As I write this, thinking about how much branding has changed in ten years, a couple of developments seem worth mentioning off the top. Absolut Vodka has recently launched a limited-edition line called “Absolut No Label.” The company’s global travel-retail director, Anders Olsson, explains that the bottles—with “no label or logo”—are a way of expressing that “[ i ]n an Absolute world there are no labels. No one is judged on the basis of prejudice, and everybody is encouraged to be who they really are.” That was in May 2009. A few months later, Starbucks tried to avoid being judged by its own label by opening its first unbranded coffee shop. The “stealth Starbucks,” as the distinct Seattle outlet immediately became known, is decorated with “one-of-a-kind” fixtures and, unlike at regular Starbucks shops, customers are invited to bring in their own music for the stereo system and their own pet social causes for the message board. The only hint of branding is the fine print on the backs of menus: “inspired by Starbucks.” After spending two decades trying to blast its logo onto every conceivable surface, Starbucks was now trying to escape its own brand.
Clearly, the techniques of branding have both thrived and adapted since I published No Logo. But in the past ten years, I have written very little about developments like these. I realized why while reading William Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition. The book’s protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is allergic to brands, particularly Tommy Hilfiger and the Michelin Man. So strong is this “morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace” that she has the buttons on her Levi’s jeans ground smooth so that there are no corporate markings. When I read those words, I immediately realized that I had a similar affliction. It was not one of those allergies that you are born with, but one that develops over time due to prolonged overexposure. I wasn’t always allergic to brands. As I confess in the pages of No Logo, as a child and teenager I was almost obsessively drawn to them. But writing the book required four years of total immersion in ad culture—four years of watching and rewatching Super Bowl ads, scouring Advertising Age for the latest innovations in corporate synergy, reading soul-destroying business books on how to get in touch with your personal brand values, attending corporate seminars on brand management, making excursions to Nike Towns, to monster malls, to branded towns. And watching some of the worst movies ever made while taking notes in the dark on product placement.
Some of it was fun. But by the end, it was as if I had passed some kind of threshold and, like Cayce, I developed something close to a brand allergy. Brands lost most of their charm for me, which was handy because once No Logo became a bestseller, even drinking a Diet Coke in public could land me in the gossip column of my hometown newspaper.
There was a career to be made, I was learning, in being a kind of anti-corporate dominatrix.
The aversion extended even to the brand that I had accidentally created: No Logo. From studying brands like Nike and Starbucks, I was well acquainted with the basic tenet of brand management: find your message, trademark and protect it, and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergized platforms as possible. I set out to break these rules whenever the opportunity arose. The offers for No Logo spin-off projects (feature film, TV series, clothing line . . . ) were rejected. So were the ones from the megabrands and cutting-edge advertising agencies that wanted to give me seminars on why they were so hated. (There was a career to be made, I was learning, in being a kind of anti-corporate dominatrix, making overpaid executives feel good by telling them what bad, bad brands they were.) And against all sensible advice, I stuck by the decision not to trademark the title (that means no royalties from a line of Italian No Logo Food Products, though they did send me some lovely olive oil).
Most important to my marketing detox program, I changed the subject. Less than a year after No Logo came out, I put a personal ban on all talk of corporate branding. In interviews and public appearances, I would steer discussion away from the latest innovation in viral marketing and Prada’s new superstore and toward the growing resistance movement against corporate rule, the one that had captured world attention with the militant protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. “But aren’t you your own brand?” clever interviewers would ask me endlessly. “Probably,” I responded. “But I try to be a really crap one.”
Changing the subject from branding to politics was no great sacrifice for me, because politics was what brought me to marketing in the first place. The first articles I published as a journalist were about the limited job options available to me and my peers—the rise of short-term contracts and McJobs, as well as the ubiquitous use of sweat-shop labor to produce the branded gear sold to us. As a token “youth columnist,” I also covered how an increasingly voracious marketing culture was encroaching into previously protected spaces—schools, museums, parks—while ideas that my friends and I had considered radical were absorbed almost instantly into the latest marketing campaigns for Nike, Benetton and Apple.
