Naomi Klein: Marketer of the decade

Naomi Klein's No Logo was meant to eradicate 'brand bullies.' Instead, it became the most influential marketing manual of its time.

Reading old works of journalism is like looking at old photographs, and can serve as a useful reminder that politics has its own fads and fashions that years later seem as incomprehensible as mutton chops or leisure suits. For the politically engaged, it can be embarrassing to be reminded of the forgotten fears that once loomed so large, the abandoned fights that at the time seemed so stridently important.

As 2009 was breathing its last, the 10-year anniversary edition of Naomi Klein’s No Logo appeared in bookstores, complete with a new introduction by Klein herself. Released in early 2000, No Logo was an impeccably timed report on a growing youth movement that was rising up in response to the new-world-order agenda of liberalized trade, corporate outsourcing and political deregulation that became known as “globalization.”

Klein’s writing caught the wave of anti-globalization protests that swept across the planet a decade ago, beginning with the massive and violent protest against the WTO meeting in Seattle in November 1999. Almost immediately, wherever world leaders gathered – APEC conferences, G8 summits, trade negotiations – they would be met with street protests and a parallel meeting of the planet’s angry marginalia, including counterculturalists, environmentalists, socialists, labour organizations and human-rights activists. No Logo was quickly adopted as the movement’s bible and, along with Nalgene water bottles and khaki cargo pants, became an essential part of the general-issue battle kit for campus lefties of the time.

What are we to make of No Logo a decade on? It remains a stunningly passionate and ambitious snapshot of the newly globalized youth and consumer culture at the end of the 20th century. It is also an often infuriating work of agitprop that marries old Marxist prejudices about the market economy to a paranoid and conspiratorial account of the business of advertising.

If that was all there was to the book, it would be enough to dismiss it as a period piece, the journalistic equivalent to a box of old Polaroids. Sweatshops, the McLibel trial, Brent Spar … weren’t those the days? But that would be a mistake, since it would miss the way in which, in its quest to undermine the branded economy and expose the capitalist-consumer propaganda that motivates all advertising, No Logo inadvertently served as the most influential marketing manual of the decade.

The organizing conceit of No Logo is the notion that the American economy has stopped making things and is now focused on managing brands. Where once a corporation might have actually employed domestic workers to make its jeans or sneakers or computers, now companies such as Tommy Hilfiger or Nike or Dell simply market their brand images while outsourcing the manufacturing to low-cost factories overseas. The power that this gives to corporations is enormous, and we find ourselves at the whim of these brand bullies.

Why “bullies”? Klein’s case against brands comes at it from two angles. The first is the way that brands – and commercial advertising in general – have come to dominate our mental environment. Brands have co-opted popular culture and colonized our sense of self. Forget about your education or your job, your church or your family, what matters to your social status and personal identity in North America today is the brands you consume.

The second aspect has to do with the erosion of public space and the political sphere. The financial power they get from their brands has given corporations a great deal of political leverage, which they use to bend national governments to their will, forcing them to drop trade barriers, lower taxes, deregulate markets and eliminate environmental protection. Take these two arguments together, and we are left with a world where corporations, not governments, rule, and where consumerism has almost entirely displaced citizenship. We are modern-day serfs, nearly helpless in the face of the power of these feudal brand lords.

Nearly helpless, but not entirely. The corporation’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness, and much of No Logo is devoted to documenting the ways that small groups of committed activists retaliated by turning the power of the brand back on itself. But 10 years later, the rule of the brand is more entrenched than ever, largely thanks to lessons learned from a close reading of No Logo.

The book devotes a great deal of attention to the various strategies of anti-brand activism that were coming into play at the time. Joining the old-school consumer boycott were newfangled techniques such as guerilla marketing, culture jamming (ad parodies, basically), and Reclaim the Streets initiatives aimed at reversing the “commodification and criminalization of street culture.”

However edgy or subversive these strategies once might have seemed, every single one is now a standard part of the tool kit of every advertising agency and brand manager. You think culture jamming is subversive? Kenneth Cole has been jamming its own advertising for years, embroidering its campaigns with slogans and quotations addressing topics such as AIDS, homelessness, gun control, same-sex marriage. Guerilla marketing might have once been a cool way of getting attention for your new alternative band or performance-art installation, but today – thanks to the viral capabilities of Twitter and YouTube – the technique is used to sell everything from fried chicken to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

And what of the Reclaim the Streets party that Klein held up as emblematic of all that was good and true about the movement? It’s still going strong, and it now involves such activities as pillow fights on Bay Street in Toronto, epic games of kick the can in Brooklyn, and mobile dance parties on London’s public transit. It has been rebranded the Urban Playground Movement, and its incredible popularity has attracted the attention of corporate sponsors like Red Bull and T-Mobile, who are dying to associate themselves with such a hip scene.

Klein certainly recognizes how much things have changed over the past decade, and she even opens her new introduction to No Logo with two telling examples. The first is Absolut Vodka, which in 2009 launched a bottle with no label or logo, to “manifest the idea, that no matter what’s on the outside, it’s the inside that really matters.” Then there’s Starbucks, which has tried recently to return to its coffee-house roots by opening a handful of unbranded stores. As Klein wryly observes, “The techniques of branding have both thrived and adapted since I published No Logo.”

