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Naomi Klein: How Corporate Branding Took Over the White House

Ten years after the publication of "No Logo", Klein looks at how Obama created a brand that won him the Presidency. Will his failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him?
 
 
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In May 2009, Absolut Vodka launched a limited edition line called "Absolut No Label". The company's global public relations manager, Kristina Hagbard, explained that "For the first time we dare to face the world completely naked. We launch a bottle with no label and no logo, to manifest the idea that no matter what's on the outside, it's the inside that really matters."

A few months later, Starbucks opened its first unbranded coffee shop in Seattle, called 15th Avenue E Coffee and Tea. This "stealth Starbucks" (as the anomalous outlet immediately became known) was decorated with "one-of-a-kind" fixtures and customers were invited to bring in their own music for the stereo system as well as their own pet social causes - all to help develop what the company called "a community personality." Customers had to look hard to find the small print on the menus: "inspired by Starbucks". Tim Pfeiffer, a Starbucks senior vice-president, explained that unlike the ordinary Starbucks outlet that used to occupy the same piece of retail space, "This one is definitely a little neighborhood coffee shop." After spending two decades blasting its logo on to 16,000 stores worldwide, Starbucks was now trying to escape its own brand.

Clearly the techniques of branding have both thrived and adapted since I published  No Logo . But in the past 10 years I have written very little about developments like these. I realized why while reading William Gibson's 2003 novel  Pattern Recognition . The book's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is allergic to brands, particularly Tommy Hilfiger and the Michelin man. So strong is this "morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace" that she has the buttons on her Levi's jeans ground smooth so that there are no corporate markings. When I read those words, I immediately realized that I had a similar affliction. As a child and teenager I was almost obsessively drawn to brands. But writing  No Logo  required four years of total immersion in ad culture - four years of watching and rewatching Super Bowl ads, scouring Advertising Age for the latest innovations in corporate synergy, reading soul-destroying business books on how to get in touch with your personal brand values, making excursions to Niketowns, to monster malls, to branded towns.

Some of it was fun. But by the end, it was as if I had passed some kind of threshold and, like Cayce, I developed something close to a brand allergy. Brands lost most of their charm for me, which was handy because once  No Logo  was a bestseller, even drinking a Diet Coke in public could land me in the gossip column of my hometown newspaper.

The aversion extended even to the brand that I had accidentally created:  No Logo . From studying Nike and Starbucks, I was well acquainted with the basic tenet of brand management: find your message, trademark and protect it and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergised platforms as possible. I set out to break these rules whenever the opportunity arose. The offers for  No Logo  spin-off projects (feature film, TV series, clothing line . . .) were rejected. So were the ones from the megabrands and cutting-edge advertising agencies that wanted me to give them seminars on why they were so hated (there was a career to be made, I was learning, in being a kind of anti-corporate dominatrix, making overpaid executives feel good by telling them what bad, bad brands they were). And against all sensible advice, I stuck by the decision not to trademark the title (that means no royalties from a line of Italian No Logo food products, though they did send me some lovely olive oil).

 
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