In the good old world, a shirt had a label on the inside of the collar, hidden from view, behind the neck. Then, one day, the brand mark moved to the front on the chest. The person who did this was an unsung genius. It changed a mere manufacturer’s mark to a symbol of the wearer’s identity. It legitimised fashion, belongingness and declarative association. The brand tribe was born and the cult had been conceived. This is an apt summary of the subject of cultural authority—marketers as cultural engineers organising how people think, feel and what they do. Omnipresent encounters with sophisticated marketing platforms seduce consumers to participate in a system where meaning emerges through brands. Crucially, consumer culture is then organised around submission to the cultural authority of marketers.
The ‘brand as basis for meaning in life’ is the ideological glue that holds the brand tribe together, expands markets, rationalises consumption and makes advanced capitalist society possible. Look at the world around you and think of admired brands. Those deemed larger than life and deeper in terms of associative memory. Nike, Jack Daniel’s, Red Bull, Dove, Disney, Apple, Starbucks, Harley-Davidson, Lego, Levi’s, Patagonia, Google, Facebook, Amazon and many others are all representatives of this tribalism and cult enlistment. Their consumers allow themselves to be co-opted into the brand idea—sports enthralment, pride of origin, extreme thrill, body positive feminism, fantasia, rebellious creativity, community, macho outlaw exploration, wondrous creativity, wild west, adventurous environmentalism, endless information and socialisation, respectively, in case of these listed examples.
Coolness is a fragile and vulnerable concept in branding.
In comparison, belongingness is rock solid. We live in an attention-scarce world. The steep cost of attracting attention is taken care of at one go when a consumer joins the tribe. Marketers have fully woken up to the siren call that market share is not followership and brand recognition is not loyalty. Consumers evolve from acceptors, adorers, advocates to fanatics and evangelists. This evolution from initiation to submergence is deliberate and engineered. What seems volitional at first and then crystallising to a community is, in fact, deeply motivated. Cultism celebrates irrational loyalty. It allows for a lock-in of share of market. It gives accessible lifetime consumer value. Read, higher profits.
A broad purpose, ritualism, vocal and visible branding, semiotics of a covenant and a celebrated history or mythology of the brand are all parts of building the brand cult. Deconstructing cult brand phenomenon will reveal important lessons that can save consumerism, democracy, capitalism and even our planet. All of these are in jeopardy thanks to the mortal combat between irrational, radical anti-corporatism and irresponsible, insistent corporate marketing. Let me now focus on why it is deviant and dangerous for brands to own ideas without caveat. This is because the idea is the cementing force in society. The idea itself is the platform on which social movement occurs. The basis for ‘birds of a feather flock together’ is adherence to a larger organising idea. The moment that ‘idea’ becomes the patented property of a brand, our civilisation, as we know it, is in trouble. A few corporations get to decide what is aspirational, what is to be rejected. What is worthy of being cause célèbre and and what is taboo.
Look at it from the brand owner’s perspective. Once you are in the ideas business, it is no longer embarrassing to favour symbolism over substance. Once the consumer has accepted the faith, all encounters deepen the immersion into the community of believers. The brand cult is expected to create impressionable minds loaded with memetic influences. Like concentric circles around the core, recent converts are even more energetic and interact forcefully with the world outside. As their relationship deepens, the inbound and insular incentives get more compelling. This ‘logged in’ population is living in the brand. Let me move to the world of Facebook, Google, Amazon. Much has been written about their size, scale, scope and foreknowledge of data to merit repeating. I am focused only on the unprecedented cultism propagated by these brands.
Modern living, it appears, is inconceivable without Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Amazon, YouTube and others owned by these behemoths. A quick view at the web of ownerships and acquisitions made in the past decade will reveal the colossus at work. Facebook is free to use and operates beyond geography and language. It knows what you ate at an outing with friends. It knows which aunt you adore and which ex-girlfriend tugs at your heart till date. What it sells is the attention of users, to advertisers. And the knowledge of who you are, your favourite aunt and ex, included. The cult Facebook promotes is a manicured and coiffured one. It has a world on display, like showcase at a patisserie. Exhibition and admiration are the norm. The real world with its warts and bad hair days can be edited out ruthlessly. Friends are available for free. No moral obligations are mandated. It is compelling. To not be on Facebook is amounting to a call for psychiatric therapy. Near monopolies (Facebook, Google, Amazon), duopolies (Apple, Microsoft) and oligopolies enmeshed in cross-ownership of Silicon Valley geeks who found El Dorado are now a threat to how humans curate and create.
In the US, Google has close to 80% of search advertising. Facebook has close to 50% of total online display advertising share. These kinds of shares haven’t been witnessed since the gilded age of the late 19th century. Why this has happened is because of a huge consumer buy in and the biggest ever ramp up in the history of business scale. In the reconstructed world, Google is the purveyor of information and influence, Amazon is the marketplace and Facebook is the town square and social club rolled into one. This world has rolled learning, libraries, educational institutions, cooperatives, open markets, youth clubs and not-for-profit associations to obsolescence. Google and Facebook will collate and curate your news and Amazon will squeeze and stymie independent booksellers and publishers to be your lone source of ad-free text. To sign this off, Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post in 2013!
The scale of these internet communities takes commercialisation to another orbit altogether. The cult becomes a goldmine. The rules are set by the owners of these standard platforms. All apps need them. Despite humongous proliferation of websites (from paanwalas to cycle repair shops), page views had almost trebled in concentration for top 10 sites between 2000 and 2010. The first decade of the millennium set the rules. Google IPO in 2004 gave it a market cap of $23 billion. Today, it is at $702 billion. Its history of expansion and acquisitions shows how the ecosystem has flourished—Gmail (2004), Android OS (2007), Chrome browser (2008). Then Google Earth, Google Analytics, Google Voice and YouTube from acquisitions amongst those commercialised and integrated already. Its mission statement is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” For inconceivable profits!
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition submitted a recommendation to sue Google for its dominance of the Search market. In an unusual deviation, the commissioners went against staff recommendations. By 2014, Google became the largest corporate lobbyist in the US. In the recent past, thanks to allegations of data manipulation and unintended usage, a crack has appeared, through which there is light. The works of Herbert Marcuse, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Andy Warhol, Frank Zappa, William H Whyte, C Wright Mills and David Riesman works need rereading and a voicing out.
Consumption as an autonomous or sovereign territory has been colonised. A new artificial worldwide monopoly unencumbered by tradition or social reality has emerged and, within last decade, gripped the world. Old world giants were about assets and production. New monopolies are actually networks. We need to get back to a world where the people at large have some countervailing power. We need to take the label back to the collar.
By: Shubhranshu Singh
Author is a marketing expert