Yet while Klein is tempted to interpret this last example as a case of companies trying to escape their own brands, the truth is a bit more subtle. What both Absolut and Starbucks are trying to do here is position themselves as brands that are delivering honesty, integrity and self-fulfilment. They are selling not just vodka or coffee but also authenticity, which is ironic, given that one of the things that No Logo found so unpleasant about the contemporary brandscape was how inauthentic it was.

All brands are built around a unique promise or selling proposition, but as Klein argued, whatever a brand is supposed to stand for, it has little to do with the material facts of how the product is actually manufactured. Thanks to the wave of outsourcing that devastated domestic manufacturing in the ’90s, Nike’s “Just Do It” pledge of individual achievement and Apple’s attitude of hip nonconformity masked some grim new realities – sweatshops, damaged communities, and an exploited environment.

The genius of the type of anti-corporate activism chronicled in No Logo was that it used this gap between what a brand promised to consumers, and how its corporate parent actually behaved, to perform a neat bit of public relations jiu-jitsu. When their bad faith was revealed to the world, the economic strength of the brand bullies suddenly became a major liability, and the need to preserve shareholder value forced companies such as Shell and Nike to get their act together and make sure their corporate deeds aligned with their marketing froth.

A decade on, there is no question who won that fight. From eco- to organic, fair trade to locally sourced, sweatshop safe to dolphin friendly, sales pitches that 10 years ago would have reeked of patchouli oil and set the Red baiters on full alert are now thoroughly mainstream. To give just two examples, today former lunatic-fringe companies like Whole Foods (and its quarterly “5% Day,” when each location donates 5% of its net sales to a non-profit) or Vermont-based Seventh Generation (a natural soap and detergent company devoted to all forms of sustainability and whose CEO is known as the “inspired protagonist”) are massively successful corporate operations.

The upshot is that when it comes to brand strategies today, it is all about authenticity. Virtually every marketing book published in the past few years – including such bestsellers as Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology, and Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want by James Gilmore and Joseph Pine – has stressed the primacy of authenticity as a selling point. Everyone agrees that the quest for authenticity is the contemporary advertising equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail, and being able to play the authenticity game is now a fundamental requirement of marketing, the standard against which all brand strategies are judged.

At this point, one might expect Naomi Klein to raise her hands and declare victory. The days when Shell, McDonald’s, Nike and others could Bigfoot around the planet while ignoring their public responsibilities are gone, their behaviour transformed, thanks to the efforts of a relatively small but highly vocal, motivated and intelligent group of connected activists. The taming of the brand bullies is all the proof you need that corporations don’t own brands, consumers do.

Yet Klein is not happy. In a remarkably self-aware passage toward the end of No Logo, she points out that there has to be more to environmentalism than an Energy Saver sticker on your computer monitor and more to social justice than a Fair Trade logo on your coffee mug. The danger, she says, is that if all politics becomes absorbed into consumer politics, you end up with the wholesale privatization of what was once the democratic responsibility of the public sphere.

That is why Klein is so unappreciative of what would appear to be a great triumph for her side. Her goal was never to merely change corporate behaviour. It was to change the entire economic system. As she sees it, the new-found emphasis on selling authenticity is just further evidence of the ability of capitalism to co-opt dissent and exploit seemingly subversive niches. Reform is always the enemy of revolution, and any change that maintains the overall status quo is to be viewed with suspicion. As Klein stresses, writing about branding was only ever an excuse to talk about politics, and what led her to re-engage with the discourse of marketing after 10 years was the emergence of the first U.S. president who is also a “superbrand,” Barack Obama.

In the new introduction to No Logo, she denounces Obama as little more than a neo-con who has wrapped himself in the branding of truly transformative political movements. Shamelessly helping himself to the iconography of Che Guevara, the rhetorical cadences of Martin Luther King, and his “Yes We Can” slogan from Latin American migrant workers, as far as Klein is concerned, the Obama brand circa 2009 is just as hollow, and ultimately just as inauthentic, as the corporate brands she X-rayed a decade before. Whenever possible, she alleges, Obama “favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change.” He was happy to play the role of the “anti-war, anti — Wall Street party crasher” when running for the Democratic nomination, but promptly cut bipartisan deals “with crazed Republicans once in the White House.”

You can see where Klein is going with this. In No Logo, she argued that it is simply not enough for anti-brand activists to persuade Nike to improve its production methods or for McDonalds to fix its environmental problems. Similarly, today it is not good enough for the most liberal president in ages to settle for half a loaf when the alternative is going hungry. In both cases, the problem she diagnoses is that a profoundly corrupt system is left intact, and any suggestion that things might have changed, if marginally, for the better is dismissed as just more marketing spin.

Still, Klein claims to spy an ironic sort of hope in Obama’s victory. Just as the success of socially conscious branding is a sign that there is a longing out there for equality, diversity and public space, the well of hope and expectation that Obama was able to plumb is decisive proof that there is still tremendous appetite for social justice. That he has failed to deliver is almost beside the point: the market research is done, and all that is left is for genuine transformative social movements to exploit the niche.

This gets the order of exploitation exactly backward. A more likely consequence is something roughly parallel to what happened over the past decade in the consumer realm, where the very brand-driven corporate hegemony that No Logo so forcefully critiqued came back stronger than ever.

For all its faith in a transformative grassroots political movement, the principal legacy of No Logo was that it served as a research manual for corporations looking to sell their products to consumers looking for meaning, integrity and purpose in their shopping cart. Ten years on, Naomi Klein is still waiting for the revolution, and scarcely seems to notice that she continues to provide invaluable marketing advice to her opponents.