Looking back on Klein’s landmark amidst big tech brand backlash
Last year Naomi Klein’s No Logo turned 20 and The Guardian asked if the battle against brand takeover had long since been lost. Did we simply internalise all its lessons and move on? Many of the issues it raised persist but the book has left a mark at that point where branding and advertising intersects with corporate behaviour. In many ways, it is the protesters that moved on while the corporations still wrestle with the issues. Amid big tech anti-trust hearings and with a new social awareness of what has been lost in the Silicon Valley goldrush, we can see another cultural struggle afoot between brands and their customers. And from this kind of tension springs opportunity for those who want to build businesses from better behaviours.
Mo Brands, Mo Problems?
In some ways revisiting the book is like watching waves wash over generations; the tide goes out on the worries of ageing Gen Xers and reveals a new set of problems standing between Y, Z and the more equitable society. Swap Nike sweatshops in far-away ‘export processing zones’ for Boohoo’s modern slavery on our doorstep. Wage-cut funded Borders book store expansion strategies for Amazon’s algorithmic warehouse labour (funding a razor-edge margin game that suppresses all competition). 20 years ago, Klein was even writing about Starbucks’ ‘part-time’ employees strategically kept below 40 hours-a-week with shifts allocated by software that tracked live demand for lattes. A warning shot if ever one was fired for our gig economy future of zero-hour contracts.
It might seem little progress has been made, that a new set of brands has appeared for new generations, peddling old practices under cover of new buzzwords. But walking back through the history it’s also striking how many then revelations still impact not just our perception of McDonalds, GAP or Shell but the evolution of the practice of branding itself.
From just saying it to actually doing it
No Logo is full of tales of brands co-opting the radical discourse to a commercial agenda through crafty semantics. Klein describes how the identity politics held dear by Xers was imported to corporations by 90s market researchers and cool hunters to become a badge of gender and sexuality for Diesel and Abercrombie or race and ethnicity for Nike and Tommy Hillfiger. The fertile advertising relationship between Nike and Weiden & Kennedy has a long history of success here.
Yet Nike is one of the brands that has moved marketing creativity beyond crude messaging into the modern environment of experience. Here things with real value — smartphone apps, public sporting events — are shared with audiences in return for positive brand outcomes. Put simply, brand here funds value that would otherwise hold monetary value in the economy. Nike might still look to co-opt culture but can no longer do it legitimately without making real contributions to that culture.
It will seem a trite observation, particularly to marketing professionals themselves, but as awareness grows of the social ills of the digital advertising model — polarisation, post-truth politics and the issues emphatically presented in Netflix’s stirring film, The Social Dilemma — it’s important to keep our eyes on the integrity of marketing media spend. Unilever’s lead in withdrawing Facebook advertising gives more credibility to their claims of social responsibility than any number of Dove ads.
Is Big Tech facing its No Logo moment?
No Logo was written at a time of optimism and caught a mood that lifted protesters into the Battle of Seattle and direct conflict with corporations and the WTO. Yet it’s this part of the story that seems most prosaic while fierce cultural conflicts are raging in the America of Me Too and Black Lives Matter. The attention of protesters has moved from corporate wrongs to be understandably consumed by identity politics. The protests of the 90s may have inspired important institutional checks on corporate behaviour like the Fashion Transparency Index but, meanwhile, a new generation slipped on loose fit denim to chase corporate success with Google, Facebook and the new e-com platforms. Now, the mood may finally be turning on them too.
Faced with digitally ‘woke’ customers, anti-trust hearings and a retreat from globalisation only Apple looks well placed to navigate the next year and continue building equity with audiences who are watching these developments. Its hardware centered business model isn’t dependent on advertising and its margins allow for adjustments to labour and supply chain practices. Perhaps even more so than Nike, it is an exemplar of experience marketing, having transformed both software experience and retail through its commitment to making the future accessible via simple, human technology. Now it has turned that commitment to brand behaviours that impact even more consequential business decisions around privacy and security.
Apple plays the long game
Across the more than 500 pages of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism — a book whose title gives name to the enemy in a way similar to the 90s role played by No Logo — Apple merits hardly an entry. This contrasts with Google, for who it often reads more like a straight corporate history. Since Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs and refused the FBI access to the San Bernardino shooter’s smartphone in 2016, the company has pursued a clear line on privacy. They haven’t used this as an opportunistic communications message. Instead, it has informed the development of their products and services, as any meaningful brand value proposition should.
That now looks very smart. It looks like playing the long game as public sentiment swings away from the web’s free content model to reveal a 300% growth in digital news and media subscriptions. At their latest media event they announced the Apple One subscription that bundles Apple gaming, TV, music, Cloud, fitness and news services into one monthly payment. To subvert the cliché: if you actually pay for the product, it turns out you get the content you deserve.
Without denying the problems that still exist within a company of Apple’s scale (which include labour and tax policies) it is possible to see that while Klein and the Seattle protesters set their sights on no logos back in the 90s, a new generation might better insist on a new kind of logo. Even at the giddiest heights of US capitalism’s first two trillion-dollar business valuation, it is not an outright structural impossibility.
We may not change the institution, but it can change itself
If The Social Dilemma really is the catalyst for changing attitudes it seeks to be, then it will have been won by those ‘Prodigal Techbros’, the tech insiders identified by writer Maria Farrell as having an impure motive in this fight. “The moral hazard is clear,” Farrell complained of these seen-the-light converts. “Why would anyone do the right thing from the beginning when they can take the money, have their fun, and then, when the wind changes, convert their status and relative wealth into special pleading and a whole new career?”
We can sympathise with this position and still worry that a descent into leftist in-fighting at this time is the last thing we need with real change so tantalisingly close. She says: “Understand that if you are doing this for the next phase of your career, you are doing it wrong.” But is this in fact what success looks like for grassroots protesters? Isn’t this the sign of similar triumphs to those wrought on McDonalds, Shell and GAP in the 90s playing out through institutional change in 2020?
Techbros are the institution. If they’re changing — whether motivated with ideological purity or subtle self-interest — they’re still changing. And the institutions will change with them. Rather than revert to naïve tech utopianism which would see marketing thrown out of the c-suite, perhaps we just need to throw out old conceptions of marketing and brand.
When truth dies only behaviour remains
Back in 2000 when No Logo first hit shelves the concept of ‘brand behaviour’ merited only a footnote in the then bible of branding, David Aaker’s Building Strong Brands, which Klein offers as a key text in her reading list at the close of the book. Aaker, who popularised the development of brand ‘personality’ wrote in that book: “It is in behaviour that the true personality emerges — in short, you are what you do. Just as a person’s behaviour affects others’ perception of his or her personality, so too does a brand’s actions…”
In a post-truth world, behaviours are more critical than ever before as utterances become very slippery indicators of meaning or beliefs. Take the public response to the first Trump-Biden debate, a chaos of misinformation from the incumbent and confused positioning from his challenger. If the consensus is Biden came off best, it can only be because of his character and actions, certainly not his incisive messaging when the hour was upon him.
So, is brand behaviour No Logo’s greatest legacy? A notion that far from being an empty set of opportunistic signs and signifiers, a brand should and can be judged by its behaviour that is finally moving from a branding footnote to central pillar of corporate strategy. This cuts brand all the way to core questions of business model and not mere advertising.
Perhaps what Xers were fighting for in the 90s wasn’t the erasure of the influence of brands in society but rather to lift all our expectations of that role. From No Logo to a new kind of logo.