Just back from touring Italy with The Ham and Cheese Company – part of the breakaway faction from Borough Market now trading in Spa Terminus – Bermondsey. We travelled from Bologna to Parma to Siena to Roma meeting people whose lives revolve around making marvellous food. The idiosyncratic hams and cheeses we sampled along the way are rooted in place and provenance. What impresses is the gentle art of the artisan (the families, ingredients, processes and animal husbandry) that transforms humble elements into magic. It was the personification of brand; authenticity, raison d’être and experience.
The origin of branding was the farmer’s mark on the backside of a cow, but as locally produced goods travelled and became household names, brand became a guarantee of quality and consistency. As consumers became more affluent and retail competition exploded, brand progressed to be an indicator of experience. The product you chose (shampoo, automobile, shoes) did not just serve its purpose, it said something about you. Brand communications have always employed the hyperbole of the snake-oil salesman (You’ve tried the rest now get the best… You can trust… Guaranteed to…), and occupy a niche in the vernacular like skipping songs and catch phrases. But now brands are so ubiquitous they infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Virgin owns 400 companies selling everything from cancer insurance to vintage wines to mobile communications. A large supermarket will carry 50,000 product lines. The London Olympics is a dystopia of brand braggadio. Even ‘non-profit’ bodies such as museums, hospitals, police forces, local authorities, prisons, universities and schools employ the dark arts of branding to bolster their credibility.
Dominant brands used to have such a monopoly on wholesale and retail networks they could sell whatever they made. Consumers are no longer gullible puppies. Now the tail wags the dog. Instead of clinging to well worn working practices, brands have to think out of their little boxes. In 2012 online sales in the UK will top £ 50 billion. 30 years ago, Motorola was the only mobile phone provider, now we can choose from dozens of providers and hundreds of handsets.
Most branded products and services have no purpose other than to generate profits. I meet senior managers who consider customers to be a necessary evil, and many CEOs regard jobs as stepping-stones to the fat pension. New brands tend to be mish-mashes of desirable qualities copied from market leaders. Many people involved in ‘creating’ brands have no idea how to craft, or source, or originate anything authentic, and churn out dull reinterpretations of passing fads. Clients commissioning brand identities have precious little vision, and thoughtful creative strategy underpinned by solid rationales is dumbed down to forgettable twaddle. Procurement managers and design consultancies are equally culpable: driven by fear of big ideas; fear of challenging the brief, fear of what someone out there might possibly think, and – because they are so obsessed by growth at any cost – fear of failure.
Lead by the nose by branding agencies, brand managers agonise over brand values, brand visions, brand missions, brand essences, brand promises, brand statements, brand propositions, brand personalities, brand stories, brand archetypes, brand positionings, brand mantras, brand onions, brand donuts, brand sandwiches, brand manifestos, brand pyramids, brand mind-maps, and even brand temples. Management consultancies hijack common sense, convert it into nonsense, and sell it back to people they pinched it from. Market research is an orgy of pseudo science. Target consumers are divided into ever more esoteric demographics designed to undermine internal management teams’ belief in themselves, and management invites them in so they can shift the blame when it all goes horribly wrong.
The world is awash with extraordinary products and services. The most exciting creative thinking is not being done by ‘creatives’ at all, but by neurologists, anthropologists, philanthropists, philosophers, environmentalists, agronomists, physicists and most of all engineers (computer hardware & software, genetic, biomechanical, structural, chemical, automotive, aeronautical and so on). The branding circus is fucked. At one extreme it is a prophylactic for mediocrity, at the other it’s a smokescreen for unscrupulous business practices.
When I am crowned King of Hoxton I will decree that everyone involved in the branding industry takes regular sabbaticals in which they shadow real people doing real jobs that make the world a better place. And a good place to start could be in the foothills of the Parma Apennines where Umberto Avanzini, his wife Carolina, and son Davide conjure up three Parmigiano-Reggiano a day. They grow all the cereals and alfalfa to feed their Brown Swiss cows and the organic, GM free ‘wheels’ are aged in the village to infuse them with mountain character. Faced with the vagaries of climate change, all the producers we met have to constantly tune their products to achieve consistency. They regard the hams and cheeses they make as living entities and the purest expression of a life well lived.