Saturday, November 03, 2007

Brand Royalty

For the next session in "The Book, the Brand, and the Box," Alladi Venkatesh and Julia Lupton discussed how theories of branding operate during a time that "research and retail" are increasingly intersecting enterprises.

Venkatesh covered the corporate branding basics and argued that globalization had become a critical component for advertising and lifestyle marketing message-making around the world, especially in places like India where the consumption of Coca Cola and access to clean water could come into direct conflict. He also argued that scientific know-how and craft were both important components of a successful brand and that the relationship between brands and products should be considered as more analogous to that between seeds and fruits than it would be to other less organic or more undifferentiated taxonomies of commerce. He also pointed out that the academy had become an essential resource to corporate marketers as ethnographic research supplants the industrial engineering that abstracted the human form and over-formalized the routines of consumption and production by sticking to Taylorist paradigms. Venkatesh made students aware to the critical nexus of behaviors associated with anthropology and its observe-participate-listen-talk-interpret philosophy. He closed with an appeal to including insights about literary expression from the Humanities and showed the YouTube send-up of interface design in the much-posted Introducing the Book video.

Julia Lupton followed up with a plug for "garage branding" that brings a DIY sensibility to consumer culture. First, however, she spent some time defining the term "brand" for the audience and putting the word in a theoretical context. She argued that a brand could be a "virtual factory" or a "relational object" (Adam Arvidsson, sometime contributor to the P2P Foundation blog and author of Brands), "the emotional life of an object" (Debbie Millman), or a "new media object" (Celia Lury, writer of Brands: the Logos of Global Economy). Although Lupton acknowledged the negative connotations of branding in connection with an "entrepreneurial self," she also described the pleasure of branding collaborative scholarly projects like the UCI Design Alliance and the Group for the Study of Early Cultures. She argued that exiting consumer culture was nearly impossible, given that it has supplanted religious ways of making meaning in much of our society, but that garage branding could represent "entrance strategies" for empowerment and re-imagining norms, much as the Church of Craft has done or for political activism with themes of slow food, fair trade, and sustainability, as in the case of SuperNaturale. We also learned about how crafters from were participating in global exchanges through the production of "strange stuffies" and that such makers even used Flickr pages for "very soft porn" in which their alt.stuffed.animals were depicted as conjoined in various humorous ways.

In my own scholarly work about digital government I'm interested in "institutional branding," which can include the branding of nations, states, and even local governments. Sometimes these branding strategies make claims to intellectual property that limits the rights to free speech and cultural appropriation of their citizens but sometimes a strong graphic identity facilitates civic engagement. Lupton showed a recent issue of Monocle that presented case studies of nation branding to its readership.

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