I decided to write No Logo when I realized that there was a connection among these seemingly disparate trends, and that connection was the idea that corporations should produce brands, not products. This was the era when corporate epiphanies were striking CEOs like lightning bolts from the heavens: Nike isn’t a running shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports; Starbucks isn’t a coffee shop chain, it’s about the idea of community. Down on earth, these epiphanies meant that many companies that had manufactured their products in their own factories, and had maintained large, stable workforces, embraced the now ubiquitous Nike model: close your factories, produce your products through an intricate web of contractors and subcontractors, and pour your resources into the design and marketing required to fully project your big idea. Or they went for the Microsoft model: maintain a tight control center of shareholder-employees who perform the company’s “core competency,” and outsource everything else to temps, from running the mailroom to writing code. Some called these restructured companies “hollow corporations” because their goal seemed to transcend the corporeal world of things so they could be an utterly unencumbered brand. As corporate guru Tom Peters put it: “You are a damn fool if you own it!”
The frantic corporate quest to get out of the product business and into the ideas business explained several trends at once. Companies were constantly on the lookout for new meaningful ideas, as well as pristine spaces on which to project them, because creating meaning was their new act of production. And of course jobs were getting crummier: these companies no longer saw producing things as their “core” business.
For me, the appeal of dissecting brands like Nike or Starbucks was that pretty soon, you were talking about everything except marketing—you were talking about how products are made in the deregulated global supply chain. You were talking about industrial agriculture and commodity prices. And pretty soon, you were also talking about the nexus of politics and money that locked in these Wild West rules through free-trade deals and the World Trade Organization, and made following them a precondition of receiving much-needed loans from the International Monetary Fund. In short, you were talking about how the world works; the flashy brands were merely our gateways.
By the time No Logo came out, the movement the book documents in its nascent form was already at the gates of powerful institutions, spreading corporatism around the world. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits and G8 meetings in cities around the world, and in several cases stopping new agreements in their tracks. What the corporate media insisted on calling the “anti-globalization movement” was nothing of the sort. At the reformist end, it was anti-corporate; at the radical end, it was anti-capitalist. But what made it unique was its insistent internationalism. All of these developments meant that when I was on a book tour, there were many more interesting things to talk about than logo—like where this movement came from, what it wanted, and whether there were viable alternatives to the ruthless strain of corporatism that went under the innocuous pseudonym of “globalization.” It was a thrilling period, and on a personal level, I was deeply relieved not to have to read Advertising Age anymore.
In recent years, however, I have found myself doing something I swore I had finished with: rereading the branding gurus quoted in No Logo. Guys like Peters (“Brands, not products!”)and Scott Bedbury (“A great brand raises the bar—it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience”). This time, however, it wasn’t to try to understand what was happening at the mall, but rather at the White House—first under the presidency of George W. Bush, and now under Barack Obama, the first U.S. president who is also a superbrand.
There are many acts of destruction for which the Bush years are rightly reviled—the illegal invasions, the defiant defenses of torture, the tanking of the global economy. But the administration’s most lasting legacy may well be the way it systematically did to the U.S. government what branding-mad CEOs did to their companies a decade earlier: it hollowed it out, handing over to the private sector many of the most essential functions of government, from protecting borders to responding to disasters to collecting intelligence. This hollowing-out was not a side project of the Bush years; it was a central mission, reaching into every field of governance. And through the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state, leaving behind only a shell—or a brand—was approached with tremendous focus and precision. They were good at this. Explaining his administration’s mission, budget director Mitch Daniels said, “The general idea that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided seems self-evident to me.”
One company that took over many of those services was Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor. “Lockheed Martin doesn’t run the United States,” observed a 2004 New York Times exposé. “But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it . . . . It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security checks and counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft.”
No one approached the task of auctioning off the state with more zeal than Bush’s much maligned defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Having spent almost three decades in the private sector, heading tech companies and sitting on the boards of such blue-chip firms as Sears and Kellogg, Rumsfeld was steeped in the corporate culture of branding and outsourcing. He entered the Defense Department not with the posture of a public servant but, rather, as a change agent channeling a celebrity CEO—the guy with the guts to downsize and offshore and, most of all, to rebrand. For Rumsfeld, his department’s brand identity was clear: global dominance. The core competency was combat. For everything else, he said, sounding very much like Bill Gates, “we should seek suppliers who can provide these non-core activities efficiently and effectively.” And, channeling Tom Peters, he argued that it was time “to stop thinking about things, numbers of things, and mass.” Addressing the Department of Defense in September 2001, Rumsfeld asked, “Why is the DoD one of the last organizations around that still cuts its own checks? When an entire industry exists to run warehouses efficiently, why do we own and operate so many of our own? At bases around the world, why do we pick up our own garbage and mop our own floors, rather than contracting services out, as many businesses do?” Rumsfeld even went after the sacred cow of the military establishment: health care for soldiers. Why were there so many doctors, Rumsfeld wanted to know. “Some of those needs, especially where they may involve general practice or specialties unrelated to combat, might be more efficiently delivered by the private sector.”
