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«Journal of Consumer Culture Brands: A critical perspective Adam Arvidsson Journal of Consumer Culture 2005; 5; 235 DOI: ...»

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Journal of Consumer Culture


Brands: A critical perspective

Adam Arvidsson

Journal of Consumer Culture 2005; 5; 235

DOI: 10.1177/1469540505053093

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Journal of Consumer Culture ARTICLE Brands A critical perspective


University of Copenhagen Abstract. This article proposes a critical perspectives on brands based on recent developments within Marxist thought. It argues that brands build on the immaterial labour of consumers: their ability to create an ethical surplus (a social bond, a shared experience, a common identity) through productive communication. This labour is generally free in the sense that it is both un-paid and more or less autonomous.

Contemporary brand management consists in a series of techniques by means of which such free labor is managed so that it comes to produce desirable and valuable outcomes. By thus making productive communication unfold on the plateau of brands, the enhanced ability of the contemporary multitude to produce a common social world is exploited as a source of surplus value.

Key words autonomous Marxism ● brands ● consumption ● critical theory ● multitude WHEN MARTHA STEWART – THE SUCCESSFUL American lifestyle icon – appeared to salute her fans following her prison sentence in July 2004, she urged them to stay faithful to her brand. She stressed how their continued belief in its values, and their continued commitment to the community that it embodied, was the only thing that could prevent the shares from plunging.1 Mrs Stewart’s appeal to her customers to ‘keep believing’ might seem the natural reaction of any businessperson who sees her reputation sullied. But it also expresses a more profound sociological truth. Today, the value of brands like Martha Stewart’s builds only in part on the qualities of Copyright © 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 5(2): 235–258 1469-5405 [DOI: 10.1177/1469540505053093] www.sagepublications.com Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) products. To a great extent it is also based on values, commitments and forms of community sustained by consumers. This way, brands are mechanisms that enable a direct valorization (in the form of share prices,

for example) of people’s ability to create trust, affect and shared meanings:

their ability to create something in common.2 To some extent this has of course always been the case. Any businessperson would probably agree with long marginalized (and recently rediscovered) sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s (1902) insight: that the public construction of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and ‘utility’ are important factors that contribute to establishing the economic value of goods and services. But today this link between public communication and economic value has acquired an unprecedented centrality. For companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola or Nike, the most valuable asset is the public standing of their brands; the place that these have acquired in the life-world of consumers.3 In the form of ‘brand value’, the dynamics of public communicative interaction have a direct impact on the value of shares traded on financial markets. Consequently the management of public communicative action has become a central element to economic governance (both for marketing and for management, where the concept of the ‘organizational brand’ now plays a central part). Public opinion, affect and sentiment have entered as central parameters in contemporary shareholder oriented corporate governance (Williams, 2000).

The other side to this fusion of public communication and the production of economic value is that our everyday life-world is filled with attempts to manage and steer how we actually produce truth, beauty and utility around goods. The instruments of brand management permeate our life-world: advertising in all its forms, product placements in films, video games and other media products, corporate sponsorship of everything from sport events to exhibitions and children’s schoolbooks, and not least, the ubiquitous ‘logos’ that adorn our bodies and that work, some say, as a kind of pre-structuring of our movements through time and space (Lury, 1999).

We end up living in a well nigh all-encompassing brand-space, within a kind of ‘ambient television’ (McCarthy, 2001), where our ability to look, fantasize, sympathize, be fascinated, or sometimes simply to act and feel, can constantly be invited to give attention to a particular brand, and thus contribute to sustaining the immaterial qualities that form the basis of its value. In the context of contemporary, image-saturated capitalism more generally, Jonathan Beller claims that ‘looking is posited by capital as labour’ (Beller, 2002: 61).

Recent analyses of the brand as an institution have been informed by

–  –  –

the suspicion that it is the meaning-making activity of consumers that forms the basis of brand value. In a recent article Douglas Holt claims that what he calls ‘postmodern brand management’ builds not on attempts to foster and impose particular consumer practices, but rather offers brands as ‘cultural resources’, and then capitalizes on what consumers produce with those resources: ‘The market today thrives on consumers [who act as] unruly bricoleurs who engage in nonconformist producerly consumer practices’ (Holt, 2002: 94). Similarly, in her successful anti-branding manifesto No Logo (2000), Naomi Klein denounces brands for (among other things) their tendency to colonize public space, insert themselves in all walks of life, and demand and capture attention and affect. Although both Holt and Klein make a connection between the creativity or agency of consumers and the value of brands, neither of them spell this out theoretically. That is the purpose of this article. I will suggest a model for

how ‘looking’ can be conceptualized as ‘labour’. Or, to put it in my terms:

how the human ability to create what I will call an ethical surplus – a social relation, a shared meaning, an emotional involvement that was not there before – around a brand can be understood as the direct basis of its economic value.

In presenting the relation between consumption and brands in these terms, I will depart from contemporary re-readings of Marx as they have evolved within the primarily French and Italian school of ‘autonomist’ Marxism (for an English overview, see Dyer-Withford, 1999;Wright, 2002).

