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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
I shop, therefore I am
brands
Field of brands: 4,000 people, places and products
Do the brands you buy define the person you are? A new exhibition leads BBC News Online-branded reporter Megan Lane to conclude that, even if she chose to opt-out of the label race, opting out is just another brand.

Selling a product is dead. Long live selling a lifestyle.

In the face of near-unanimity among companies that what you buy speaks volumes, branding has become a contentious issue.

Seattle 1999
Ecologists and anarchists joined forces in Seattle
Anti-globalisation demonstrators flocked to Prague and Seattle to protest at the meetings of the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

Angered at the economic and ecological impact of trans-national companies, the protesters targeted the outlets of Starbucks, McDonalds and Nike.

It's the politicisation of brands that fascinates Gareth Williams and Jane Pavitt, curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum's Brand.new exhibition, which opens in London on Thursday.

Gareth Williams
Gareth Williams: Hot topic
The pair began work on the show - originally intended as a survey of contemporary design - three years ago.

"When the photographs of the Seattle police in riot gear lined up outside Niketown came out last December, we knew we were on to a highly topical issue," says Mr Williams.

In response to the riots, the pair boosted the space devoted to examining what happens when a company loses control of its brand.

They worked with the companies whose products appear in the exhibition - Levi's, for instance, loaned a rare pair of pre-1900 jeans - and with the Anti-Counterfeiting Group.

Coke
Global domination: Teach the world to drink Coke
Yet one company, Nike, was so reluctant to lose control of its image that it withdrew its co-operation on finding out that a "Battle of Seattle" photograph and fake Nike goods would be on display.

After all, the company wants to sell more than just trainers and jogging bottoms - it markets a dream of achievement and personal growth through sport.

Similarly Starbucks, the little Seattle coffee company that grew and grew, positions itself as a "third place" between home and office.

Brand new heavies

Naomi Klein, author of the acclaimed book No Logo, will be the keynote speaker at the Brand.new conference next month.

V&A exhibit
The evolution of selling Coke
Ms Klein argues that companies are spreading their tentacles ever wider around the world, commercialising public places and branding celebrities.

But Mr Williams says new media actually make marketing a harder task.

Gone are the days when TV, radio and newspaper ads would suffice to spread the word. Today, there are countless websites and cable channels to choose from - and the latest video recorders such as Tivo allow viewers to screen out commercials altogether.

"There's more competition, so it's getting more difficult to create your brand in such a huge market."

Although new companies such as lastminute.com use clever marketing to enter the nation's consciousness quickly, it takes much longer to build a profitable business.

lastminute.com
Brands hatch: Profile above profits
"You cannot create a market very quickly - the biggest brands in the world are often the oldest."

Hence the rise of Coca-Cola is used as a case study to demonstrate the power of a brand.

Originally sold as a health-giving tonic, by 1917 the soft drink had some 300 rivals in the United States alone.

Yet today, its global influence is such that competitors typically choose red packaging to try and attract thirsty customers.

One Coke exhibit - the 1970s "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" advert - takes on an uncomfortable resonance in the wake of the anti-globalisation protests.

Selling loyalty

The exhibition takes the late 19th Century as its starting point - the era in which the Patent Office and the first advertising agencies were established.

Hello Kitty and Manchester United merchandise
Man-U and Hello Kitty: Do ya wanna be in my gang?
"Yet people have always used goods to show the world who they are," Mr Williams says.

"In the 18th Century, people used displays and costume to proclaim their status in the world."

In one gallery, seven room-sized packing cases each deal with one way in which companies infuse their brand with human traits to attract customers.

French Connection appeals to the hip and irreverent with its FCUK logo; Levi's plays on the authenticity of its jeans; and the makers of high-tech gadgets, such as Palm Pilots, iBooks and mobile phones, market their products as "friendly".

But out of all qualities brand-owners try to convince their customers of, it is loyalty that can really shift the units.

Which means it doesn't take a huge leap of logic for a sports team to become transformed into a brand.

The exhibition details how Manchester United, among other teams, allows its fans to demonstrate their commitment every hour of every day by owning shirts, duvet covers, coffee cups, nearly anything you could want.

In a society where everything you can touch, eat or wear has a label, only the most ascetic hermit can avoid being branded.

Even then, as the grunge revolution showed, the fashionistas would eventually discover hermit-chic.

Brand.new, 19 October 2000 to 14 January 2001, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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See also:

14 Sep 00 | e-cyclopedia
Globalisation: What on Earth is it about?
04 May 00 | e-cyclopedia
Conscious capitalism: Now creed is good
05 Apr 00 | UK
Boycotting: Walk on buy
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