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How Brands and Logos Dominate Our Lives -- Like It or Not

The rise, fall, and re-ascendance of the logo.

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What’s in a name? From a marketing perspective, everything. Since "Mad Men"-era New York, we’ve known about the power of advertising. But “branding"—increasingly used as a noun outside the livestock trade—has now introduced a conception of name and image still more powerful. From fashion to corporate identity to the aura of individual products, logos serve as a badge of cultural capital—and of capital itself. Today, we’re told by the New York Times and others, that we are in a “Return of the Logo Culture,” in which young designers use brand-names to play with, comment on, and subvert the traditional use of the logo. But while this attempt seems fashionable, the question remains: can a logo ever truly be subverted?

The Anti-Logo Logo

In 1999, Naomi Klein confronted the idea of branding in her seminal book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. In it, Klein discusses the negative effects of brand-oriented corporate activity, concluding with an analysis of various actions taken to fight back, such as Adbusters magazine and movements against sweatshop labor. She describes the transformation of branding during the late '80s and throughout the '90s toward what she calls the “anti-brand.” An appeal to youth culture, the “anti-brand” relied on a tongue-in-cheek understanding, and faux-rejection, of advertising itself—as, for example, in clothing brand NOLOGO’s explicit name.

Today, we find ourselves in an era of no-brand companies—which are distinct from or similar to “anti-brand” companies depending on their mission statement. Muji and Uniqlo (both Japanese companies) and to some extent American Apparel mass-produce their “basics” in every color. Within this context, designers like Heron Preston and Shayne Oliver, described in the Times piece, are bringing brands back.

Preston’s signature long-sleeve T-shirt features 17 familiar logos (M&Ms, Google, Nascar) all competing for real estate across one’s upper body. Oliver’s Hood by Air line’s box logo is positioned in unique places and sizes on the body (on the inner wrist, for example), creating a juxtaposition of streetwear and high fashion. “It represents power, a language, a mind-state,” Oliver told the Times, of his logo, “But it’s a sense of commentary, too. An encrypted code.”

From anti-branding to no-branding, companies have developed witty ways to place their products within the consumer’s awareness of market ploys—in part, to flatter the consumer that she or he is in the know.

Selling a Life(style)

Responding to the late '80s economic crash, corporations determined to market to younger emerging buyers, which often involved connecting the product to celebrity (or other culturally-relevant phenomena), Klein argues in No Logo. What we now recognize as lifestyle marketing—or “attitude branding”—grew, inseparable from the cult of youth, to create the banal “cool mom” marketing we’re so familiar with today.

Why do we wear what we wear? Beyond protecting ourselves from the elements, we express ourselves through our clothing, hoping to be perceived or feel a certain way (comfortable, capable, anonymous, sexy). What is now individual self-expression used to be legally codified. In the Western European late-Middle Ages, sumptuary laws existed to delineate social status by prescribing what nobility could (and common people could not) consume. Food, furniture, and especially dress were regulated in order to keep noble consumables exclusive. And while today social status isn't technically determined by one's place in the social hierarchy or by the antiquity of one's family, inheritance and generations of policy have still created disparities that are hard to overcome.

In other words, our modern idea of social mobility may have overcome these ancient legal determinants of hierarchy, but consumption is still encouraged as a sign of one's upward mobility and status. Logos indicate one's capacity for luxury (Veblen's "conspicuous consumption") and sometimes one's particular preference (or "taste") among consumables.