Brands & Branding: The (post)modern brand as representation
“Modern marketing can’t admit to being magical, because to do so automatically undermines what little credibility it has.” — Stephen Brown (2001: 209)
by Christo van der Westhuizen. The challenge with a feature like this is, in part, definitional: What, actually, is a postmodern brand in a late capitalist society? Is it about being disruptive, constantly testing the boundaries? Or is it about storyscaping, moving beyond the product or service to a more culturally expansive viral adventure, and therefore much harder to define?
In “Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Jameson (1991/1984) asserts that postmodernism in the arts (characterised by pastiche and schizophrenia) comprises the cultural logic of late capitalism. In short, culture in postmodernity has been commodified while commodities have become cultural.
This reversal of roles also highlights the essential difference between postmodernism and postmodernity. Whereas postmodernism — like modernism — is a praxis, a way of doing things to achieve a particular outcome (eg change), postmodernity is the economic or cultural condition of society after modernity.
It is an altogether more-attuned perspective than the familiar notion that postmodernity is about being more modern than modernity, ie a chronological construct, and that we have now entered a post-postmodern era. This stands in stark contrast to present-day branding and advertising which aims at preventing products from “looking like the interchangeable commodities they really are” (Manes, 1997: F7).
Today, romancing the target market is what it’s about. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. No tale, no sale. The prolific Irish postmodernist Stephen Brown said as much back in the late 1990s: “Many postmodern advertisements eschew informational appeals — the mainstay of the modern advertising tradition — in favour of imagery, endowing mundane products with magical, mystical, and otherworldly qualities (Brown et al, 1998: 202).” And this has not changed; to the contrary, it has strengthened.
Fact is, in an age of transition when modernism and postmodernism coexist, albeit uneasily, late capitalism without strong, purposeful brands is impossible. The brand as a social and economic construct has never been more important as a key ingredient of economic success, or its converse, than right now.
The problem — and the opportunity — is that the brand construct’s evolution is now happening at an accelerating speed. Kotlerites and other inveterate disciples of modern marketing theory are, without doubt, gasping for air to keep up with what could only be described as postmodern marketing praxis. Staying ahead of the curve has become a futile dream in the era of postmodernity where praxis supersedes marketing methodologies, with the latter informed by catch-up hypothesising and post-mortem academic conjecturing. Nonetheless, modern marketing theories, tenets and axioms will continue to serve budding and practicing marketers well for a long time to come, albeit for the pedagogic sake of acquiring and clarifying the thriving meta-language of this growing field of study.
As Firat et al (1994: 53) observe:
“Marketing and postmodernity are so intertwined that it is no longer possible to treat the two subjects at arm’s length or as peripherally-related topics. If marketing is the master-narrative of postmodernity, as we have argued, then marketing scholarship has to move to the centre of the ongoing discussions of postmodernity in the humanities and the social sciences. Marketing can no longer pretend to be an instrumental discipline that affects consumers and society but has to become reflexive and has to be studied as the sociocultural process that defines postmodern society.”
The question this raises is whether brands are evolving — at a very practical level, and despite theory — to such an extent that one could draw a clear distinction between modern and postmodern brands?
The — evolving — brand era
The brand era, being the third — and current — era of marketing (preceded by product-centrism and customer-centrism) according to Kotler (2010), is essentially premised upon the modernist marketing philosophy that a brand is the representation of a product or service. A shadow of the real. An imitation or simulation. An identifying mark and, by implication, a contrived copy.
The very notion of representation in marketing can partly be traced back to the ancient Norse word “brenna”, meaning to burn, and more specifically the act of farmers marking their livestock to identify ownership. This basic means of differentiation progressively foregrounded the importance of the distinguishing mark, or logo, in marketing theory and praxis.
It is understandable then that, given its obvious importance, the company logo’s signifying ability became a massive focus in brand formulation over time. After all, the logo is the brand’s foremost mark of representation: a visual point of convergence which embodies not only a company’s visual language but indeed its positioning.
Simply put, brands had to look the part and, for that, an aesthetic collaboration with the arts was called for, from designing the logo to creating the brand’s visual language for different forms of representation — eg as collateral, advertising, packaging, point of sale.
