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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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Both as innovation and as reproduction, the productivity of consumers adds to the propertied form of life that is the brand. In both cases brand management feeds off the ‘reservoir’ of autonomous immaterial labour that evolves outside of the domain of the firm. By thus subsuming the productivity of the social, brand management works to ensure that the productivity of consumers becomes productive labour. To Marx, ‘subsumption’ denotes the moment in which the ‘labour process becomes the instrument of the valorization process, the self-valorization of capital’ (1990[1933]: 1019). This entails a transformation of the production process so that it is acted out on the premises of the brand. First, brands are inserted into the life-world as means of production, and consumers are encouraged to use them in their production of an ethical surplus. Then two strategies are possible: one, it is ensured that the ethical surplus thus produced evolves in particular directions, towards the reproduction of particular forms of life that can be embodied and anticipated by the brand and its logo; two, the autonomous productivity of consumers is used as a source of innovation.

Most brands use a plurality of techniques to thus ‘farm out’ the production and reproduction of the form of life that they embody to the productivity of the social. For the big brands, with a lot of resources at their disposal, the ideal is ubiquity: To make the brand part of the biopolitical environment of life itself, no different from water and electricity, and to thus make life in all its walks contribute to its continuous and dynamic reproduction.

As Ira Herbert, former marketing director of the Coca-Cola company, described this strategy: ‘the ideal outcome... is for consumers to see Coca Cola as woven into their local context, an integral part of their everyday world’ (Curtin, 1996: 187).


So far we have concluded two things. First, contemporary consumers tend to engage in activities that can potentially function as immaterial labour.

They deploy consumer goods and a generally available media culture to produce an ethical surplus in the form of a social relation, a shared meaning or, more generally, a common. Second, brand management contains a series of techniques by means of which this autonomous 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) productivity is posited as immaterial labour. It is made to add to the form of life that the brand embodies, either through innovation or through reproduction. If we can agree on this, we can now go on to investigate how brands generate value.

This entails looking at the process from the point of view of the selfvalorization of capital. Marx describes this process with the M-C-M’ formula, where M represents money (or liquid assets) invested into capital (C) that generates more money (M’). The surplus value (M’-M) derives from the subsumption of some form of human activity and its positioning as labour power. In the case of brands the M-C phase would represent investments in the construction of brands as a virtual entity. This would include the design and production of products, the organization of distribution, advertising and other media strategies, investments necessary for the construction and running of themed environments, and the salaries of brand managers to organize and run the brand. To some extent the labour of brand managers and other symbol analysts directly contributes to the value of the brand. (Oliviero Toscani’s photographs directly add to the value of the Benetton brand.) But in most cases the task of brand managers is to manage a production process that goes on beyond their direct control; they organize the construction of different kinds of ambiences and use the information gathered through trend scouting and other kinds of market research to ensure that the ethical surplus produced by consumers adds dimensions of use-value to the branded good. How then are these use-values translated into a general value form?

There are two main mechanisms of valorization. First, successful brands can extract a ‘premium price’. The ‘premium price’ represents what consumers are prepared to pay extra for the branded good in relation to other comparable goods. It represents the monetary value of the use-value of the brand. For example, I might be prepared to pay extra for a pair of Nike shoes if those shoes allow me to perform a high-status personality in the high-school peer culture of which I am a member. Second, brand value is realized on financial markets in the form of share prices or easier access to capital. This mechanism of valorization builds on measurements of the attention devoted to the brand. ‘Brand valuators’ measure things like ‘brand awareness’ (how many people know about a brand), ‘brand associations’ (if the brand gives rise to positive associations) and ‘brand loyalty’. These measurements are usually built on some combination of trend indexes, data mined from credit cards and bar-code scans, and surveys. They attempt to measure the standing of the brand in the life-world of consumers. It is then estimated how much the (measurable) attention accumulated by the brand

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adds to its value, by either reducing marketing costs or boosting sales, or, alternatively, raising the attraction of the brand for investors.

Brand values usually build on combined estimates of the future value of premium price and brand attention. In so far as these are greater than the combined investments of brand management, in so far as M’ M, then some form of surplus value has been extracted.9 But what is the substance of this surplus value, and consequently, in what sense can brand managers be said to exploit consumers? If we assume, as this article has, that the substance of the surplus value is the ethical surplus, or the surplus community that consumers produce, then the exploitation process can be said to have both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. From a quantitative point of view it is simply a matter of absorbing the free time of consumers. Schor (1998) among others argues that Americans tend to devote an increasing amount of time to shopping, or otherwise comparing, discussing or caring about brands, at the expense of other pursuits, at the same time as their perceived quality of life deteriorates (Quart, 2003, and to some extent, Putnam, 2000, reach similar results). This time devoted to brands is one source of the surplus value appropriated by brands. But such a purely quantitative approach misses one important point. The branding of life does not so much replace communal or collective pursuits with the individualized pleasures of shopping, as much as it tends to make sociality and the production of a common evolve through and on the premises of brands. People might ‘bowl alone’, but, as Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) have documented, they create brand communities. Brand management is also a matter of altering the quality of the common produced through communicative interaction. The qualitative dimension of exploitation thus consists in making the productive sociality of consumers evolve on the premises of brands; to make it unfold through branded consumer goods in such ways that makes it produce measurable (and hence valuable) forms of attention.

