Sunday, October 15, 2006

Reality bites. No injuries reported.

Brand wise, I have spent the week in an existential funk.

It started with the YouTube story. Those cunning little brats sold their company to Almighty Google for all the money in the world, and with it a brand that putatively stood for the shining, populist future of user generated, socially networked video content. Except that Google apparently failed to notice all those commercial videos that are crashing the YouTube party now, turning it into little more than a clunky on-demand television network that would make Philo T. Farnsworth spin in his grave. All this with the dust barely settled on the whole lonelygirl15 flimflam.

Seeking the comfort of honest commerce, I turned to Business Week, only to run smack into “The Organic Myth” cover story, wherein on page 52 there is a rundown of the corporate owners of America’s favourite organic food brands. Ben & Jerry & Unilever. Forgot about that one. And there’s no escape in my online news diet, either: When the hell did L’Oreal buy the Body Shop? How did I miss that? According to FT.com, the L’Oreal guy says, “ the operation of single-brand stores [is] just one form of brand management.” Brand management!? I get hoarse from ranting, but find no comfort in my Buckley’s Mixture. It’s owned by Swiss pharma giant Novartis. And I can seek no escape in my preferred wobbly pop, Creemore Springs. It’s owned by Molson Breweries, who are in turn owned by Coors (itself a formerly authentic micro brewer, making for a corporate mobius worthy of M. C. Escher). This quote kind of captures the spirit of the moment: “Consumers like boutique brands,” says the head of [General Mills’] organic unit. “There’s a feeling of authenticity.”

Organic unit.

Feeling of authenticity.

Sigh.

I guess this kind of thing really represents the collision of two inevitabilities in the realm of brands: One, that people are looking for authenticity wherever they can find it in life, including in yogurt, beer and lipgloss. And, two, that enterprise will seek profit wherever it may find it, and sometimes that means small, ethically defined ‘boutique brands’ that coincidentally boast big, fat margins. Cognitive dissonance all over the place.

But wherever you find cognitive dissonance, situational ethics are usually bounding cheerfully along right behind. And so it is with brands. Let’s face it: We don’t want the happy little myths we give to ourselves to be shattered by the truth of corporate ownership. So we deconstruct and redefine authenticity, bending and stretching it until either it fits or is rent asunder and beyond hope.

So that’s what I did. And my verdicts? YouTube is a sellout. So is Body Shop. The Land Rover LR3 I drove the other day just stinks of its Ford parentage, and must therefore be stripped of its bragging rights, too. As for Ben & Jerry, the whole ice cream business is fraudulent anyway. I mean, if Haagen-Dazs still has a franchise, the boys from Vermont certainly can. So they get off on a technicality. On the other hand, Buckley’s Mixture still tastes awful, and they’ve thoughtfully kept any clues to their ownership off the packaging. And Creemore Springs is still great beer, made in the same place with the same stuff, so why do I care where the profits go as long as it isn’t to some nuclear rogue state?

We are adaptable creatures, no doubt about it. When it comes to brands, it wasn’t that long ago that we judged their authenticity by their provenance, history and parochialism. But the world is becoming more corporate by the minute, in case you hadn’t heard. Even as brands seem to proliferate, the number of companies and nations actually making things seems to be shrinking. Very little is really real anymore. So we reconstitute authenticity to fit the new reality. Now, it’s less a question of where something is made, how long it’s been made there and how single-minded its makers are. Now, we’re content simply to reconcile those artifacts with the apparent motives of the corporation that now owns them. If they respect the brands they bought, then we will too. If they ‘leverage’ them until they become insulting caricatures of themselves, then we’ll toss them faster than a Pierre Cardin belt and move on to something we can believe in. As Forrest Gump’s mom might have put it, authentic is as authentic does.

There. I feel better already.

As for that General Mills guy, maybe he needs to spend just a little bit less time with his organic unit. I’ve heard that sort of thing can make you go blind.