Holistic Branding: The Strategy of Co-optation
I’ve read some pretty incredible stuff lately in the contemporary literature of marketing and branding — double plus bonkers stuff. I think I’m in a pretty good position now to place “holistic branding,” or what is also being called “marketing 3.0,” in social and historical context.
To understand marketing 3.0 as a “third wave” of marketing, as it were, we have to appreciate what advertisers think was accomplished by marketing 1.0 and marketing 2.0. Some hint of that is contained, as previously mentioned, in the subtitle of Philip Kotler’s Marketing 3.0: From Product to Customers to the Human Spirit which suggests the central concern with each marketing wave or fashion — the product, the consumer, now the “spirit”. But much more to the point, really, is that each wave represented a co-optation of some arising threat to the system of production and consumption. Marketing 1.0 represented the co-optation of the industrial working class, especially during the restlessness following the First World War. Marketing 2.0 represented the co-optation of the sixties’ counter-culture through the promotion of “hip consumerism”. Marketing 3.0 or holistic branding, represents the attempt to co-opt the implicit critique of productivism and consumerism represented by “integral consciousness” in its emergent forms as ecological, spiritual, environmental, and to harness this for further economic expansion and growth. Each previous wave was associated with an economic boom, fueled by stimulated consumption, that carried the capitalist system to new “commanding heights”.
What’s interesting about “holistic branding” is some recognition amongst market researchers of the incipient emergence of integral or holistic consciousness that, apparently, needs to be subordinated and harnessed. There were already hints of that in, for example, Slavoj Zizek’s complaint about Western Marxists becoming Western Buddhists — jettisoning not just consumerist materialism but also Marxian historical materialism. There are, besides the integralist movements, also challenges like “Slow Food”, “Voluntary Simplicity”, and others that have rejected acquisitive individualism and competitive egoism as a meaningful way of life.
In fact, the paradigm shift represented by Marketing 3.0, which distinguishes it from Marketing 2.0, is that where the latter focussed on branding a “way of life” (called “values and lifestyles” or VALS branding) to effect “branded behaviours”, the slogan that most often appears currently in connection with “holistic branding” is “reason for being“. Where marketing 2.0 got away with selling “ways of life”, marketing 3.0 believes it can sell “reason for being”, which is, of course, an incursion on the preserves of philosophy and religion.
I was taken aback, for example, to read Thom Braun’s The Philosophy of Branding, and its appropriation and co-optation of the entire Western philosophical and intellectual tradition from Heraclitus to Wittgenstein as being nothing more than the quest for the perfect brand. The entire corpus of philosophy was little more than a grab-bag of techniques for designing effective branding. The whole premise of the book seems to be that all hitherto philosophy existed only to prepare the way and to evolve the brand manager and branded culture. Even Nietzsche is recast as a “supermarketer” and the promoter of “superbrands”. It’s quite unbelievable. Here’s a few excerpts
“The search for new values will become a necessity in branding — if only because current values are limited as a basis for new brand positionings. So Nietzsche’s point can be expressed in the following terms: brands will need to stand for values that truly reflect the way we are, rather than the way we pretend to be, or assume ourselves to be. In so doing, brands and branding will therefore lead us towards a morality that is a more accurate reflection of our real benefits and aspirations.” (p. 133)
“In busy markets brands will only achieve distinctiveness by creating their own value systems — their own ‘worlds’ in which they can exemplify for consumers the ultimate expression of whatever that value is…. This quality in a brand is what Nietzsche calls ‘will to power’. Of humans who develop their potential fully in this respect he coined the term ‘superman’. In the same way, brands that exhibit this same will to be almost quite literally a law unto themselves he called ‘superbrands’. Superbrands are not simply great brands — they are brands which create their own worlds around them. In effect, they deny competition the ability to compete by defining the market as being the territory that the superbrand occupies.”
“Nietzsche’s vision is one in which brands become organisms in their own right — expressions of values which, once set free, create their own momentum to fulfill what they have the capability to become.” (p. 137)
Needless to say, Nietzsche said no such thing, and this is all misappropriation and superstition. But I think Hannah Arendt got it wrong in speaking of “the banality of evil”. It’s more like the evil of banality. I keep coming across such nonsense like “Moses was the first great salesman and real estate developer” or Jesus was the “first great advertiser and Chief Executive Officer”. These kinds of statements lie outside the bounds of sanity.
But what it amounts to is the attempt to co-opt the prophetic voice. Brand engineers really see themselves as latter day prophets, the dispensers and even creators of new values and lifestyles (like Moses). Their hubris is quite astonishing. But there is a certain irony in the fact that they try to appropriate the charisma and mana of the prophets or associate themselves with their names in the same way they get celebrity spokespeople to endow their brands with mana. Buy the product, and you too can ingest a share in the celebrity’s teja or power. In the same way, the brander self-brands by attempting to associate his name and profession with great philosophers or great prophets. Psychic inflation and extraordinary self-aggrandisement seem to go with the profession, like adman Frank Delano’s belief in “The Omnipowerful Brand“. They really do seem to think of themselves as a more highly evolved species of human being, and even as the real and only power in the land. Herr Goebbels suffered from the same cynicism and the same hubris. They let the effectiveness of propaganda technique go to their heads.
Studying branding is a good education in what Gebser calls “the deficient magical”, because that’s what it is — the belief in the near omnipotence of their incantations and ritualistic techniques for turning “unbranded behaviours” (which are unwanted) into calculable and predictable “branded behaviours”. But, it’s probably closer to the truth to say that, in their talk about “propositioning”, “enticing”, “seducing” and “soliciting” that they are more akin to pimps than wizards or prophets. Since they can’t accept that about themselves, they need to re-brand themselves, and in quite hyperbolic terms.
Not prophets. Not wizards. Pimps.