The laboratory for this radical vision was Iraq under U.S. occupation. From the start, Rumsfeld planned the troop deployment like a Wal-Mart vice president looking to shave a few more hours from the payroll. The generals wanted 500,000 troops; he would give them 200,000, with contractors and reservists filling the gaps as needed—a-just-in-time invasion. In practice, this strategy meant that as Iraq spiraled out of control, an ever-more elaborate privatized war industry took shape to prop up the bare-bones army. Blackwater, whose original contract was to provide bodyguards for U.S. envoy Paul Bremer, soon took on other functions, including engaging in combat with the Mahdi Army in 2004. And as the war moved into the jails, with tens and thousands of Iraqis rounded up by U.S. soldiers, private contractors even performed prisoner interrogations, with some later facing accusations of torture.
The sprawling Green Zone, meanwhile, was run as a corporate city-state, with everything from food to entertainment to pest control handled by Halliburton. Just as companies like Nike and Microsoft had pioneered the hollow corporation, this was, in many ways, a hollow war. And when one of the contractors screwed up—Blackwater operatives opening fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, for instance, killing 17 people, or Halliburton allegedly supplying contaminated water to soldiers—the Bush administration, like so many hollow brands before, was free to deny responsibility: These were independent contractors, they could argue, and there was nothing the government could do but review the contract. Blackwater, which had prided itself on being the Disney of mercenary companies, complete with a line of branded clothing and Blackwater teddy bears, responded to the scandals by—what else?—rebranding. Its new name is Xe.
Through the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state was approached with tremendous focus and precision.
The dream of a hollow state was realized in its purest form at the Department of Homeland Security, a branch of government that, because it was brand new, could be built as an empty shell from the outset. As Jane Alexander, deputy director of the research wing of the DHS, explained: “We don’t make things. If it doesn’t come from industry, we are not going to be able to get it.” She sounded like Nike CEO Phil Knight back in the nineties when he declared “there is no value in making things anymore.” Unlike Nike, however, which tell its contractors what kinds of products to make, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t even do that. When it decided it needed to build “virtual fences” on the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, for instance, DHS deputy secretary Michael P. Jackson sent the word out to contractors: “This is an unusual invitation . . . . We’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business.” The department’s inspector general explained that homeland Security “does not have the capacity needed to effectively plan, oversee and execute the [Secure Border Initiative] program.”
That same kind of can’t-do attitude also applied when the financial system imploded in the fall of 2008 and the U.S. Treasury stepped in with a $700 billion bank bailout. Not only did it fail to attach meaningful strings to the money, but it announced that it did not have the capacity to administer the program. It needed to outsource the saving of the banks to the very banks that created the disaster and were receiving the bailout funds. A case in point was the Bank of New York Mellon, which received $3 billion. The bank was also awarded the juiciest “master custodian” contract to administer the bailout. As Bank of New York Mellon President Gerald Hassell pointed out, “It’s the ultimate outsourcing—because the Federal Reserve and the Treasury do not have the mechanics to run the entire program, and we’re essentially the general contractor across the entire program.”
It was a striking admission. By the end of eight years of self-immolation under Bush, the state still had all the trappings of a government—the impressive buildings, presidential press briefings, policy battles—but it no more did the actual work of governing than the employees at Nike’s Beaverton campus actually stitched running shoes. Governing, it seemed, was not its core competency.
The Bush administration’s determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to “rebrand” American in an increasingly hostile world. First came Charlotte Beers, hired as undersecretary of state for pubic affairs shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan. Beers had no previous diplomatic experiences; she had, however, held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies, where she built brands for everything from dog food to power drills. When Secretary of State Colin Powell came under criticism for the appointment, he shrugged it off: “There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something. We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy.” Besides, he said, “she got me to buy Uncle Ben’s rice.”
