WHEN Andy Warhol unveiled his Campbell’s Soup Cans ‘painting’ in 1962, he caused outrage in the fine art community.
His work was blatantly commercial, mechanically produced; a populist art, indeed, pop art. It reflected his society. Art had been about the unique and beautiful. Now, the world was about manmade plenty, mass production, industrialisation and brands.
Warhol was a harbinger of the corporate society — brands have infiltrated and colonised life. Was he celebrating or criticising? Campbells see Warhol as celebratory and have launched a limited edition line commemorating his Soupcans. This demonstrates the thing that makes brands thrive: constant engagement with the consumer, and a continued updating of the image and values associated with the basic commodity.
The quality of goods available to consumers has both risen and evened out. Non-brand or ‘own brand’ items are as good as branded ones. Yet we are attracted to brands. Companies have convinced us that soup is not about soup: soup represents us, and tells the world who we are. Products are about identity and values, not which one is best — often, with competing brands, there is little qualitative difference.
The biggest company in the world is a testament to the power of the brand. Apple has a massive cash pile because it reaps huge gross profits, often in excess of 50% in an industry where margins are wafer-thin. How? The power of its brand. Apple worshippers will tell you about functionality, but this is a smokescreen. The real catnip are the values Steve Jobs accreted around Apple: it’s the brand of creative types, individualists, affluent, stylish, urbane cosmopolitans. This is the message Apple consumers want to send to the world. This is why they can’t buy just any laptop, for a fifth of the price.
Google is another triumph for brand power. Yes, it is the best search engine, but its dominance would be impossible without its healthy image. Unlike Yahoo!, Google is ‘cool’. It’s makey-uppey name is the perfect disguise for a global capitalist behemoth: it is cuddly, innocent looking, all in keeping with its empty ‘don’t be evil’ platitudes. Having staff wear T-shirts and loll around on beanbags allows web users to identify. Google’s bright logo is multicoloured and set against a clean white background that mirrors the search engine’s simplicity of use. We, as its users, don’t feel we’re being bought by the biggest advertising company ever.
Before these two tech giants, Coca-Cola was the number one brand. It is still probably the most successful in marketing terms. It’s an unhealthy, sugary, fizzy drink; yet, it has placed itself at the heart of US culture. Whether ensuring Second World War soldiers got their coke, or branding Christmas in its image, Coca-Cola has ingrained itself in the global consciousness as synonymous with the US. “Coke is it”, it famously says, while never having to tell you just what ‘it’ is. Consumers did know what Coke was not, and infamously rejected New Coke in the 1980s. New Coke did better in blind tastings, but that did not matter. We don’t taste blind. We taste the brand.
Coca-Cola is so wrapped up in nostalgia that it is not allowed to change, but the equally venerable British fashion label, Burberry, has been chameleon-like in recent times. It always stressed its heritage, but, when it was perceived as dowdy, Burberry splashed its iconic check pattern on the outside of its garments. It was embraced by label conscious football hooligans, soap-stars and their followers, and made Burberry a pariah among its intended customers. Burberry was forced to rescue itself from popularity, toning down and sobering its designs, extolling the “art of the trench” and placing itself back among the luxury labels.
Branding is about differentiating your product from a field of pretenders. Red Bull is trivial — a niche energy drink — yet the company’s gargantuan branding has created a world of Red Bull, built on spectacular stunts like Felix Baumgartner’s space jump, last year, and its sponsorship of Formula 1, Moto GP and other exciting, expensive pursuits. The message? Red Bull is exciting.
And expensive. The company has gone to extraordinary expense to justify the expense of its product. Go to its website and it’s impossible to tell what Red Bull is. The site looks like a men’s lifestyle magazine, with video games and coverage of motorsports, skateboarding, snowboading, music and “adventure”. There is no tab that says ‘soft drink’.
We think ourselves too complex and too individual to be represented by a brand, and as too clever to be duped by them and their mark-ups, compared to equally good, far cheaper alternatives. And yet, we are still seduced.
Iconic Irish brands
GUINNESS: You have to remind yourself, sometimes, that Guinness is not a State owned company. It is synonymous with Ireland — no visiting dignitary can avoid it; no tourist leaves its factory unvisited. Enjoying a virtual monopoly for decades, Guinness’s iconic status is built on the back of brilliant marketing, whether the early “Guinness is good for you” posters, or the succession of witty, dramatic or just beautiful TV ads.
TAYTO: An offshoot of our love affair with the potato and the pub, the crisp is an Irish institution, and cheese and onion, originated by Tayto, is the best loved flavour. Against the incursion of foreign competition, the Mr Tayto character has proved a useful weapon — the company even published his autobiography in 2009.
RYANAIR: It’s almost as if Ryanair goes out of its way to look cheap and hostile. It’s livery colours don’t so much say “Welcome aboard” as, “Move along”. Everyone has their own horror story of its customer service. And yet all of this – and Michael O’Leary’s big mouth – ensure a level of brand awareness and free advertising no other airline could dream of. Genius, in a way.
BARRY’S: Sometimes branding is a mystery. Despite some of most cringe-inducing, twee ads ever produced, Barry’s is, somehow, cool. And Lyons, well, isn’t. Is it because Lyons is now a “Unilever food solution”, while Barry’s remains simply a tea company? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, Barry’s is the Irish tea with celebrity fans.
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