This tradition has developed as a response to the social transformations that have accompanied the movement from a Fordist, factory-centred production process to the more diffuse and expanded systems of production that characterize post-Fordism, where social interaction and communication enter as directly productive elements. Drawing on insights from this tradition, I will offer an argument that expands Marx’s model of the capitalist production process to include both what many consumer researchers have argued to be the productive aspects of consumption (cf. Firat and Dholakia, 1998), and what some critical theorists have seen as the controlling or even exploitative aspects of brands and of the new ‘means of consumption’ in general (Ritzer, 1999). To make this argument, some rethinking of the categories of ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ will be needed.

The next section will offer a short description of how brands actually figure in the contemporary accounting literature as a form of capital, as a resource that (from the point of view of capital) generates value. The following section goes on to speculate on what kind of labour can be the source of such brand value. I suggest that consumption can fruitfully be Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) conceptualized as one manifestation of the ‘immaterial labour’ that contemporary Marxists (and non) see as increasingly central to post-Fordist capitalism (cf. Gorz, 2003; Hardt and Negri, 2004; Lazzarato, 1997). After that I re-examine how brands can function as capital, not only formally (as in their place on accounting sheets) but also in reality: how they function as capital within the immaterial production process that consumers engage in.

Here I argue that brands provide different kinds of mediatic spaces that

pre-structure and anticipate the immaterial production of consumers:

spaces where it unfolds as the production of a particular form of life. In the third section I tie the two parts together and show how brand-capital actually generates value from consumption-labour. Here I draw on Marx’s famous model for the reproduction of capital (the M-C-M’ formula). I go on to analyse how brands can be said to exploit consumers. In the conclusion I suggest that the relation between brands and consumption can be understood as exemplary of how capitalism has responded to the condition of post-modernity.

BRAND VALUE Like the intangible value embodied in the legal constructs of patents and copyrights, brand value – protected by the legal construct of trademark law – represents an important immaterial asset in contemporary capitalism. It is difficult to give exact figures for the overall economic weight of brand value, but estimates suggest that this has increased continuously over the last 20 years. During the mergers and acquisitions wave of the 1980s about 20 percent of most bid prices were motivated by the value of brands. Today that figure is closer to 70 percent in some sectors (Sampson, 1997: 176).

Similarly, the importance of brands for earnings in the airline industry is estimated to have grown from five percent in 1960 to 30 percent in 2000 (Perrier, 1997). At the same time there has been a movement in trademark legislation towards a recognition of the brand, not only as a symbol of something else – the quality of a product or the identity of the producer – but as an object of property in its own right (Lury, 2004: 108 ff.). According to Interbrand (2001), a London consulting firm whose brand valuation method has been established as standard practice, the value of the world’s 100 most precious brands was estimated to be $434 billion in 2001, roughly four percent of US GDP (at $10,400 billion in 2002), and almost three times total US advertising expenditure (at $132 billion in 2000).

What do these figures represent? There are different measurements, but all have one thing in common. Brand value represents the present value of predictable future earnings generated by the brand. This is net of tax,

–  –  –

operational costs and costs for the material production of goods. In accounting, brands thus figure as a kind of capital, as an asset that is expected to generate value. Furthermore, brands figure as immaterial capital. Brand earnings are understood to be based not on the objects themselves, but on their ‘brand equity’, which is made up of their subjective meanings or social functions. As David Aaker puts it in his classic management manual, Building Strong Brands: ‘A common pitfall [for brand managers] is to focus on the product attributes and tangible benefits of a brand’; instead one should consider the ‘emotional and self-expressive benefits as well as functional benefits’ (Aaker, 1996: 25). Building brand equity is about fostering a number of possible attachments around the brand, be these experiences, emotions, attitudes, lifestyles or, most importantly perhaps, loyalty. From a managerial perspective brand value represents the monetary value of what a brand can mean to consumers (cf. Keller, 2001). Brands are ‘monetizable symbolic values’ (Gorz, 2003: 60).

But who produces these immaterial assets? The business literature is remarkably unclear on this question. The origins of brand equity are often attributed to diffuse factors like tradition, coincidence or luck. One suggestion could be that the immaterial assets of the brand are produced by brand managers. Brands are built through advertising, marketing, product placements, staged events and a number of other strategies devised by the various ‘symbol analysts’ that the brand-owning company employs. This is indeed the perspective of prominent brand equity theorists like Keller and Aaker.

Certainly, skilled brand managers, advertising artists and other symbol analysts are likely to produce some of the immaterial qualities on which brand values are based. But do they produce all of them?

The recent emphasis on the productivity of contemporary consumer practices has led some marketing scholars to suggest that to some extent, a brand’s assets are produced by consumers themselves, beyond the direct control of the salaried organization (Bengtson and Östberg, 2004). As the following two sections will show, this suggestion also goes well with both recent theories of the contemporary labour process, and with the actual practice of brand management. In pursuing my investigation, I will thus begin with the hypothesis that some of the value of brands derives from the productive practice of consumers.


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