Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Talk about bad timing. The September issue of Foreign Affairs features an article by Peter van Ham titled “The Postmodern Politics of Image and Reputation.” In it, the Dutch research fellow and “European security expert” makes the argument—old hat in marketing circles but perhaps new to Foreign Affairs’ audience—that the old geopolitics are dead, destined to be replaced by marketplace competition among “brand states” duking it out on the basis of image and “customer satisfaction.”

Initiatives like the U.K.’s “Cool Britannia” and a new logo for Belgium are at the cutting edge of foreign policy, van Ham contends, adding that the real imperative behind NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was not strategic or humanitarian but its need to protect its image as one of the globe’s luxury brands, along with the U.S. and the European Union.

A leading attribute of a luxury state brand, by the way, is that it is “safe.” Bad timing, indeed.

Like so many worldviews, this one has instantly aged, have been built on now-questionable assumptions: that we live at the end of history; that style has triumphed over substance; that everyone plays by the same marketplace rules. Van Ham’s observations now seem smug, naive and facile.

“We talk about a state’s personality in the same way we discuss the products we consume, describing it as ‘friendly’ and ‘credible’ or ‘aggressive’ and ‘unreliable,’ ” he writes. This is a lot like saying that anything that can be described by an adjective is a brand. But then, for much of the ’90s, that was what everyone was saying.

Van Ham is merely expressing a consensus to which so many subscribed before Sept. 11: The marketplace model had triumphed not only over communism but over politics and religion as well. Brands were everything, and everything was a brand. Conventional wisdom agreed with British management consultant Peter York’s contention, which van Ham quotes, that Nike’s swoosh logo “means precisely what the crucifix meant to an earlier generation in ghettos—it promises redemption, vindication and a way out.” And just as secular brands were “precisely” like religions, religions were “precisely” like secular brands or, as van Ham says of the Roman Catholic Church, a “superbrand.”

Is America a brand? Certainly it has distinct symbolic meanings and signs that evoke them. After Sept. 11, we rushed to raise our logo, the American flag—displaying it, waving it, wearing it. The government agonized over the name for its anti-terrorism initiative as if it were a new-product launch. In their choice of targets, the terrorists, too, showed a keen understanding of symbolism. The president and others say America was attacked “for what we stand for”; they could just as easily say there are people out there who hate our brand.

But those people are not dissatisfied customers. The dilemma they present will not be solved through better brand management, but through the down-and-dirty geopolitics that van Ham declares obsolete. “Either you are with us or you are against us” is not a sales pitch.

Is the strain of Islam that calls for the head of America a brand? Better yet, is it a superbrand line extension aimed at a special psychographic and ethnic niche? It can be described by adjectives. It definitely has an image—indeed, a strong personality. It has its loyalists. It fits the criteria.

But does the “brand” concept tell us anything about an adversary whose very identity is bound up in opposing the worldview that believes in brands? The terrorists, their enablers and the entire Middle East conflict are living proof that religion is nothing like a secular brand. For one thing, Coke and Pepsi do not fight each other with bombs and guns. Meanwhile, in certain parts of America, Sikhs who appear in public in turbans—their “brand signifier”—are putting themselves at risk. Who would do the same for his Nikes?

As Mark Earls of St. Luke’s in London said at a Market Research Society conference earlier this year, marketers have “forgotten that the brand construct … [is] little more than a metaphor which allows respondents to explain themselves. When we forget the metaphorical nature of the construct, we are only a few steps from some very dubious territory.” Notions like “a brand is a secular religion” or “brands create community” put us knee-deep in dubious territory.

This makes for stupid theories not only about nation-states but about products and services, too. A word that describes everything explains nothing and, worse, obscures our lived relationships with countries, faiths and commodities.

Effective marketing never comes from bad thinking, and “brand” is infected with bad thinking.