Watching these cringe-worthy attempts to “rebrand” America during the Bush years, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the U.S. was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging, but because of the failure of its policies. “I’d be in meeting with other public affairs officials at the State and the White House.” Floyd told Slate magazine. “They’d say, ‘We need to get our people out there on more media. ‘I’d say, ‘It’s not so much the packaging, it’s the substance that’s giving us trouble.” Exactly. A powerful imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. You can’t get the whole world to change its opinion of it just by getting “out there [to] tell our story,” as Charlotte Beers put it. America didn’t have a branding problem; surely it had a product problem.Only a few months in, the experiment was in disarray. Beer’s propaganda materials were greeted with derision. And when she went on a mission to Egypt to improve the perception of the U.S. among Arab “opinion markers,” Beers ended up getting lectured on U.S. military bases, blanket support for Israel, and wars with unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties. After Beers quietly returned to Madison Avenue, the same thing happened to her successor, Karen Hughes, when she went on several “listening tours,” focusing in particular on forging a bond as a “working mother” with Muslim women. In Ankara, she was informed by a group of Turkish women’s rights activists that the idea that the United States was an advocate for women’s freedoms would remain laughable so long as the occupation of Iraq continued. “This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero,” Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an activist with the Capital City Women’s Forum, told Hughes. Fama Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish feminist, added that “war makes the rights of women completely erased, and poverty comes after war—and women pay the price.” Hughes kept a low profile for the remainder of her tenure.
I used to think that, but I have since reconsidered. When Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered—Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. “The election and nomination process is the brand relaunch of the year,” declared David Brain, CEO of Edelman Europe, Middle East and Africa, a global public relations giant. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full page graphic in the stylish Paper magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama: America, reborn.
It turned out that the U.S. government could solve its reputation problems with branding—it’s just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to complete in today’s tough market. The nation found that opportunity in Obama, who clearly has a natural feel for branding and has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desiree Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public Strategies, a PR firm that, according to Business Week, has “quarterbacked campaigns” for everyone from Cablevision to AT&T. Together, the team has marshaled every tool in the modern marketing arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama Girl? Genius!); a 30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally heralded as “authentic”); and the choice of strategic brand alliances (Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end of hip-hop stars for street cred).
The first time I saw the “Yes We Can” video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am and featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther King-esque Obama speech, I thought, finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike’s. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the presidential election, Obama beat out Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers’ top annual award, Marketer of the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the Nineties, brands upstaged politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on Obama’s cachet (to wit: Pepsi-Cola’s “Choose Change” campaign, Ikea’s “Embrace Change ’09,” and Southwest Airlines’ offer of “Yes You Can” tickets.)
Indeed, everything Obama and his family touch turns to branding gold. J. Crew saw its stock price increase 200 percent in Obama’s first five months in office, thanks in part to Michelle’s well-known fondness for the brand. Obama’s much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been similarly good news for Research in Motion. The surest way to sell magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama on the cover, and all you need to do is call three ounces of vodka and some fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of “the Obama economy”—the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires—at 2.5 billion. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Desiree Rogers got into trouble with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with the Wall Street Journal. “We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand,” she said. “Our possibilities are endless.”
The exploration of those possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory. Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro Man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further, turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-Nineties branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional “experiences”—branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the personality of their favorite brands. Rogers sounds just like those branding gurus when she speaks about the White House as the “crown jewel” of the Obama brand, a physical space where the administration can embody the values of transparency, change and diversity that drew so many voters out on Election Day.
Calibrating the White House megabrand means much talk of the importance of healthy eating (“Let’s hear it for vegetables!” Michelle and a gaggle of schoolchildren cheered at the unveiling of the South Lawn garden)—but also field trips to Five Guys Burgers so no one thinks they’re too preachy. It means corralling A-list celebrities to perform random acts of mentorship—but also staying down-to-earth enough to redecorate the girls’ bedrooms at Pottery Barn. And most of all, it has meant, in addition to the usual state dinners, an endless procession of multicultural celebrations: the fountain dyed green on Saint Patrick’s Day, a Seder on Passover, a special gathering for the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. As a brand, the Obama White House’s identity is probably closest to Starbucks: hip, progressive, approachable—a small luxury you can feel good about even during tough economic times.
