Friday, August 17, 2007

A Convenient Truth.

Hello, my name is BrandCowboy, and I didn’t used to be the next President of the United States.

Okay, kidding. That was an important film and Al Gore is an important guy. But you could forgive us regular folks for feeling wearily powerless against the various apocalypses (apocalpysi?) so ardently marketed by the media these days. You could forgive us for raptly watching Paris Hilton emerge from jail instead because, although we’re equally powerless to affect that, at least it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, the Greek chorus of No-Logoists and their equally smug neo-environmentalist cousins intone that it’s all the fault of corporations. We, but hapless pawns, are being danced to our doom by vast, evil empires whom, we are to suppose, are bent on destroying the marketplace that sustains them.

Then, just as we’re about to give up all hope, along comes Elmo.

Not the Tickle Me one. The little plastic one. The one recalled by Mattel last week because it had too much lead in its paint. That Elmo. And while everyone fretted about the problems of producing products in poorly regulated foreign markets and television news programs aired tape of wailing children having their toys confiscated, I cheered right up. Why? Because I realized the truth that’s been staring at you and me and Al all along:

Brands could save the world.

Let me frame this up: A dangerous product was made by a manufacturer with no strict capitalist imperative and no brand of its own (see where this is going?). It was prevented from doing any harm, though, because the product was to be sold by a company that DOES have a brand. And why? Is it because they’re good and decent people with a deep sense of social responsibility? Maybe. I couldn’t say for sure because I don’t know them. But I know this: They fear us. They’ve got far too much to lose by selling toys that make people sick.

And that’s the key. You see, Al, unlike the election you lost, branding is a democratic concept. We get to vote every time we buy. Brands mean we have the power to make corporations behave more or less the way we want them to, if we want to bother. Though there’s no absolute guarantee that all those corporations will toe the line, disassociating ourselves from their brands certainly won’t help. It’s like spoiling your ballot at election time: You’re rejecting a flawed system in favour of no system at all. And anarchy, in case you don’t watch TV, doesn’t bring out the best in people.

The other thing Al would like about branding is that it stands as a bastion against crap. If we buy crap, it eventually disappoints us and we throw it away, wasting both the resources it took to make it and the landfill it will end up in. A brand certainly doesn’t guarantee quality, but the absence of it removes any inhibition a company might have against making crap. Here’s a case in point: A couple of weeks back, the Globe and Mail reported on a study comparing the total life cycle energy requirements of 100 makes of cars and trucks. Guess what the biggest factor in lifetime energy consumption was. Size? Nope. The type or quantity of fuel used? Nope again. The major contributor to the impact a car has on this planet is, in most cases, how long that car stays on the road. The longer a car lasts before it has to be replaced, the less environmental impact it ultimately has, because building it and disposing of it can do more damage than driving it does. Extend this principle to our computers, running shoes, home appliances, golf clubs and sponge mops, you start to see how the same consumers who got us into this pickle (that would be us) might have the power to get us out, if they just keep their standards high enough.

It was just about a year ago that I used this same rhetorical Nerf bat to try to beat some sense into Neil Boorman, whose ”Bonfire of the Brands”’ is due to be published any day now. A year on, I feel like vindication is nigh. We’re seeing daily in the news what happens when products are made by people who are not accountable to the consumer. It may scare us, but I promise you that it scares marketers more. It must be pretty obvious by now that brands aren’t really the problem, here. And it will hopefully soon be just as obvious that if we consumers exercise our franchise and buy with a conscience, they might actually be part of the solution.

You know, Al, I rock at PowerPoint. Maybe you and I should take this show on the road. As long as you don’t mind if we use my Mac.

Oh, and I’ll drive.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Well, I’m back in the saddle after a brief sojourn on the Continent with Sweetie. There’s nothing like a wine-soaked meditation in branding’s Garden of Eden to give a cowboy some perspective. Take, for instance, these revelations scribbled on the back of a boarding pass…

Overheard at the airport in Milan at 6A – freakin’ – M over the clip-clop of little Crocs: “Mommy! They’ve got Minute Maid!” Now, how can you say globalization is a bad thing? At least, as long as ‘global brand’ really means ‘American stuff you can get anywhere’, it sure seems to keep the kids happy.

Can someone explain Paul and Shark to me? I saw this brand worn by lots of briefcase-toting businessmen in mufti. It appears to be like Dockers for rich people. You know, so you’ve got more money, but still no imagination.

Okay, and here’s a handy travel hint: In Europe, Martini is a brand, not a magical healing potion. I ordered one in a very fine establishment, and it confusingly arrived on the rocks.

Worst. Martini. Ever.

That’s because it was vermouth. Ironic, don’t you think?

Here’s how much Europeans love brands, unlike the Puritanically ambivalent relationship we have with them here in the colonies: Sweetie marches up to a street vendor selling designer sunglasses and demands to know their provenance. The vendor looks to the left and then to the right like Lefty the Salesman on Sesame Street and then says, “Mafia.” Because there, you see, ‘stolen’ is more socially acceptable than ‘fake’.

Can I just say, I love Samsonite Black Label? Yes, it turns out they sell it here in the Great White North, online at least. But there, they have actual stores, complete with dreamy ambient lounge music and obliviously hip staff. What a wonderfully exuberant, brave and all too rare example of a brand extending itself UPwards. While a procession of the world’s great brands are slouching towards Bentonville in an effort to trade margin for volume, here’s workaday Samsonite asking itself not, “How can we make this cheaper,” but rather, “How can we make this cooler?” There should be a medal for this.

… and then there were some Byzantine exchange rate calculations on the stuff we bought, a tomato sauce stain, and an incoherent scrawl on the subject of why nobody can afford business class anymore.

It’s good to be home.

P.S. In case you thought that branding’s rich pageant had halted for the summer, here are two stories from this week that need no sarcastic illumination from me:

Can a brand be used as punishment? Ask misbehaving Thai police officers…

A placebo can make a headache go away. And, apparently, a brand can make a French fry taste better. Behold its terrifying power…