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How Corporate Branding is taking over the world

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n 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 synergized 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).

Most important to my marketing detox program, I changed the subject. Less than a year after No Logo came out I put a personal ban on all talk of corporate branding. In interviews and public appearances I would steer discussion away from the latest innovation in viral marketing and Prada's new superstore and towards the growing resistance movement against corporate rule, the one that had captured world attention with the militant protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. "But aren't you your own brand?" clever interviewers would ask me endlessly. "Probably," I would respond. "But I try to be a really crap one."

Changing the subject from branding to politics was no great sacrifice because politics was what brought me to marketing in the first place. The first articles I published as a journalist were about the limited job options available to me and my peers -- the rise of short-term contracts and McJobs, as well as the ubiquitous use of sweatshop labor to produce the branded gear sold to us. As a token "youth columnist," I also covered how an increasingly voracious marketing culture was encroaching on previously protected non-corporate spaces -- schools, museums, parks -- while ideas that my friends and I had considered radical were absorbed almost instantly into the latest marketing campaigns for Nike, Benetton and Apple.

I decided to write No Logo when I realized these seemingly disparate trends were connected by a single idea -- that corporations should produce brands, not products. This was the era when corporate epiphanies were striking CEOs like lightning bolts from the heavens: Nike isn't a running shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports, Starbucks isn't a coffee shop chain, it's about the idea of community. Down on earth these epiphanies meant that many companies that had manufactured their products in their own factories, and had maintained large, stable workforces, embraced the now ubiquitous Nike model: close your factories, produce your products through an intricate web of contractors and subcontractors and pour your resources into the design and marketing required to project your big idea. Or they went for the Microsoft model: maintain a tight control center of shareholder/employees who perform the company's "core competency" and outsource everything else to temps, from running the mailroom to writing code. Some called these restructured companies "hollow corporations" because their goal seemed to be to transcend the corporeal world of things so they could be an utterly unencumbered brand. As corporate guru Tom Peters put it: "You're a damn fool if you own it!"

For me, the appeal of X-raying brands such as Nike or Starbucks was that pretty soon you were talking about everything except marketing -- from how products are made in the deregulated global supply chain to industrial agriculture and commodity prices. Next thing you knew you were also talking about the nexus of politics and money that locked in these wild-west rules through free-trade deals and at the WTO, and made following them the precondition of receiving much-needed loans from the International Monetary Fund. In short, you were talking about how the world works.

By the time No Logo came out, the movement was already at the gates of the powerful institutions that were spreading corporatism around the world. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits and G8 meetings from Seattle to New Delhi, in several cases stopping new agreements in their tracks. What the corporate media insisted on calling the "anti-globalisation movement" was nothing of the sort. At the reformist end it was anti-corporate; at the radical end it was anti-capitalist. But what made it unique was its insistent internationalism. All of these developments meant that when I was on a book tour, there were many more interesting things to talk about than logos - such as where this movement came from, what it wanted and whether there were viable alternatives to the ruthless strain of corporatism that went under the innocuous pseudonym of "globalization."

In recent years, however, I have found myself doing something I swore I had finished with: rereading the branding gurus quoted in the book. This time, however, it wasn't to try to understand what was happening at the mall but rather at the White House -- first under the presidency of George W. Bush and now under Barack Obama, the first US president who is also a superbrand.

There are many acts of destruction for which the Bush years are rightly reviled -- the illegal invasions, the defiant defenses of torture, the tanking of the global economy. But the administration's most lasting legacy may well be the way it systematically did to the US government what branding-mad CEOs did to their companies a decade earlier: it hollowed it out, handing over to the private sector many of the most essential functions of government, from protecting borders to responding to disasters to collecting intelligence. This hollowing out was not a side project of the Bush years, it was a central mission, reaching into every field of governance. And though the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state, leaving behind only a shell -- or a brand -- was approached with tremendous focus and precision.

One company that took over many services was Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor. "Lockheed Martin doesn't run the United Slates," observed a 2004 New York Times expose'. "But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it . . . It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security checks and counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft."

No one approached the task of auctioning off the state with more zeal than Bush's much-maligned defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Having spent 20-odd years in the private sector, Rumsfeld was steeped in the corporate culture of branding and outsourcing. His department's brand identity was clear: global dominance. The core competency was combat. For everything else, he said (sounding very much like Bill Gates), "We should seek suppliers who can provide these non-core activities efficiently and effectively."

The laboratory for this radical vision was Iraq under US occupation. From the start Rumsfeld planned the troop deployment like a Wal-Mart vice-president looking to shave a few more hours from the payroll. The generals wanted 500,000 troops, he would give them 200,000, with contractors and reservists filling the gaps as needed -- a just-in-time invasion. In practice, this strategy meant that as Iraq spiralled out of US control, an ever-more elaborate, privatized war industry took shape to prop up the bare-bones army. Blackwater, whose original contract was to provide bodyguards for US envoy Paul Bremer, soon took on other functions, including engaging in combat in a battle with the Mahdi army in 2004. The sprawling Green Zone, meanwhile, was run as a corporate city-state, with everything from food to entertainment to pest control handled by Halliburton. Just as companies such as Nike and Microsoft had pioneered the hollow corporation, this was, in many ways, a hollow war. And when one of the contractors screwed up -- Blackwater operatives opening fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007, for instance, leaving 17 people dead, or Halliburton allegedly supplying contaminated water to soldiers -- the Bush administration was free to deny responsibility. Blackwater, which had prided itself on being the Disney of mercenary companies, complete with a line of branded clothing and Blackwater teddy bears, responded to the scandals by -- what else? -- rebranding. Its new name is Xe Services.

The Bush administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand America" for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure of its policies. "I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House," Floyd told Slate magazine. "They'd say: 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd say: 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving us trouble.'" A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn't have a branding problem; it had a product problem.

I used to think that, but I may have been wrong. When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered -- Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.

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Naomi Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, now out in paperback. To read all her latest writing visit

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