The first television news reports of Saturday night’s events appeared to show that the angry brutality of a few mindless anarchists was responsible for the wanton destruction of buildings and shopfronts. But walking around the city on Sunday morning it soon became apparent that many of the protesters were driven by brand equity.
Revolting youths and the destruction of property go together like Molotov and cocktails. But Saturday was different. Although property was targeted in the big British riots of the late 20th century, it was largely the indiscriminate destruction of cars and buildings that occupied those rioters.
In the Eighties, rioters in Toxteth, Brixton, St Paul’s and Handsworth set fire to buildings in an attempt to bait the police and create barricades against them. On Saturday the police tried to hold back the rioters as they directly attacked stores and shop-fronts. This was not a war on the police, this was a war on brands.
And not just any brands. As the dust and debris cleared on Sunday it became apparent that some brands had been targeted, while others standing next door had been completely ignored. In a stark inversion of the brand loyalty traditionally seen in those spaces every Saturday, the masses were just as driven by brand equity as any other weekend on Oxford Street. But this time it was a rejection not an aspiration for the brands’ values that motivated them.
I am defined by the brand of jeans that I wear, and the 20 or so brands I decided against
The agenda that guided the mob appeared to be motivated by an amalgam of three factors. First, was it a luxury brand? The Ritz took much of the fury at the weekend because of its peculiar singularity as the ultimate hotel brand. Central London’s Hiltons and Holiday Inns were passed with barely a mutter. But the Ritz had an angry army descend upon it.
Second, had the brand paid its taxes? Pressure group UK Uncut, which to its credit endorses only non-violent protest, led several hundred people on a specific boycott of brands like Topshop, Fortnum & Mason, Vodafone, Boots and Barclays. These brands have strategically avoided paying anything like the 28% of revenues that British-based companies are meant to pay in corporation tax. And they are increasingly being singled out as a result.
Finally, was this a bank? There can be no greater signal of the growing public opprobrium for financial services brands than the physical beating handed out to the likes of RBS, HSBC and Barclays by the mob on Saturday. “Smash the banks” read the graffiti plastered across the Cambridge Circus branch of HSBC. And for once this was not just idle rhetoric.
Brands were of course part of the culture back in the Eighties when London last saw riots like this, but they were nowhere near achieving the central, predominant influence that they now exert. And when revolution occurs – as it briefly did on Saturday – marginal subcultures focus their rage on the symbols most associated with their oppressors. This was not a fight against racism or police brutality. This was a fight against greed and the inequality at the heart of British society. And some of the brands rapidly being associated with these deficiencies.
Marketers should not be surprised at this sudden transformation of brand equity. Too many of us use the term “consumer culture” without appreciating it means, quite literally, that people derive meaning from consumption. Traditional sources of significance, such as religion, vocation and family, have declined as consumer culture has grown. I am no longer defined by the job I do or the church I worship at. I am defined by the brand of jeans that I wear, and the 20 or so brands I decided against.
That was the game that we played for the first, prosperous decade of the 21st century. We used brands to fit into a society that we believed in. But now the tide is turning. And the role for brands is turning with it. Many now question the direction that Britain is going in. Where once brands were used as a way to fit in, we are now discovering that they can also be used as a symbol to opt out. To fight back. To oppose.
The brand teams behind Boots, Topshop and the other big names under attack face a new kind of marketing challenge. They are rapidly becoming associated with the politics of resentment and inequality. And that cannot be good for brand or business. It will take more than aspirational advertising or corporate sponsorship to alleviate the growing sense of anger and distrust that now surrounds them. Not everyone is angry enough to throw tables through windows, but the British people are unhappy. And their unhappiness is going to be reflected in brands in exactly the same way that their aspirations once were.