Ripping holes in big brands

Anti-corporate titles like No Logo have changed marketing. And now another is on its way.

Five years ago Naomi Klein released No Logo, a bestseller that kick-started a surging wave of anti-corporate titles and brand-bashing books that have since flooded the shelves. The onslaught on brands even branched into films, with releases such as Super Size Me, and coined phrases that include the “No Logo generation”.

No Logo was an immediate success, selling 430,000 (HarperCollins-owned) Flamingo paperbacks and 45,000 hardback copies. In it, Klein, a Canadian journalist, argued that big companies, empowered by brands were exploiting the world’s poor. Her persuasive arguments hit home with the media-savvy mainstream and there were tremors among the multinationals she identified culprits – among them Starbucks, Nike and Gap.

No Logo has been followed by a list of other brand-bashing titles, including The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; and Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. Ripped and Torn: Levi’s, Latin America and the Blue Jean Dream, written by Amaranta Wright, is being hailed as the latest. A former Levi’s “researcher”, Wright was hired by the jeans company to travel around Latin America and report back on teenagers’ hopes, fears and aspirations. Her book, published next week, delivers a personalised account of a continent in crisis and focuses on the developed world’s arrogance and overbearing desire to turn people into consumers.

Although some of these books make headlines and become bestsellers, there is a debate about the real impact they have on businesses and brands.

Corporate Edge head of corporate branding Richard Buchanan thinks the damage wrought by No Logo is intangible: “Did it hurt the organisations? Well it didn’t hit their bottom lines. It had little effect on the value of companies or brands.

“But what it did do – which companies are waking up to – is begin to erode their brands’ equity – the positive perceptions that people have in their minds about Nike, Gap, Starbucks. What that has done is prick business consciences, which are now far more aware of corporate and social responsibility.”

He points to Nike, which now separates its consumer and corporate branding – keeping the core sports products and the corporate backbone lengths apart.

Trying to do the right thing

Buchanan adds: “People are essentially looking for brands that are trying to be more responsible. People can’t change the world or global issues, but they are looking to champion such issues through the brands that they buy. For instance, Boots has backed Cancer Research’s skin cancer campaign.

“Has it changed the way brands approach marketing? The bottom line with branding and selling is, if you want people to buy, you have to sell them a dream. And Ripped and Torn is about selling people’s desire for jeans. Brands will always sell a dream, they will always be aspirational. People fundamentally want to improve their lives.”

He adds: “Developing countries aspire to the West and to the symbols of the US, which some people will inevitably see as exploitation.” This accusation, he says, will always be levelled at brands because it is impossible to sell without aspirational images and messages.

Rita Clifton, chairman of brand consultancy Interbrand, believes that ultimately No Logo and its successors acted as a wake-up call to many brands that had alienated themselves from their customers, making them more careful and scrupulous. “Brands have had to work harder at making sure their corporate practices are as harmless as can be. The book had a residual effect for years, even up to now. It raised the issue of company reputation, something that will affect business in the medium to longer term.”

But, she says, it is difficult to measure any real business impact. Clifton points to a core of young, fast-talking, globally aware consumers who voice their concerns and disapproval but continue to buy the very brands they vitriolically attack: “The typical no/pro response is ‘radical at research questionnaires, reactionary at the check-out’. By that I mean that consumers tend to say they’re anti-this or that – while wearing their Levi’s and smoking their Marlboros.

“If you talk to young people about business they see business with a big ‘B’ – that ‘Business’ is a baddie, like the Dr Evil character from the Austin Powers films, trying to screw shareholders and destroy the environment. But there are vast numbers of people employed in business or being paid by business. It’s a force for good. Without business there is no civil society.

“Every year or so we’re going to get a McLibel, a Super Size Me, an Enron scandal. It is not about business per se; it is about human conditions. In terms of the ‘Let’s run down big business’ genre, I think we have just about scraped the bottom of the barrel.”

Passing on the message

TBWA/London chief executive Andrew McGuinness believes brands and marketers were already changing before No Logo.

“Today’s consumers are massively more savvy, more demanding, more expedient,” says McGuinness. “And so they should be. It has been a gradual progression. The book captured the zeitgeist and that’s why it did so well: it made that message latent and crystallised, but it didn’t originate it.

“The wider point is, is it wrong to try and stimulate demand in new markets? My personal view is we need to help generate wealth across the world and give those people options and choice. It is not about denying things to people; it is about gaining opportunities for them. It is somewhat patronising for us in the western world to sit in our Levi’s and say it is somehow wrong to want some of those goods and condemn marketers for stimulating that want.”

He points to the rising trend in corporate social responsibility, but warns: “Consumers are canny and can see when a company is genuine and doing something in society rather than just doing something for the sake of being good.”

