Spare us this riot of dodgy brand theories

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Britain has been under attack in recent days as a politically motivated over-reaction has swept the country. No, I am not talking about the riots that broke out in London, Birmingham and Manchester. I am referring to the journalists and assortment of branding ’experts’ who subsequently attempted to explain the rioting with quack science and selective reporting.

It has become the fashion in post-millennium Britain to link everything to brands. Celebrities, countries, relationships – everything can now be understood by the application of dodgy branding analogies. Last weekend’s assessment of the riots was no exception. The Daily Mail pointed the finger at Levi’s and its “insensitive” new ad campaign (shot in spring) showing May Day rioters in Berlin. Ever-present PR guru Mark Borkowski confirmed that the riots were “an absolute disaster for a number of brands” while Janet Street-Porter condemned Adidas for paying drug-abusing rap stars to endorse their products and inspire rabid acts of destruction among British youth. The Guardian suggested brands such as Adidas and JD Sports had been targeted due to their association with “gangster chic”.

All total balls of course. And that last story from The Guardian was particularly painful for me because I spent 20 minutes on the phone with the journalist explaining to him that brands had nothing to do with any of it. Despite this, the journalist still managed to take a couple of juicy quotes from me entirely out of context and make it look like I agreed with Mark Borkowski and the rent-a-quote brigade.

Levi's campaign
Levi’s campaign

The reality of the London riots is that brands had nothing to do with it. Look at the stores that were targeted. Yes it’s true that JD Sports was picked on several times by the rioters. If it had been the only brand that looters went after ten days ago then maybe this could have been construed as a brand-driven, gangster chic statement. But what about the fact that the rioters also raided Boots, Argos, PC World and Poundstretcher? Where’s the gangsta in that?

And look at the goods that were stolen. While some rioters did steal Nike trainers and Adidas tracksuits, they represented a small drop in an ocean of pilfered commodities. Handily, the Guardian article to which I contributed showed a rioter assessing a pair of branded jeans. But this photo, like the article, was incredibly selective with the truth. For every discerning rioter assiduously reviewing their merchandise there were hundreds simply scooping up as much generic gear as they could carry.

In the riots that gripped London in December last year there was a clear brand-centric driving force guiding the hands of the mob. Big banks and luxury brands were repeatedly targeted while other retailers were ignored as the riot passed by. That was a riot with a purpose and a political agenda. We might not have agreed with it, but at least we could understand its genesis.

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The vast majority of looters caught on camera during this latest batch of riots were stealing anything and everything they could get their greedy little hands on. Kettles, widescreen TVs, chewing gum, cans of lemonade – this was not about getting the brands that reflected the street lifestyle, this was about nicking everything that wasn’t locked down. And the stuff that was locked down, at least in the footage I saw, was eventually prised from the walls too.

What kind of brand behaviour drives a man like Steven Keith from Manchester to allegedly break into his local newsagent and steal sweets worth £1? He certainly wasn’t making a brand-related statement nor a gesture of protest.

If this riot was related to brands we would have seen certain stores targeted and certain products within those stores looted. And we saw neither. When stores were broken into, literally everything was taken. How can that be part of a brand-driven riot? When Malaysian student Mohammed Haziq was beaten and robbed by “good Samaritans” the thieves did not reach into his rucksack in an act of brand-inspired larceny. It was just the ignorant, soulless act of a moronic thief intent on taking whatever was inside that bag. Branding be damned.

The root cause of these riots is hard to isolate. Is it recession? Is it poor education? The one thing I do know is that those looking for complex, sociological explanations tied to branding are completely missing the point. Whatever sparked the riots, what followed next was certainly not driven by brands. This was commodity nihilism of the largest and most offensive order.

Hackney Riots

Break into every store and nick as much stuff as possible. That is my expert assessment of what was going on ten days ago across the country and it’s a damned sight more accurate and insightful than the crap that The Guardian published over the weekend.

What does this mean for brands? Nothing. What does it mean for marketing? Nothing. Are there a large number of greedy morons living in urban Britain? Yes. What do we do about it?

No idea.

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