Thinking Critically About Brand Cultures: An Interview with Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part Two)

Your central premise is that the logics of branding are now complexly interwoven with all aspects of our everyday lives, that we adopt its principles in shaping our social relationships with each other and defining our identities in the world, and that notions of “authenticity” are less and less meaningful for describing our culture at a time when politics, religion, self-esteem, personal expression, are all bound up with the logics of branding. So, how are you defining branding?

In the book, I’m actually more concerned with what I call “brand culture” than practices of branding (i.e. the design and implementation of specific brand campaigns). For me, brand culture refers to the relationships between consumers and the commercial world, and the way in which these types of relationships have increasingly become cultural contexts for everyday living, individual identity, and affective relationships. Of course, there are different brand cultures, that at times overlap and compete with each other, so in the book I talk about the brand culture of street art in urban spaces, religious brand cultures, the culture of green branding with its focus on the environment, and so on. The practice of branding is typically understood as a complex economic tool, a method of attaching social or cultural meaning to a commodity as a means to make the commodity more personally resonant with an individual consumer. But I’m arguing that, in the contemporary era, brands are about culture as much as they are about economics.

So I try to show this transition in the book, and I argue that we need to think about differences between commodification and branding in order to understand some of the cultural dynamics occurring right now. That is, because a brand’s value extends beyond a tangible product, the process of branding—if successful—is different from commodification: it is a cultural phenomenon more than an economic strategy. Commodification implies the literal transformation of things into commodities; branding is a much more deeply interrelated and diffused set of dynamics. To commodify something means to turn it into, or treat it as, a commodity; it means to make commercial something that wasn’t previously thought of as a product, such as music or racial identity. Commodification is a marketing strategy, a monetization of different spheres of life, a transformation of social and cultural life into something that can be bought and sold. In contrast, the process of branding impacts the way we understand who we are, how we organize ourselves in the world, what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

So, I’m trying to make an intervention in the conversations about commodification, branding and identity. Again, I’m not making the argument that we just apply a business model onto the ways we construct our personal identities—it is not the case that business strategies merely get plucked from the realm of economics and mapped onto the realm of culture.

But I’m also not using “economy” or “market” as mere metaphors. In the book, I think about a more nuanced adoption of the logics and moralities of both economics and culture as a way to understand how we are constructing identities within brand culture, and to think about what is at stake in this kind of construction. What’s at stake for individuals and for culture in adopting brand logics and moralities?

In both Authentic and your new anthology, you talk about “commodity activism.” Explain this concept. To what degree does commodity activism still represent a meaningful form of activism? How has our notion of commodity needed to change to incorporate activism into the branding process?
 I’ve struggled a bit to think about the similarities and differences between what you are calling “commodity activism”, what I am calling in my current work “fan activism,” and what our mutual friend Stephen Duncombe would discuss as “ethical spectacle.” For me, there are some core differences between “purchasing Starbucks coffee to support Fair Trade,” tapping into the collective identity of Harry Potter fans in order to push Warner Brothers to move their chocolate contracts to Fair Trade Countries, and using the Guy Fawkes mask for Occupy Wall Street, yet from a certain frame of reference, all might be described as using “branding” to promote their political agendas. So, can we make meaningful distinctions in terms of how activists deploy brands in their efforts to promote change?

Roopali Mukherjee and I, in our co-edited volume, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, define commodity activism as the process by which social action is increasingly understood through the ways it is mapped onto merchandising practices, market incentives, and corporate profits. We look at different forms of commodity activism—the Dove RealBeauty campaign, the branding of green activists, the work of celebrities for progressive causes such as development and the diamond trade, and so on— and think through what social action and cultural resistance mean in a context that is increasingly defined by ideas about self-branding, entrepreneurial individualism, and economic responsibility.

I think that commodity activism can be an important form of social activism, if the goals of such activism are not primarily organized around the accumulation of profit or building a corporate brand (so, for example, consumers may act politically by buying, say, green products, but we need to also attend to the ways in which consumer behavior builds brands by buying products, etc.). In lots of forms of commodity activism, the goal is the identity of the consumer or brand of the corporation, not the activism itself or what it might yield. So much commodity activism, rather than challenge existing structures in the social, economic and cultural realms, those structures that create and sustain inequalities, is dedicated to furthering the recognition of the corporation, its self-brand. This then often becomes the end goal of the activism, and it is this that I think we should challenge as “activism.”

So, to answer your question: yes, we can make meaningful distinctions in terms of how activists deploy brands. We can also make meaningful distinctions in terms of different kinds of activism. So, for example, activism about girls’ self-esteem is hot right now—a whole industry has been built around it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important context for activism, but it does mean that we need to carefully attend to what sort of politics aren’t so easily branded, and thus made visible.

Your first extended example is Dove’s “Real Women” campaign, which Unilever very much wanted us to experience as a break with the ways women had been marketed “beauty products” in the past. To what degree did this embody the new branding logic you are describing? Yet, you are also arguing that it needs to be understood as part of a larger history of Dove’s alternative marketing to women. What might we learn by placing this ad into this expanded historical context?

Well, I think that all cultural forms of activism need to be understood historically, as dynamics of power that shift and become something new, but also because we need to attend to the ways in which historical forms of power continue to be crucial in how we structure our lives and our politics. This is important because history matters—in my work I try, in every chapter, to historicize the specific brand culture I’m examining, so that we can see how there are cultural dynamics that seem quite new and different share similarities with historical processes and patterns. At the same time, there is something shifted at this moment, for some of the reasons I’ve detailed here: the rise of commodity activism, the difference between commodification and branding, the way consumers interact on multiple media platforms, etc. So with the Dove case, the RealBeauty campaign, it is the case that the company encouraged a sort of “co-production” with consumers, and did call attention to the exclusionary (and often racist and classist) norms of beauty culture.

It also has a history of helping to create that very same beauty culture. One doesn’t cancel the other out, nor is this a simple case of hypocrisy. Rather, this kind of contradiction defines brand culture, and also defines how consumer culture can be the site for a kind of activism. The power of capitalism, as we know, has been in its capacity to not just protect existing markets but to be expansive, to create new markets. This happens, though, in the context of a relationship to activism and resistance, and it is this hard-to-define terrain, where we think about what counts as activism, that comprises brand culture.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is a Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She had two books published in 2012, most recently Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York University Press), which examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. Also published in 2012 was Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York University Press), co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children's cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). She co-edits, with Kent Ono, a book series with New York University Press, "Critical Cultural Communication," and is the editor of American Quarterly.