I attended the opening ceremonies for the Blowing Up the Brand conference at NYU yesterday and heard Rob Walker give a talk about branding's current status as a kind of governing cultural metaphor. Not only are lay discussions of how successfuly or ingenious marketing has become commonplace now, but the "self as brand" has become a ready-at-hand way of conceptualizing our motives for ourselves, for organizing our incentives and our goals. It seems an offshoot of the building preoccupation with identity and self-actualization. It's no accident that "authenticity" -- which came up a bit in the Q&A with Walker after the talk -- features prominently in discussions of brands and self-fashioning. (In fact, I wonder if brand managers could get a PowerPoint presentation out of reading Stephen Greenblatt.) The properly groomed brand image will reveal the enduring truth about us that others will invariably recognize, or alternatively, in will supply others with the raw material (or perhaps the playing field) with which to shape the meaning of our social being. In other words, the transaction involved in brand recognition is now the way we understand how we affect and are affected by others; the brand is what we imagine gets fixed as permanent about ourselves after series of social interactions. If that is so, then -- and I took this as Walker's point -- it will be efficacious to self-brand. People will recognize what you are doing, will interpret it properly, will slot it in with a set of values that have (through the ubiquity of brand talk) established themselves as creditable. But, as Walker suggested, we are also in danger of reducing our own complexities and the nuances of our relationships to the shape of the brand, to the commercial verities of guarded and proprietary corporate communication. Self-actualization becomes perpetual self-promotion. And worse everyone collaborates to keep it limited to this -- every one agrees to "follow you if you follow me." (Fittingly, in such a culture with so many mutual followers, there can be no leaders.) Technology plays in to this because it supplies us with a way of measuring our reach, of rating ourselves the way a TV show is rated by Nielsen. We degenerate into vulgar utilitarians. This drives us to be fixated on our metrics, and ultimately necessarily nebulous concerns about quality are shunted aside for an overriding concern for quantity -- which is far more convenient to wrangle with since it is so cut and dried. (This is also the problem with positivism and enlightenment techno-rationality.)
My own thinking about the brand begins with this: Branding coopts a vital and socially necessary process -- signification; negotiating and fixing the meaning of signs -- and commercializes it. Rather than work to fix meanings (as do signification processes traditionally), branding tends to render signs permanently provisional, always open-ended, so that they can be adapted to whatever commercial purposes suit a given moment. But the commercial aura of this kind of communication gives it a kind of validity that the onslaught of postmodernity had threatened to strip from signification. This vindicating, validating authority from branding as signifying practice derives from its association with structures that in capitalist society come to seem eternal and primary -- the market and a fundamentally "rational" selfishness. (For example: If one can see what a person has to gain by saying something, one understands the "truth" of that statement.) Brands makes us believe the uncertain process of signification has been professionalized.
So brands are always indeterminate, negotiable, but they also aspire to connote permanence, stable meanings. I think this has the effect of making us experience or consume brands for this specific feeling of permanent truth -- we consume the permanence they signify and suspend our knowledge that that meaning is an illusion born in the moment of consumption. We suspend our concern with the fragility of meaning, with its fundamental ambiguity, which seems banished by the clarity of commercial exchanges. Brands offer us a series of engagements with the promise of forever in a transitory moment. The best of both worlds.