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.

3 responses to “Holistic Branding: The Strategy of Co-optation”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    By the way, anybody looking for a good book on adveristing and advertising history, I highly recommend Joseph Seldin’s The Golden Fleece (1964). It’s a little dated, but probably the best book I’ve read on the subject to date. Seldin was himself an advertising man, and he really knew his stuff, and was very critical of the advertising industry, and he did it with humour and great wit. Seldin also made note of the use of “magic” in branding and compared advertising to “shamanism”, but probably more in the sense of Gebser’s “deficient magical”. In any event, I haven’t come across a better book yet (unless it might be Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness).

  2. abdulmonem says :

    This brought to my mind the incident of the Kuwaiti incubator and how agencies of falsification which are wrongly called PR can deceive and can put the people in the mood that serves their agenda. Political branding is as ugly as commercial branding, in actuality commercial branding is a political ploy to keep people in a state of servitude, helplessness, thoughtlessness and in trance in order to pursue their agenda without fear of objection or inquiry. Let us also not forget religious branding which is the most vicious of all types of branding. What are polls but devices to monitor the public feeling. Just watch how unaware the people of the west of the crimes of their governments that are committed in the other parts of our earth Perversion and lie will not perish from the earth, its the law of the opposites that keep life in a continual process of transformation. It is a game being watched by the universal umpire that interferes in the time that he see fit. Some acknowledge such force other deny and thus the umpire says that we have created you all, among you the believers and among you the non-believers. As there is the seen, there is also the unseen. The divine program is a long term program built on postponed interference in order to give the human enough space for change, and also to remind him that every phenomenon has its gestation cycle and duration. It seems we are living in a phobic world of our own creation, as there is islamphobia ,there is a christophobia as well as judiaphobia and hate-mongering will not vanish from the earth until honest and truthful ideas prevail and replace the perverted imagery that keep our world deluded. At the end I like to say that wide reading is interesting and beneficial but leave the human with only discursive knowledge in the realm of his peers but intensive knowledge of god words in the torah, in the bible or in the quran can transcend in value such zonified and diffuse reading, that is not forgetting the source of knowledge while reading others and leaving the cultural and religious box to the vastness of the one.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    I like also to mention that the golden fleece has reminded me of the golden calf and how the human can not exercise his worship without physical support, a weakness that has been cultivated by our industries of propaganda and advertising. This remind me of god need for physical support to make his presence felt. in particular by the physical conscious human being.

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