But this transfer of consumer agency to the ‘desireable and preferable plateau’ of the brand (cf. Terranova, 2004: 122) also entails a reduction of its qualitative complexity. It entails filtering the creativity of consumers, depriving it of certain undesirable qualities, McDonaldizing it, to use Ritzer’s (1993) expression. Anti-branding activists have realized this and attempt to undermine the power of brands by introducing elements of incompatibility, like having the word ‘sweatshop’ written on your Nikes (Peretti, 2001).10 In so far as branding becomes ubiquitous, this means that an increasing amount of productive communication will evolve on this filtered plateau of the brand. In this sense the branded world is artificial, in the same sense as a computer game is artificial, it engages its user as less 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) than a whole person, less than what he or she could be (Manovich, 2001).

The critical point here is not, as Adorno (1991) might have argued, that this reduces the beauty of some imaginary or ideal human existence to the one-dimensionality or artificiality of the branded world, but rather that such filtering impedes the very real productive potential of contemporary social relations. According to Hardt and Negri (2004) new forms of mediatization together with new forms of social organization have radically enhanced the capacity of social actors, or, to use their term, of the ‘net-worked multitude’ as a whole, to produce an ethical surplus in the form of a common. This empowerment has also rendered the production of a common immanently political. A different world is not only possible, but actually realized in new forms of productive co-operation like filesharing communities, open source software and the self-organization of ˇˇ slums (Appadurai, 2002; Zizek, 2005). By pushing this production of an ethical surplus to the artificial plateau of the brand, and hence depriving it of its real potentiality, brand management thus becomes a conservative or even reactive practice. It comes to work against the productive potential of the social, on which it ultimately builds.

CONCLUSION Recently the concept of the brand has spread far beyond consumer marketing where it originated, to enter into management (corporate branding), welfare, politics and the construction of local identities (Olins, 2003; Van Ham, 2001). Indeed, some argue that brands should be understood as paradigmatic of the post-Fordist mode of production. Like the factory in times of Fordism they present an exemplary embodiment of the prevailing logic of capital (Lash, 2002: 142). This logic consists in an extended recourse to forms of unpaid immaterial labour as a source of surplus value. This way, brands can be understood as exemplary of a capitalist response to the condition of post-modernity, marked by an intensified mediatization of the social and a concomitant rendering reflexive, transitory and mobile of things like identity and community. Here again, pop-management books contain precious grains of truth. Brands, British branding guru John Grant (1999) argues (drawing on Anthony Giddens’ [1991] work), satisfy consumers’ desire for stable elements to be used in the construction of an identity that the social environment no longer provides. He forgets to add that the process of identity production is subsequently subsumed as a source of surplus value. In the form of the brand, the unstable and reflexive nature of post-modern social relations works as a precondition for the selfvalorization of immaterial capital. Capital feeds directly off life itself.

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Acknowledgements This article was completed during the author’s tenure as Visiting International Fellow at the Culture of Consumption program at Birkbeck College, University of London.

The author would like to thank that program, and in particular the program director, Dr Frank Trentmann, for hosting him and supporting his research.


1. In fact, the shares rose slightly after Mrs Stewart’s appearance. As the sentence was shorter than expected, and as people continued to show their support ‘by buying our products and subscribing to our magazine’, it was estimated that the impact of the scandal was less than what had initially been feared (Financial Times, 17 July 2004).

2. The term ‘affect’ finds its origins in Spinoza where it denotes the subject’s potentiality, its ‘power to act’. It has subsequently been taken up by Deleuze who uses it as a general term for the potential of a body: what it can become through the involvements, linkages and networks that it forms with the Socius. ‘Affect’ here denotes the potential for self-transformation through the involvement with others. Antonio Negri has subsequently used the term to denote the central characteristic of contemporary immaterial labour (see the section on Consumption and Immaterial Labour): its capacity to produce an ‘ethical surplus’ through transformative collective involvement: ‘its power of self-valorization through all the pores of singular and collective bodies’ (Negri, 1999: 80).

3. For these three companies brand value represented 61 percent (Coca-Cola) and 66 percent (McDonald’s and Nike) of total market capitalization in 2001. Other famous companies with a ratio of brand value to market capitalization exceeding 60 percent were Ford, BMW, Kodak, Xerox, Apple, Gucci, Tiffany, amazon.com, and Polo Ralph Lauren (cf. World’s Most Valuable Brands, www. interbrand.com).

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