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The Gaudy and Damned

If every society makes myths to explain the great and unknowable forces of the world, the age of advanced consumer capitalism has wrought its own peculiar mythology: the brand. What originated as a means of selling standardized products across a mass market—essentially eliminating the need for the salesman—has evolved into a hybrid religion, social system, philosopy, and, finally, way of life. The swooshes and arches that dot our landscape and adorn our apparel are sacred symbols imparting, according to certain marketers, a “halo effect” on their purchasers. Things that are not products at all—art museums, university educations, film studios—are subsumed by branded thought (a recent book called Scotland: The Brand gets at the heart of this); and brands become a sort of personality extension providing an appropriate product for each part of the lifestyle to which you have subscribed.

In a recent issue of Fast Company, Tom Peters (“the world’s leading brand when it comes to writing, speaking, or thinking about the new economy”) suggests that the relationship between people and brands be taken to its next logical step: “The Brand Called You.” For Peters, this “new brand world,” in which people compose identities through logos on their shoes or their coffee cups, provides valuable lessons for corporate power brokers trying to move up in a career world characterized more by lilypads than ladders. Peters, with his logo-centric worldview, is a conspiracy theorist of brands: He seems to see them everywhere. We visit Web sites because “the brand name tells you that the visit will be worth your time”; when you sift through your e-mail messages, deleting some and answering others, you’re responding to the “brands” you like and receiving a “promise of the value you’ll receive for the time you spend reading the message.” The language of the marketplace, in other words, can be used to describe the most personal human interactions. Everything, Peters is here to tell us, can be reduced to the level of a saleable commodity.

Peters would sound crazier were brands not exerting such a tremendous pull on contemporary society. There is nothing new about brand loyalty, of course, but in recent years it has acquired a certain devotional tinge, evolving into a virtual belief system—accompanied by our ever-expanding consumer tithe. The brand becomes, in the words of one marketer, “a story that’s evolving all the time,” thereby justifying both constant obsolescence and endless product “extensions,” in which all manner of spin-offs take their place in the drama. Brand theaters like the Viacom Entertainment Center and Nike Town are built to facilitate the show. And the story, increasingly, is what we purchase: It’s hard to imagine someone entering a Warner Bros. store with an actual product in mind. Nowadays brands actually outgrow products: Nike, Fila, and Reebok, for example, have seen sales of branded apparel grow more quickly than shoes over the past several years (for Nike, apparel now represents nearly half of its domestic profits).

What is ironic about brands as narratives is that they serve to conceal a vast network of economic arrangements and human labor that the buyer never sees. For a brand to become really important the original “story” of a product must have stopped making sense; Starbucks once may have relied on word of mouth to lure customers to its first Seattle stores, but to bring patrons into suburban strip malls across the country a different story must be created, a story that uses “Seattle” as a shadowy token of something authentic and turns coffee drinking into a fetishized art form, something with which the consumer must have a relationship. As a Starbucks exec said approvingly of Ralph Lauren: “He’s not selling saddles. He’s using the saddle to tell a story.” The tale grows fantastically complex as everything from fragrances to house paints are folded into the plot line.

Even so, Peters’s “Brand Called You” marks a dramatic extension of the brand story. While the megamergers and best-selling authors and “all the frenzy at the humongous end of the size spectrum” garner all the attention, Peters confides, the “real action is at the other end. The main chance is becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents, looking to have the best season you can imagine in your field, looking to do your best work and chalk up a remarkable track record, and looking to establish your own microequivalent of the Nike swoosh.”

Peters upgrades the old saw “sell yourself” to a fully integrated marketing campaign: “You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or The Body Shop,” he gushes. The trick is to note what distinguishes you from colleagues, what “feature-benefit model” you offer, and then “market the bejesus” out of Brand You, by moonlighting, writing Op-Eds, creating “braggables,” even recruiting a “user’s group” to get feedback on your performance. After all, “It’s the only way to know what you would be worth on the open market.”

In Peters’s blustery slew of hyperbole and pseudo-empowerment, common sense masquerades as revelation, facts are preciously thin on the ground, and arguments double back on themselves as just another “boundary” to be quashed, in the same way products “transcend the narrow boundaries of their category and become a brand surrounded by a Tommy Hilfiger-like buzz.” The NFL’s recent efforts to remake itself as a brand becomes much less remarkable seen from this perspective: Consider how stadiums have become endorsement opportunities, team ownership is now a corporate loss-leader, and top athletes have stronger allegiances (and often larger financial ties) to the companies that sponsor them than to whatever team is currently purchasing their services. It’s a “free-agent economy” indeed that governs professional sports, and there must be plenty of admiration in those corporate skyboxes for the personal brands on the playing surface below. Fan loyalty has become perhaps the greatest commodity of all. As one ad executive for a credit card company was quoted in the New York Times, “We want to take the positive equities of the loyal Green Bay fans and try to transfer them over to our Visa brand.”

The blind quest for higher profits has done much to undermine loyalty in professional sports, as in companies. For Tom Peters, however, loyalty is more alive than ever. The difference now, says Peters, is that loyalty to one’s “projects” or even to “yourself” (can one really be disloyal to one’s self?) has replaced “blind loyalty to the company.” Let us be clear about what is at stake here. We are, on the one hand, supposed to forget about company loyalty, and on the other, to use brand loyalty to construct our own individuality—by subsuming our individuality into a branded idea of individuality, banking on those things that supposedly set us apart. As we move into the “winner-take-all society,” as Robert Frank and Thomas Cook have dubbed it, where a handful of top celebrities, athletes, and executives command the bulk of earnings in any field, Peters’s contention that “everyone has a chance to be a brand worthy of remark” sounds like false advertising: Those very brands we are supposed to emulate achieved success by reducing or eliminating the visibility of competing brands. Just as brands mask their origin and the labor that goes into the creating the products behind the logo, Brand You is a nicely individualistic glyph for an age that permits anything but.