Logo mojo

He does, however, dismiss the idea of the so-called No Logo generation: “The No Logo generation doesn’t exist, though there is a segment of society, not necessarily defined by age, that has embraced its message in quite a literal way.”

Yet Ian Douthwaite, managing director of youth branding and marketing agency Dubit, believes changes are being fuelled by young consumers. He says not only are teenagers more sceptical about advertising than their parents, but they are more demanding about what they want their brands to do.

“Grassroots marketing is becoming more important than traditional top-down above-the-line campaigns.” Marketers can no longer expect to sell their products by paying sports stars millions of pounds, as in pre-No Logo days, he argues. “I don’t think anyone has necessarily been damaged by these books, but the point that No Logo was making was that marketing wasn’t working – logos aren’t the main reason for buying something.” Brands have to work harder and be seen to be actively involved in what young people are doing to obtain and maintain “street cred,” he adds.

Tim Elton, founding partner of strategic communications agency Tonic People, says the effect of such attacks has trickled down and has affected a very small but influential group of people. “This means that the no-logo message – that you should challenge what these big companies tell you – has started to infiltrate the public through the media and arts, for instance through films such as Super Size Me.”

Brands need to stop talking at consumers and begin to trust and involve them, recognising that not everything about their brand is perfect, says Elton. “This way brands and consumers can have an honest dialogue. For instance, people generally like Nike but they also know there are issues about its working practices. If a dialogue isn’t happening and consumers feel the wool is being pulled over their eyes, they’ll take their revenge through e-mail or blogs . The smart marketers are changing already.”

And so too, it seems, is the style and tone of the tomes that criticise the corporate world, according to Joel Rickett, deputy editor of trade magazine The Bookseller. While heavy hitters and heavily marketed authors such as Michael Moore continue to top the bestseller lists, there has been a marked shift in the genre from the highly negative, acerbic tones of just a few years ago. Now, says Rickett, the trend is for more “call to action” and personal accounts such as Change the World for a Fiver and Ripped and Torn.

“A few years ago in the wake of Klein, books tended to attack corporations about how they were controlling our lives. But we seem to be steering towards more constructive titles that marry rants and nastiness with positive plans and how we can all change things.”

Copycats lose their claws

But the change of tack may do little to revive the brand-bashing genre. In No Logo’s heyday, dozens of copycat books followed, but they are now no more than a trickle.

It seems unlikely that Ripped and Torn’s account of the struggle to combat exploitation will capture the public imagination in the way that No Logo did. How well it does depends on how much steam is left in the corporate-bashing bandwagon, though marketers ultimately believe this particular bandwagon has a bigger bark than a bite.

As Buchanan concludes: “Consumers aren’t stupid. They will always be sceptical about organisations. They know that ultimately business is about making money. Companies are selling a dream but they need to make sure they’re acting in the best interests of and not exploiting people. They need to be seen to be doing things rather than talking about it. But corporate social responsibility is still an issue that’s right at the bottom of business priorities, far from being a key force behind brands or business strategy.”

Words that hurt

No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000). Klein demonstrates, step by step, how brands have become ubiquitous. She argues that global companies claim to support diversity but their version of ‘corporate multiculturalism’ is merely intended to create more buying options for consumers.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000). This is a book about epidemics – social, cultural and fashion trends as well as medical – drawing on studies from the worlds of sociology, biology, psychology, anthropology, criminology and other ‘ologies’. It talks about the success of Sesame Street and Airwalk trainers through to halting the crime epidemic in New York and how smoking among teenagers should best be dealt with.

Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain by George Monbiot (2001). Monbiot takes a close look at how the UK has been delivered up to corporate control with ‘disastrous results’ for local communities and democracy and how New Labour made the smooth transition from anti-corporate opposition to big business bedfellow.

HegemonyÂorÂSurvival:ÂAmerica’s Quest For Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky (2003). Chomsky is relentlessly damning of the American political and economic elite and highly sceptical of the idea that virtue is to be found there. He argues that the US’s strategy for the future is nothing less than the maintenance of American hegemony through the use or threat of military force.

Change the World for a Fiver: We Are What We Do (No author given) (2004). The book lists 50 simple, easy-to-do ideas for changing the world through collective action, such as reusing carrier bags, or giving blood. The £5 cover price goes directly to charity.

Ripped and Torn: Levi’s, Latin America and the Blue Jean Dream by Amaranta Wright (2005). A young writer living in Miami is hired by Levi’s to travel through Latin American, befriending teenagers and reporting back with details of their ideas, hopes, fears and aspirations. Initially, Amaranta saw the job as a means to travel around a continent she loved. But as time passed she became constantly frustrated by the mechanics of corporate globalisation: the arrogance with which the West refers to ‘developing’ continents and its desire to turn people into consumers.

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