But whereas the logo used to be thought of as the brand en tout at the onset of the modern marketing era, the pioneering insights of theorists like David Aaker reduced it to a representation or identifying mark of the actual brand which, in turn, soi-disant, became the legitimate representation of the real product, service or organisation. In fact, so important has the modern brand become that it is no longer primarily a visual identity, but indeed a representation and/or expression of what the product, service or organisation stands for.
Sell the sizzle, not the steak
“Sell the sizzle, not the stake” is probably the best postmodern aphorism in the history of marketing. Yet too often marketers equate the ‘sizzle’ with one or other random emotion that could somehow be attributed to a unique selling proposition (USP), ie the product’s triumph over science, logic and rationality. Today, in true postmodern fashion, emotion supersedes rational considerations and modernism’s celebration of logic and science.
What is more interesting, though, is the intellectual point of convergence between modernism and postmodernism when the particular kind of emotion the brand wishes to elicit (postmodernism) and become known for through storytelling, is directly informed by the brand’s strategic intent (modernism): Volvo is safety. BMW is performance. Starbucks is respite. Calvin Klein is sex. Coronation is trust. Coke is happiness. Apple is different. AVBOB is family. Redefine Properties is people. The list is endless.
Every top brand’s strategy can nowadays be summarised in a single word, ie the positioning referred to by Aaker as “the face of your business strategy”. No longer a mere imitation, simulation or representation of a product, service or organisation, the contemporary brand strategy formulation is decidedly postmodern in nature. It dogmatically posits a moment of pure and unmediated presence — something tangibly ‘there’.
Aligning the marketing strategy with the business strategy used to be the main drive, whereas today, aligning story — and hence, emotion — with positioning has become the holy grail of marketing, and this needs to be evocatively actualised in the contact space.
To cite an example: Positioned as the family brand, AVBOB’s unorthodox focus on poetry was inspired by people’s inability to express their loss in the face of bereavement, and is perfectly aligned with its brand promise: We’re here for you.
Similarly, for Redefine Properties, the irreverent people brand, property is its commodity but people are its business: We’re not landlords. We’re people.
Reversing the roles: The product/service as an imitation of the brand
“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself.” —Jean Baudrillard (1983)
The main thesis then, namely, that brands are ‘real’, or ‘hyperreal’ to be more precise (as opposed to them being mere imitations of the product or service), is a radical reversal of the traditional modernist sign system ‘product/service/organisation: real’ → ‘branding/marketing/imitation: representation’.
Just like Derrida in “Of Grammatology” (1997/1974: 6-18) contends that writing is not a mere (‘phonetic’) supplement, mediation or deferment of speech, one could argue that brands are not a mere supplement, mediation or deferment of the real (the product, service or organisation).
Whereas the modern brand is both an imitation and representation of the real (product, service or organisation), the postmodern brand is exactly the opposite in the sense that it influences, informs and dictates the (organisation’s) approach to products, service and customers. The implied rationale is that the brand becomes the object of desire: the one which is imitated, and not the product or service. The postmodern brand’s job is to position the product/service. The product/service has to remain true to that positioning.
To cite an example, consider how effortlessly vastly disparate products and services converge in master brands like Virgin (an airline, spa business, balloon flights, banking, etc), enabling horizontal extension that otherwise, without the branded house architecture, would have been considered schizophrenic in modern marketing terms.
in Jean Baudrillard’s critical dissemination of the intertwined concepts of imitation, mimesis, simulation and simulacrum (1983a, 1983b, 1988 & 1998), he contends that, in the collapse of reality into hyperrealism, preferably on the basis of another reproductive medium like advertising, the real is volatilised from one medium to another. More than representing a product or service, the so-called real, the postmodern brand promotes the consumers’ relationship with the science and artform that represents the renovation of experience.
Schizophrenia & pastiche: Juxtaposition of opposites
The collapse of traditional boundaries is another key feature of postmodernism. To draw a line between, say, psychology and sociology, or media studies, journalism, marketing and philosophy, is no longer desirable. Pastiche has replaced parody, and a rapidly evolving form of eclecticism marks the transition from modern(ist) branding and marketing to postmodern(ist) branding and marketing.
