Tuesday, December 2, 2003

[grid::brand] When BRAND meets OTHER, or why we shouldn't ignore materiality and use-value

Forbidden Starbuck's

Today is the day for Ashley B's experiment in grid blogging - all participants can be found here - and the theme is BRAND.

I will resist the urge to discuss nothing but Stewart BRAND - although you can't go wrong checking out The Long Now Foundation and the Long Bets Foundation. I am firmly committed to slower/better thinking and to a sense of time that extends beyond how long it takes this page to load.

But I want to think about other BRANDS. The picture above is a Starbuck's in the Forbidden City - an easy target for sure if one follows Naomi Klein, but I think there's something more going on in scenarios like these.

In 1994, Michael Moore's show TV Nation aired a brilliant story about Avon Ladies in the Amazon "who sell cosmetics to women by promising lighter skin, even greater height, when they buy Avon products that cost up to 13 times their daily wage." At first glance, this is a lovely example of brand imperialism - but almost ten years later I remember two things that deserve greater exploration: 1) the Amazonian Indians using bright red Avon lipstick to create traditional tribal face decorations, or more precisely, putting lipstick on every part of their faces except for their lips; and 2) middle and upper-middle class Brasilian women in suits travelling by dugout canoe to some of the most isolated communities on the planet.

First - and global economics aside for a moment - despite promises of greater height and fairer skin, it seems the Amazonians really only wanted to look like themselves. Anthropologists have long debated whether traditional culture is some*thing* that can be preserved and protected in museums and monographs - progressive thinking has always had something in common with paternalism - or whether tradition is always changing, always adapting to internal and external forces. (There is a great Far Side comic where the Natives hide their VCR and such before the anthropologists reach the hut.) And I suspect that since Amazonians don't consider themselves to be primitive, it doesn't occur to them to remain primitive.

The use-value of a commodity emerges only through its use or consumption (see Marx on that one) - and it seems to me that discussions of BRANDING too often ignore use-value or the active participation of users in creating meaning and value around commodities and BRANDS. In other words, just as designers cannot predict every way their products will be used, we cannot make easy arguments for how BRANDS are used. A BRAND-in-use is different than a BRAND-as-representation, its meaning separate from its actual use; what a BRAND represents is different from how it acts.

A Starbuck's in the Forbidden City is different than one in downtown Seattle. And Avon cosmetics in use in the Amazon are different from Avon cosmetics sold in American suburbs. The BRAND is never stable, and arguably only becomes (contextually) meaningful in use. To speak of BRANDS as invasive and oppressive neglects people's everyday strategies and tactics of resistance and reappropriation. In more religious or mythological contexts, syncretism refers to the practice of merging different beliefs and practices. We do the same with material culture.

Similarly, the people who sell BRANDS - like the Avon Ladies in the Amazon - are also actively (re)creating what the BRAND means in use. When she travels into the rainforest by dugout canoe, our Avon Lady and the goods she pushes are not the same as when she puts on a sales-party for her girlfriends in the city. (Her encounter with the Other - including the material other - cannot help but reconfigure what the Avon BRAND means and who she becomes in relation to the BRAND.) And of course, the BRAND will act in positive and negative ways in each context.

And there you have a terribly long way of saying that BRANDS comprise shifting assemblages of people, ideas, objects and practices - and my belief that we need to ask how BRANDS act, and not (just) what or who they represent.

Your thoughts?


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