Friday, November 25, 2005

The emperor's new brand.

Excuse me if I don’t feel threatened by the current crop of unbrands, antibrands and nonbrands.

Ever since Naomi Klein had that spiffy logo designed for her big, scary book, antibrand branding has become both high art and perversely Zen-like proof that brands are inevitable. Which, if I may say so, is a rather clever segue to Muji, arguably the cleverest and most dedicated unbrand of them all.

Here is where you may need to pretend, as I did, that you know all about Muji. In fact, only the most painfully hip, fashion forward types are truly familiar with this brand. The name translates, the company claims, to “No Brand Quality Goods”. They are a sort of Japanese IKEA, with a little American Apparel thrown in. Carefully designed, achingly minimalist household goods, clothing and accessories (the CD player is to die for). 285 stores in Japan, the UK and Europe where, as you may know, everybody hates brands.

There is no louder way to declare that you are immune to marketing than to shop at Muji.

Except that, um, it has a logo. And stores. And a distinctive aesthetic. And copyrights. And social meaning. And they’re charging seventy bucks for a paper table lamp and six for a wooden spoon.

Sorry, but that’s a brand, baby. You can’t fool me.

I mean, does anyone really think the following conversation has ever taken place?

“Yo, nice lint roller. Where’d you get it?”

“Noplace.”

No. If that’s your lint roller, you’re going to find some way to answer, ‘I am so transcendentally cool that I bought it at an exotic Japanese department store that you have not heard of and by the time you do, my mainstream consumer friend, I will have moved on to something even more obscure, difficult to understand, and strangely desirable. Speaking of which, have I shown you my pumice stick?’

And good for you. If you can’t occasionally use a brand to make other people feel inadequate, where’s the fun in conspicuous consumption? So Muji’s secret is safe with me.

Bit like this blog, come to think of it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Dolphins at the door.

So the Writer’s Guild of America is in high dudgeon over being asked to write branded products into movies and television shows. They object to what they call “hidden advertising”, and they’re threatening to go to federal regulators about it if the industry doesn’t adopt a code of conduct to govern the practice. (Oh, and they want a share of the advertising revenue generated, too. Hey, this is Hollywood. )

For the record, I sympathize. Anyway, I think the idea of camouflaging advertising in entertainment is ludicrous, and approximately as subtle as Chevy Chase’s land shark pretending he’s delivering pizza. The whole debate sells brands short for their power as culture, and sells consumers short for knowing a land shark when they see one. People aren’t buying it. And they aren’t buying it because they know the difference between a brand that authenticates a fictional place and time and one that’s just a parasite to it.

James Bond in an Aston Martin? Most natural thing in the world. James Bond in a BMW? Bought and paid for.

A Coke sign in Times Square? Yup. Coke cups in front of the American Idol judges? Gimme a break.

A scene in a diner with no Heinz ketchup bottles? Not even in the movies.

And Apple can only dream of having the market share they appear to enjoy in Hollywood’s parallel universe, where every dorm room, legal office and trendy apartment seems to have one of their pretty computers smugly glowing in the corner.

I think we know exactly which brands matter culturally and which don’t. And I think we know exactly what authenticates a movie scene and what doesn’t. And I think we see every effort to force either of those things for what it is. Coke just looks desperate, and Simon Cowell looks like, well, like a whore. Meanwhile, ‘the real thing’ somehow ends up losing a little of its authenticity every time that guy takes a sip.

Remember the sketch where the land shark is denied entry after claiming to be a plumber, a flower delivery man, and a plumber again? Confronted, he denies that he’s the shark, claiming instead to be a dolphin. Like all his ruses, it works. But only once. There’s a lesson in there. That Chevy Chase is a keen observer of the human condition, alright.

Hey, wait. CHEVY Chase? You don’t suppose…

Friday, November 04, 2005

Crouching trademark, hidden lawyer.

This is so cool. Guess who said this: “Everyone just wants to make some profits from the name, totally regardless of [our] integral image…”. It’s from a news story about trademark infringement and brand appropriation.

Louis Vuitton? Burberry? Prada? Nope.

It’s the Shaolin Monks.

The 1,500 year-old Buddhist monastery where kung fu was born is mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. From video games to rap artists, popular culture has been helping itself to the Shaolin brand for awhile now and the monks are worried that it’s going to start messing with their image. So, they’ve set up a corporation to manage the brand and have an army of lawyers registering it in 100 countries around the world. Kind of like Mickey Mouse or the RCMP.

You know what? I actually think this is a healthy thing. Great brands are fun to have around because they have authentic cultural meaning. If petty thieves try to steal that meaning to make an easy buck, and then they find enough consumers unwilling or unable to tell the difference, that meaning gets devalued and then lost altogether. And then what? What if we burned through every authentic brand this way until there was none left? For one thing, we’d all be a lot less willing to pay premium prices when we buy things. Which would force marketers to find cheaper ways to make them. And we all know what happens then, right, Naomi?

Got your back, Shaolin guys. I’ll stand up for any brand that stands up for itself. And I have nothing but contempt for the consumers who patronize the frauds.

The Shaolin are not the only society that is protective of its brand, of course. For example, along with a more traditional copyright statement, this from the web site of the Oakland chapter, Hells Angels: “We will not tolerate someone attempting to intimidate and bully or profiteer by pretending to be us.”

And I heard they don’t even bother with lawyers.