The postmodern habit of juxtaposing “anything with anything else” (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995: 255), no matter how induced, typically introduces an accepted form of binary discontinuity which breaks down category barriers like male/female, future/past and production/consumption. When these abstractions are recast as difference (e. creativity = entertainment), the merger of opposites results in hybrid offspring that break down category barriers such as property/people (Redefine Properties), funerals/poetry (AVBOB), and farmers/small patches of land (Nisboere).
Stephen Brown (1990: 212) writes:
“In so far as juxtapositions are a condition of the postmodern world, the expectation of a clear and comprehensible outcome no longer obtains. Whereas the modernist New Critics presumed eventual clarification of ambiguous pairings and the structuralists presumed eventual reconciliation of binaries, post-structuralists accept disjuncture, inconsistency, and irreconcilable opposites.”
Is branding a modern institution in a postmodern world?
Whereas production is the dominant scheme of the industrial era, simulation is the reigning scheme of the current phase that is controlled by the code (Baudrillard, 1994: 83). But it is the co-existence of overlapped production and simulation in popular culture that begs the question: Is branding, and advertising, a modern institution in a postmodern world? Baudrillard frames the overlap as a form of tension.
Brown (1990: 213) asserts that this tension extends to branding and advertising, where the information-driven model (the dominant modernist paradigm) rubs up against the imagery-driven model of the postmodernists.
Old-school business methodologies, ranging from McCarthy’s 4 Ps and Borden’s marketing mix to Theodore Levitt’s customer-centric perspectives on positioning and segmentation, have become mere pieces of a rather puzzling puzzle for those who used to draw a line so boldly between business, marketing and creativity/the arts. Simply put, the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone, to draw on Smuts’ notion of holism.
These widely accepted explanations of marketing fundamentals — which culminated in the publication of popular textbooks like Kotler and Keller’s copious “Marketing Management” in 1997 — have been crucial for marketing’s recognition as an academic discipline. It would even be plausible to argue that these theories, tenets and axioms will continue to serve budding and practicing marketers well for a long time to come, albeit for the pedagogic sake of acquiring and clarifying the thriving meta-language of this growing field of study.
Ultimately, modernist or postmodernist, present-day marketers’ objectives are no different from their predecessors, namely, to make a sale and become part of the customer’s life. The challenge, today, is however vastly different, namely, being heard above the noise and clutter while trying to pin down an ever-increasing illusive customer who lives in the decidedly fragmented omnichannel.
In this philosophical wasteland, marketers must learn to become masters of ambivalence and juxtaposition. In moving on from storytelling to storyscaping — where the hyperreal replaces the difference between reality and illusion — we have to become comfortable with the disturbing thought that, as Brown (2001: 209) mused: @Modern marketing can’t admit to being magical, because to do so automatically undermines what little credibility it has.@
The ongoing debate about the postmodern brand — about its politics, about the claims it makes, about representation and power — carries on in the work of prominent postmodernists such as Stephen Brown, who will tell you that postmodern marketing has been around for a long time but is only now being accepted into the business school’s science-or-bust mindset, which is gradually breaking down to make room for a new vocabulary. It is about time, and the arts may assist in this challenging task. After all, storytelling postmodern brands and consumers are cohabitating each other’s mind in ways that are new and diffused and uncontainable. What they are and what they want for themselves is a culture in which brands and meaning, wound together with clockwork precision, live in the ether.
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Christo van der Westhuizen (D Lit et Phil, Unisa) is the managing director of BRAND et al, and founder of the et al group of marketing companies. He has lectured in marketing, media studies and literary theory at a number of tertiary institutions, was acting head of media studies at the University of the North until 2000, and acted as principal of the Open Window Graduate School of Visual Communication in 2013. He specialises in brand strategy and is currently doing research on postmodern brand development towards a second doctorate.
The article first appeared in the 2018 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research — also accessible at Brands.MarkLives.com. Order your copy of the 2018 edition now!
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