Obama favors the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Why shouldn’t a president who wants to change the country benefit from marketing as good as that of Starbucks and Nike? Every transformative movement in history has used strong graphic design, catchy slogans and, yes, fashion to build its base. Fifteen years ago, Nike appropriated the imagery of civil rights movement and the icons of Sixties counterculture to inspire cult-like devotion to running shoes. Obama has used our faded memories of those same movements to revive interest in actual politics; surely that’s a step up. So the problem is not that Obama is using the same tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is that, as with so many other life-style brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.
Though it’s too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favors the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison—while going ahead with an expansion of the lower-profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing efforts to hold Bush officials who authorized torture accountable. He will boldly nominate the first Latina to the Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy while championing the fantasy of “clean coal” and refusing to tax emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Similarly, he will slam the unacceptable greed of banking executives, even as he hands the reins of economy to consummate Wall Street insiders Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, who have predictably rewarded the speculators and failed to break up the banks. And most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in Iraq, and will retire the oafish “War on Terror” phrase—even as the conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In his preference for symbols over substance and his unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (his Pop Art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his Yes We Can! slogan from the migrant farmworkers’ Si, Se Puede!). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programs. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but also serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents like FDR, follows the logic of marketing: Create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires, but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wingnuts (who, granted, constitute a not-inconsequential demographic in the U.S.). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand was “big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy.” And then their highest compliment: “Mr. Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player.”
Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party monopoly through dogged organization and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic Party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued “bipartisanship” with crazed Republicans once in the White House.
Has Obama’s failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him? So far, not really. An international study by Pew’s Global Attitudes Project, released five months after he took office, asked people whether they were confident Obama would “do the right thing in the world affairs.” Even though there was already plenty of evidence that Obama was continuing many of Bush’s core international policies (albeit with a far less arrogant style), the vast majority said they approved of Obama—in Jordan and Egypt, a fourfold increase from the Bush era. In Europe, the change in attitude could give you whiplash: Obama had the confidence of 91 percent of French respondents and 86 percent of Britons—compared with 13 percent and 16 percent, respectively, under Bush. The poll was proof that “Obama’s presidency essentially erased the battering the USA’s image took during eight years of the Bush administration,” according to USA Today. David Axelrod puts it like this: “What has happened is that anti-Americanism isn’t cool anymore.”
That’s certainly true, and has very real consequences. Obama’s election and the world’s corresponding love affair with his rebranded America came at a crucial time. In the two months before the election, the financial crisis rocking world markets was being rightly blamed not just on the contagion of Wall Street’s bad bets but on the entire economic model of deregulation and privatization—called neoliberalism in most parts of the world—that had been preached from U.S.-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. If the United States were led by someone who didn’t happen to be a global superstar, its prestige would have continued to plummet and the rage at the economic model at the heart of the global meltdown would likely have turned into sustained demands for new rules to rein in (and seriously tax) speculative finance.
Those rules were supposed to have been on the agenda when G20 leaders met at the height of the economic crisis in London in April 2009. Instead, the press focused on excited sightings of the fashionable Obama clan, while world leaders agreed to revive the ailing International Monetary Fund with up to a trillion dollars in new financing. In short, Obama didn’t just rebrand America, he resuscitated the neoliberal economic project when it was at death’s door. No one but Obama, wrongly perceived as a new FDR, could have pulled it off.
Yet rereading No Logo after 10 years provides many reminders that success in branding can be fleeting, and that nothing is more fleeting than the quality of being cool. Many of the superbrands and branded celebrities that looked untouchable not so long ago have either faded or are in deep crisis today. Some overstretched. For others, their actual products began to feel rather disappointing next to the thrill of their marketing. (A black woman breastfeeding a white child to sell . . . Benetton sweater sets? Really?) And sometimes it was precisely their claims of political enlightenment that led activists to contrast their marketing image with their labor practices, with disastrous results for the brands.
The Obama brand could very well suffer a similar fate. Of course, many people supported Obama for straightforward strategic reasons: they rightly wanted the Republicans out, and he was the best candidate. But what will happen when the throngs of Obama faithful realize they gave their hearts not to a movement that shared their deepest values but to a devoutly corporatist political party, one that puts the profits of drug companies before the need for affordable health care, and Wall Street’s addiction to financial bubbles before the needs of millions of people whose homes and jobs could have been saved with a better bailout?
