Brands – are they really evil?

  • Business
  • Monday, 05 Dec 2005

ALTHOUGH we can get our sport shoes from almost any department store in town, many of us prefer to acquire them from Nike or Adidas outlets. You may be among those who choose to wear Zara clothes, but not MNG ones. What do all these labels have in common? 

Consumers associate a brand’s image with a number ofthings. For example, most consumers are likely to associateCoca-Cola with the United States, the colours red andwhite, and the slogan “the Real Thing” – AFPpic

They are not just names of products; they are brands. 

While previously, we may have been happy to use products without a prominent logo, once we attain a high level of income, we tend to become accustomed to a different style of living, where the use of branded items becomes important.  

The fact is brands sell an identity, a lifestyle. Just look at the advertisements in magazines or on TV. Nike does not sell shoes. It sells independence, freedom, power. 

Fifteen years ago, creating and promoting a brand was, at best, the concern only of a company’s marketing department.  

Things have since changed dramatically. The concept of “brand” has rapidly emerged over the past decade to a new level of – strategic – significance. Since the 1990s, magazines have started reporting the financial valuations of brand products.  

Today, companies dealing in brand products have risen to occupy a place of supreme importance in the pages of such stalwart business publications as BusinessWeek and Fortune.  

But while we are now surrounded by brands for products we use in almost all aspects of our life, are these goods really an “evil”, as claimed by the anti-globalisationist Naomi Klein? Klein’s core argument in her book entitled No Logo was well captured by one reputable magazine when it stated: “Big global brands exploit submissive empty-head consumers with sinister stratagems to peddle cheap junk for rip-off prices that swell the profits creamed off by fat-cat tycoons”.  

If you agree with this statement, Célia Lury’s Brands: The Logo of the Global Economy (published by Routledge) may make you suspend your scepticism of brand products. 

Lury provides a good account of the evolution of brands. She describes what they represent as objects. Drawing on contemporary media theory, she highlights the ways brands may be seen, not simply as a medium of exchange, but as an image instrument, a new media object and an intellectual property. 

Lury uses the concept of “social marketing” to explain how brands have extended beyond business to occupy a central place in our daily life.  

Just look around you. Have you noticed how the number of people who use products under the same brand is rapidly increasing?  

The goods they use which carry a prominent label range from a RM5 candle to a RM200 purse or a RM1,000 jacket. The primary aim of the firms dealing in branded products is to ensure that people of any social standing can have access to their goods.  

The massive publicity, through the extensive use of their products, would boost sales volume and increase the revenue generated for the firm. 

Contemporary marketing people use many academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology and cultural studies, to attain ideas about how consumers think, to get them to acquire their products.  

As Lury explains, brand management, design agencies and marketing personnel are all using a cultural approach to sell a lifestyle which incorporates their brand. 

And what would a brand be without a logo? The logo is what makes the brand visible. We are constantly exposed to or bombarded with these logos. Many firms promoting brands today heavily sponsor special social and sports events, during which the logo is the only recognisable sign of the brand. 

Consumers associate a brand’s image with a number of things. Coca-Cola and Microsoft are good examples.  

Most consumers are likely to associate Coca-Cola with the United States, the colours red and white, and the slogan “the Real Thing”.  

For Microsoft, it would be with Windows, Bill Gates and the slogan “Where do you want to go today?” 

Lury traces how companies focus on creating ways to get consumers to make such associations with their brand.  

The promotion of a brand image is one of the activities a company emphasises to give its brand a distinctive position in the market. The firm has to ensure that consumers in the target market can tell their brand apart from others. 

Yet, the ability of companies to get their brands to resonate with people’s emotions, values and tastes is what makes them successful.  

Marketers have learned to weave their products into a national culture by adopting everything from packaging sizes to flavours to local market tastes.  

A good example is McDonalds which sells aloo tikka in Bombay, teriyaki burgers in Tokyo, the flatbread McArabia in Amman, and kosher McNuggets in Tel Aviv. 

Brands enable consumers to make informed choices, as well as guarantee them the quality of their merchandise. Brands hold companies to the promises they make about the quality and value of their products and services.  

An unbranded burger stall in Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur can get away with selling you two pieces of bread full of rabbit meat; McDonald’s cannot. 

In spite of Lury’s attempts to convince us of the value of brand products, some critics would contend that the last thing we need is for these items to exert more influence in our lives.  

Well, you may agree, but the fact is that brands are not going to disappear tomorrow. So, why not try to understand what lies beneath the word brand by reading Lury’s book with a cup of coffee at Starbucks?  

Dr Marie-Aimée Tourres is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies  

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