Naomi Klein, No Logo

“No Logo” was meant to eradicate “brand bullies.” Instead, it inadvertently became the most influential marketing manual of our time.

Recently, the 10th anniversary edition of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” (Picador) appeared in bookstores, with a new introduction by the author. Originally released in early 2000, “No Logo” coincided with a wave of anti-globalization protests that swept the planet, beginning with the massive and violent protest at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November 1999. Wherever and whenever world leaders gathered, they were met with street protests and (parallel) meetings of the planet’s angry marginalia, including environmentalists, socialists and human rights activists. “No Logo” was the bible for the movement, and along with Nalgene water bottles and khaki cargo pants, became an essential part of the 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 twentieth century. It’s 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 of a box of old Polaroid’s. But in its quest to undermine the branded economy and expose the capitalist-consumer propaganda that motivates all advertising, “No Logo” inadvertently became the most influential marketing manual of the decade.

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

Why “bullies”? Klein’s case against brands is twofold. The first angle is the way brands—and advertising in general—have come to dominate our environment. Brands have co-opted popular culture and colonized our sense of self. Forget about your job, your church or your family, what matters—at least in terms of social status and personal identity—is the brands you consume.

The second angle has to do with the political sphere. The financial power corporations derive from their brands gives them a great deal of leverage, which they use to bend national governments to their will, forcing them to drop trade barriers, lower taxes, deregulate markets and eliminate environmental protections. As a result, we are left with a world where corporations—not governments—rule, where consumerism has almost entirely displaced citizenship. We are modern-day serfs, nearly helpless in the face of the power of 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 small groups of committed activists retaliated by turning the power of the brand back on itself. But in 2010, big brands are more entrenched than ever, thanks in large part to lessons learned from the book.

In fact, “No Logo” devotes a great deal of attention to the strategies of anti-brand activism that came into play at the turn of the twenty-first century. Joining the old-school consumer boycott were newfangled techniques like guerilla marketing, culture jamming (ad parodies, basically), and Reclaim the Streets initiatives.

However edgy or subversive these strategies once seemed, every one is now standard—a part of the basic tool kit of all advertising agencies and brand managers. Think culture jamming is subversive? Kenneth Cole has been jamming its own advertising for years, embroidering its campaigns with slogans and quotations addressing AIDS, homelessness, gun control and same-sex marriage. At one time, guerilla marketing might have been a cool way of garnering attention for a band or performance-art installation, but today it’s used to sell everything from fried chicken to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Meanwhile, the Reclaim the Streets (RTS) initiative is still going strong. We’ve seen epic games of Kick the Can (Brooklyn), mobile dance parties on public transit (London), and International Pillow Fight Day. RTS has been re-branded the Urban Playground Movement, though, and its incredible popularity has attracted the attention of corporate sponsors like Red Bull and T-Mobile, who are dying to associate themselves with the scene.

Klein certainly recognizes how much things have changed over the past decade, and she opens her new introduction with two telling examples. The first concerns 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.” The second concerns Starbucks, which has attempted 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 ‘No Logo’ was published.”

Yet while Klein is tempted to interpret these examples as cases of companies trying to escape their own brands, the truth is more subtle. What both Absolut and Starbucks are trying to do is position themselves as brands delivering honesty, integrity and self-fulfillment. They are selling not only vodka and 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.

Of course, all brands are built around a promise or selling proposition, but as Klein argues, whatever a brand is supposed to stand for, it has little to do with how the product is manufactured. Thanks to the wave of outsourcing that devastated domestic manufacturing in the 1990s, Nike’s “Just Do It” pledge of individual achievement and Apple’s attitude of hip nonconformity masked grim 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 the gap between what a brand promised, and how its corporate parent actually behaved, to perform a neat bit of public relations jiu-jitsu. Whenever corporate bad faith was exposed, the need to preserve shareholder value forced companies to make sure their corporate deeds aligned with their marketing.

But from eco- to organic, fair trade to locally sourced, sweatshop safe to dolphin-friendly, sales pitches that would have reeked of patchouli oil and set the Red baiters on full alert ten years ago are now thoroughly mainstream. To give just two examples, former lunatic-fringe companies like Whole Foods and Seventh Generation are now massively successful corporate operations.

The upshot is that when it comes to brand strategies today, it’s all about authenticity. Virtually every marketing book published in the past few years—including bestsellers like Martin Lindstrom’s “Buyology” (Broadway Books), and “Authenticity” by James Gilmore and Joseph Pine (Harvard Business Press)—stress the primacy of authenticity. 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 Klein to raise her hands and declare victory. The days when Shell, McDonald’s, Nike and others could Bigfoot around the planet while ignoring any semblance of responsibility are gone, their behavior 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 still not happy. In a remarkably self-aware passage, 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 behavior; it was to change the entire economic system. As she sees it, the newfound emphasis on selling authenticity is just further evidence of the ability of capitalism to co-opt dissent and exploit seemingly subversive niches. As Klein stresses, writing about branding was merely an excuse to discuss politics, and what led her to re-engage with the discourse of marketing was the emergence of the first U.S. president who is also a “superbrand.”

In her new introduction, Klein denounces Barack Obama as little more than a neo-con who has wrapped himself in the branding of a truly transformative political movement. As far as she is concerned, the Obama brand circa 2009 is just as hollow—and ultimately as inauthentic—as the corporate brands she X-rayed a decade earlier. Whenever possible, she alleges, Obama “favors 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 not enough for anti-brand activists to coerce a corporation like McDonald’s to fix its environmental problems. Today it is not good enough for Obama 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 remains intact, and any suggestion that things might have changed for the better is dismissed as more marketing spin.

Still, Klein claims to spy an ironic sort of hope in Obama’s election. 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 mine is decisive proof that there is still an appetite for social justice. That he has failed to deliver is almost beside the point. The market research is done; 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 outcome is something roughly parallel to what happened over the past decade in the consumer realm, where the 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” is that it served as a manual for corporations looking to sell their products to consumers looking for meaning, integrity and purpose in their shopping cart. Klein is still waiting for the revolution, and scarcely seems to notice that she continues to provide invaluable marketing advice to her opponents.

Andrew Potter is co-author of “The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed.”