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Yet while Klein is tempted to interpret these examples as cases of companies trying to escape their own brands, the truth is a bit more subtle. What both Absolut and Starbucks are trying to do here is position themselves as brands that are delivering honesty, integrity, and self-fulfillment. They are selling not just vodka or coffee but also authenticity, which is ironic, given that one of the things that No Logo found so unpleasant about the contemporary brandscape was how inauthentic it was.
All brands are built around a unique promise or selling proposition, but as Klein argued, whatever a brand is supposed to stand for, it has little to do with the material facts of how the product is manufactured. Nike’s “Just Do It” pledge of individual achievement and Apple’s attitude of hip nonconformity could mask sweatshops, communities damaged by outsourcing, or an exploited environment. The anti-corporate activism chronicled in No Logo used this gap between what a brand promised to consumers and how its corporate parent actually behaved to perform a bit of public relations jiu-jitsu. When their bad faith was revealed to the world, the economic strength of the brand bullies became a major liability. The need to preserve shareholder value forced companies such as Shell and Nike to get their act together and make sure their corporate deeds aligned with their marketing froth.
A decade on, there is no question who won that fight. From eco- to organic, fair trade to locally sourced, sweatshop safe to dolphin friendly, sales pitches that 10 years ago would have reeked of patchouli oil and set the red baiters on full alert are now thoroughly mainstream. Companies like Whole Foods (and its quarterly “5 Percent Day,” when each location donates 5 percent of its net sales to a nonprofit) or the Vermont-based Seventh Generation (a natural soap and detergent company devoted to all forms of sustainability, whose co-founder and executive chairman is known as the “inspired protagonist” of the firm) are massively successful operations.
Virtually every marketing book published in the past few years, from Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology to James Gilmore and Joseph Pine’s Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, has stressed the primacy of authenticity as a selling point. Everyone agrees that the quest for authenticity is the contemporary advertising equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail, and being able to play the authenticity game is now a fundamental requirement of marketing, the standard against which all brand strategies are judged.
At this point you might expect Naomi Klein to raise her arms and declare victory. The days when Shell, McDonald’s, Nike, and others could bigfoot around the planet while ignoring their public responsibilities are gone, their behavior transformed, thanks to the efforts of a relatively small but highly vocal, motivated, and intelligent group of connected activists. The taming of the brand bullies is all the proof you need that corporations don’t own brands; consumers do.
Yet Klein is not happy. In a remarkably self-aware passage toward the end of No Logo, she points out that there has to be more to environmentalism than an Energy Saver sticker on your computer monitor and more to social justice than a Fair Trade logo on your coffee mug. If all politics becomes absorbed into consumer politics, she warns, you end up with the wholesale privatization of what was once the democratic responsibility of the public sphere.
That is why Klein is so unappreciative of what would appear to be a great triumph for her side. Her goal was never merely to change corporate behavior. It was to change the entire economic system. As she sees it, the newfound emphasis on selling authenticity is just further evidence of capitalism’s ability to co-opt dissent and exploit seemingly subversive niches. Reform is always the enemy of revolution, and any change that maintains the overall status quo is to be viewed with suspicion. Writing about branding was only an excuse to talk about politics, and what led Klein to re-engage with the discourse of marketing after 10 years was the emergence of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president who is also a “superbrand.”
In the new introduction to No Logo, Klein denounces Obama as little more than a neocon who has wrapped himself in the branding of truly transformative political movements. Shamelessly helping itself to the iconography of Che Guevara, the rhetorical cadences of Martin Luther King, and the “Yes We Can” slogan of Latin American migrant workers, the Obama brand is just as hollow and inauthentic, as far as Klein is concerned, as the corporate brands she X-rayed a decade before. Whenever possible, she alleges, Obama “favors the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change.” He was happy to play the role of the “anti-war, anti–Wall Street party crasher” when running for the Democratic nomination, but promptly cut bipartisan deals “with crazed Republicans once in the White House.”
You can see where Klein is going with this. In No Logo, she argued that it is simply not enough for anti-brand activists to persuade Nike to improve its production methods or for McDonald’s to fix its environmental problems. Similarly, today it is not good enough for the most liberal president in ages to settle for half a loaf when the alternative is going hungry. In both cases, she argues, a profoundly corrupt system is left intact. Any suggestion that things might have changed, if marginally, for the better is dismissed as just more marketing spin.
Still, Klein claims to spy an ironic sort of hope in Obama’s victory. Just as the success of socially conscious branding is a sign that there is a longing out there for equality, diversity, and public space, she writes, the well of hope and expectation that Obama was able to plumb is decisive proof that there is still a tremendous appetite for social justice. That he has failed to deliver is almost beside the point: The market research is done, and all that is left is for genuine transformative social movements to exploit the niche.
This gets the order of exploitation exactly backward. A more likely consequence is something roughly parallel to what happened during the last decade in the consumer realm, where the very brand-driven corporate hegemony that No Logo so forcefully critiqued came back stronger than ever.
For all its faith in a transformative grassroots political movement, the principal legacy of No Logo was that it served as a research manual for corporations looking to sell their products to consumers looking for meaning, integrity, and purpose in their shopping cart. Ten years on, still waiting for the revolution, Naomi Klein scarcely seems to notice that she’s providing invaluable marketing advice to her opponents.
Andrew Potter is the author of The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, out this month from HarperCollins. He blogs at authenticityhoax.squarespace.com.