands fell from 66% in 1975 to 59% in 2000. Surprisingly, the percentage in the 60-69 age bracket declined from 86% to 59% in the same period. Thus, the Economist concludes, if big brands make more noise, “it is out of desparation” rather than out of omnipotence. Brands like NescafÃ©, Kellogg’s or Kodak have lost a lot of value over the past years.
The history of brands is wound up with industrialisation: brand names and logos were created for consumer protection, to ensure consistent quality of products in environments where, because of urbanization and increasing mobility, people could not trust manufacturers on the basis of personal knowledge any longer. Interestingly enough, even the Soviet Union established “production marks” in order to ensure quality, and to keep manufacturers from producing low-quality goods.
The association of brands with lifestyle rather than with product quality makes them more vulnerable, not more powerful, as consumers “will tolerate a lousy product for far longer than they will tolerate a lousy lifestyle”. Consumers react to marketing, and become immune to it. “Consumers are like roaches. We spray them with marketing, and for a time it works. Then, inevitably, they develop an immunity, a resistance.” (Jonathan Bond, Richard Kirshenbaum, “Under the Radar – Talking to Today’s Cynical Consumer”. Marketing, under complex social conditions (more complex consumer groups, more types of media, shorter attention spans), becomes a difficult task that most marketing firms are not yet able to fulfill. All in all, the Economist concludes, brands and logos are symbols of a two-way communication. It’s not just that companies use brands to influence consumers, but consumption informs back to companies about what works and what doesn’t (examples: Shell and the Brent Spar desaster/Nigeria, Coca-Cola’s contamination incident in Belgium, Nike). The importance of consumer trust then puts high pressure on companies to meet consumers’ demands, which might also be social concerns and not just demands for good product quality.