Books, cases and brands’ behaviour

A young journalist is hired by Levi-Strauss to travel through Latin America, befriend teenagers and report back to the company on their ideas, hopes, aspirations – and, of course, attitudes to the brand. Surprise surprise, the journalist, Amaranta Wright, turns renegade, rejects the complacent arrogance of global brand culture and writes a searing polemic (Ripped and Torn) based on her experience, which she confidently expects to be a bestseller.

We’ve seen it all before, of course, through the eyes of another journalist, Naomi Klein. Indeed, while the book she wrote five years ago may not be quite up there with Das Kapital, it has certainly seeded an anti-brands culture into which Wright – and many others besides – are buying.

But does the No Logo generation really exist, or is it simply a handy revisionist publishing concept – itself an off-shoot of the global brand culture it affects to despise?

Bottom-line analysis of the companies pilloried in No Logo – typically Starbucks, Gap, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nike – shows that their financial fortunes did not take a sudden turn for the worse, though some have certainly experienced trouble since. More likely the book industry, ably supplemented by such contributions as Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me, has had a subtler corrosive effect on its corporate victims.

Some commentators seek to portray the effect as cosmetic. That is to say global brand-bashing chimes with a radical chic attractive to the youth of any generation. What these wannabe radicals say in research questionnaires and focus groups is not matched by their ‘reactionary’ behaviour at the check-out: they continue to buy Levi’s and Marlboros with unabashed vigour.

So, sticks and stones? Not quite. The book club critique is part of a wider behavioural trend that has forced brand owners to sit up, take notice and act. Lobbyists (see the food debate passim) play a prominent, and probably under-represented, role in moulding public attitudes; they can be characterised as at once secretive and pivotal in the relationship between consumers, business and politicians. But by far the most galvanising influence is the threat of hostile legislation, whether regulatory or in the form of class actions instigated by consumers themselves. The power of litigation has been most eloquently expressed in the person of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. But it’s a much wider issue than financial services. If we ask ourselves why, for instance, Kraft Foods has decided to stop advertising less nutritious products, or Coca-Cola has stopped advertising its fizzy drinks in programmes aimed at viewers aged under 12, the ugly saga of the tobacco industry comes to mind. And not, after a moment’s reflection, just tobacco. McDonald’s is facing a reinstated lawsuit from 2002 over its alleged obesity-inducing behaviour. Nor should we forget Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s largest retailer, which is now facing the world’s largest lawsuit, as 1.5 million present and former employees take it to court over work practices.

No wonder corporate social responsibility is moving up the corporate agenda so fast. After all, who would wish to see themselves depicted in public as an irresponsible psychopath hell-bent upon world domination – other than perhaps Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan?

Stuart Smith, Editor

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