The risk—and it is real—is that the response will result in waves of bitter cynicism, particularly among the young people for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics. Most won’t switch parties; they’ll just do what young people used to do during elections: stay home, tune out. Another, more hopeful possibility is that Obamamania will end up being what the president’s advisers like to call “a teachable moment.” Obama is a gifted politician with a deep intelligence and a greater inclination toward social justice than any leader of his party in recent memory. If he cannot change the system in order to keep his election promises, it’s because the system itself is utterly broken.
That was the conversation many of us were having in that brief period between the WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999 and the beginning of the so-called War on Terror. Perhaps it was a limitation, but for the movement the media insisted on calling “anti-globalization,” it mattered little which political party happened to be in power in our respective countries. We were focused squarely on the rules of the game, and how they had been distorted to serve the narrow interests of corporations at every level of governance—from international free trade agreements to local water privatization deals.
Looking back on this period, what I liked most was the unapologetic wonkery of it all. In the two years after No Logo came out, I went to dozens of teach-ins and conferences, some of them attended by thousands of people (tens of thousands in the case of the World Social Forum), which were exclusively devoted to popular education about the inner workings of global finance and trade. No topic was too arcane: the science of genetically modified foods, trade-related intellectual property rights, the fine print of bilateral trade deals, the patenting of seeds, the truth about carbon sinks. I sensed in these rooms a hunger for knowledge that I had never witnessed in any university class. It was as if people understood, all at once, that gathering this knowledge was crucial to the survival not just of democracy but of the planet. Yes, this was complicated, but we embraced that complexity because we were looking at systems, not just symbols.
In some parts of the world, particularly Latin America, that wave of resistance only spread and strengthened. In some countries, social movements grew strong enough to join with political parties, winning national elections and beginning to forge a new regional fair trade regime. But elsewhere, September 11 pretty much blasted the movement out of existence. In the United States, progressive politics rallied around a single cause: “taking back” the White House (as if “we” ever had it in the first place), while outside America, the coalitions that had been focused on a global economic model now trained their attention on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on a resurgent “U.S. empire,” and on resisting increasingly aggressive attacks on immigrants. What we knew about the sophistication of global corporatism—that all the world’s injustice could not be blamed on one right-wing political party, or on one nation, no matter how powerful—seemed to disappear.
If there was ever a time to remember the lessons we learned at the turn of the millennium, it is now. One benefit of the international failure to regulate the financial sector even after its catastrophic collapse is that the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as “free market,” but as crony capitalist—politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support. What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate greed is at its highest point in decades. Many of the points that supposedly marginal activists were making in the streets 10 years ago are now accepted wisdom of cable news talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages.
And yet missing from this populist moment is what was beginning to emerge a decade ago: a movement that did not just respond to individual outrages but had a set of concrete demands for a more just and sustainable economic model. Thus in the United States and many parts of Europe, far-right parties are now giving the loudest voice to anti-corporatist rage.
Personally, none of this makes me feel betrayed by Barack Obama. Rather, I have a familiar ambivalence, the way I used to feel when brands like Nike and Apple started using revolutionary imagery in their transcendental branding campaigns. Sure it was annoying, but after the apolitical Eighties, when there was, according to Margaret Thatcher, “no such thing as society,” it also seemed like a good sign that these brands believed otherwise. All of their high-priced market research had found a longing in people for something more than shopping—for social change, for public space, for greater equality and diversity. Of course the brands tried to exploit that longing to sell lattes and laptops. Yet it seemed to me that we on the left owed the marketers a debt of gratitude for all this: Our ideas weren’t as passé as we had been told. And since the brands couldn’t fulfill the deep desires they were awakening, social movements had a new impetus to try.
Perhaps Obama should be viewed in much the same way. Once again, the market research has been done for us. What the election and the global embrace of Obama’s brand proved decisively is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change—that many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.
Those kinds of transformative goals are only achieved when independent social movements build the numbers and then the organizational power to make muscular demands of their elites. Obama won office by capitalizing on our profound nostalgia for those kinds of social movements. But it was only an echo. A memory. The task ahead is to build movements that are—to borrow an old Coke slogan—the real thing. As Studs Terkel used to say: “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”