The Daily Heller: Is Post-Branding a Thing?

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What is Post-Branding? by Jason Grant of Inkahoots Design Studio and Oliver Vodeb from RMIT School of Design is a work of “practical theory.” It is a compact pocketbook publication composed of four main sections. The first, “DIS-BRANDED,” is composed of 20 short page-long chapters exposing the ideological underbelly and real-world impact of branding. The second, “MIXED MESSAGES,” is a provocative visual essay illuminating the texts’ main themes. The third, “MANUAL,” presents a framework for a critical alternative to corporate branding, humorously appropriating found instructional diagrams as a brand manual satire. This section also includes examples of completed contemporary projects that have implemented post-branding principles. The book concludes with “CONTEXT,” featuring a conversation with cultural theorist Brian Holmes and an “argument” with me.

The book is reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage, cautioning against a kind of mind (and soul) control that was on the rise, and brings some of those pre-branding, pre-digital ideas to the 21st century. Jason Grant, Oliver Vodeb and I discussed the concepts raised herein—most of all to answer the question posed in the title of this post.

Before we tackle the title, your book is subtitled “How to Counter Fundamentalist Marketplace Semiotics.” What are Fundamentalist Marketplace Semiotics?
We should probably acknowledge that the idea of Fundamentalism will likely be interpreted differently in different parts of the world. In the United States, for example, we understand there are a lot of people (mainly “born-again” or “evangelical” Christians) who actually identify as fundamentalist. And on the other hand, it’s often used politically to attack non-hegemonic interests. But we’re borrowing both its religious connotations, and using it in its general pejorative sense, suggesting rigid and extreme adherence to a script as the source of total truth. Branding over the last few decades has become the dominant mass communication orthodoxy. It’s rarely questioned and it’s everywhere. It’s both a symptom and catalyst of neoliberal capitalism, a super-efficient mechanism for breeding and transmitting market values. One of the ways this happens is through strategically deployed systems of signs that end up mediating our social relationships. Semiotics in this sense is not only used to interpret the meaning of a visual text but, importantly, also to understand the process behind constructing meanings. Individual and collective action is, to a significant degree, determined by the ways meaning is created.

There are several problems with branding, as we see it. A big problem is the reinforcement of neoliberal capitalism through an imposed consensus, through which our imagination for (designing) alternatives is colonized and our social relations are atomized. Branding diminishes our relations by filtering the world through a neoliberal market lens. And while branders are employing sophisticated knowledge from other disciplines, any findings end up serving the dominant market logic, resulting in a language that is as coercive and destructive as it is limiting.

One of the key domains that should be free from fundamentalism is actually one of its main incubators. Should universities be teaching branding as omnipotent and axiomatic? “Brands are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected and unaltered. Any knowledge of culture is impossible now without an understanding of the implications of ‘brand.’” So goes the online intro to “the world’s first-ever masters in branding” at the School of Visual Arts, where you teach in New York. But is there really an attempt (here, or anywhere else, offering branding courses in design and business schools) to teach a genuinely critical understanding of the “implications of ‘brand’”? Can branding’s implications really be understood when it is taught as inevitable and desirable? In all of this giddy branding of branding, is there any hint that the phenomenon might be problematic, or even damaging? Or that there might be other, better ways to engage a public and connect as humans?

What was your goal in writing and producing this book?
The discipline of design has made some important progress in developing a more critical self-understanding. Students respond very well to ideas about critical design, radical design, autonomous design, social design, participatory design, and more. Many young designers want to work in ways that are less destructive and more meaningful. The number of design studios working on alternatives to the usual narrow logic of what can be called extractive design, is growing. Our book is providing thoughts, critique, concepts, provocations and tools for this emerging and important scene. It aims to help professional designers. It builds on decades of rich research and practice, and articulates a different way to communicate. So we aim to provide a critique and propose an alternative. What do you do if you’re an organization that doesn’t have short-term profit as your main mission, or if you’re an artist, or an activist attempting to counter the harms of corporate greed and if you want to employ design in ways that will contribute to a sustainable world? How do you create symbols of collective identity that aren’t undermined by commercial communication methods that contradict your ethos and dilute or redirect your very mission?

We started with the premise that there must be more than one way to design communication relevant to processes of developing collective identities. There must be a different way to promote identification that isn’t predatory and exploitative. And so the book also includes successful examples of post-branding from around the world.

As you indicate, branding is not new (and you are right, I’ve never seen a Peter Behrens staandards manual either but he had to have put a system in plaace), and was never more impactful than with the Nazis. So now, give me your elevator (or longer) pitch on the essence of post-branding.
Branding does have a sordid pre-history and scandalous genealogy, from the violent branding of animals and humans through to, as you mention, the Nazi’s wholly integrated, mass calibrated public system of collective identity communication for which they produced one of the first branding manuals. This Nazi history is particularly interesting because although these are antecedents, and what we now call branding is very much a contemporary neoliberal phenomenon, the parallels are striking. For example, counter to what we might think, Nazis actually wanted to abolish the state—for them it was just a means to an end. Does this sound familiar in today’s neoliberal context? The loss of society’s publicness, from education to the civic sphere, is a key symptom of fundamentalism and totalitarianism. Does this sound familiar too? A new insight in our book is also the relation between branding and managerialism, as the dominant but also most radical and extractive form of management. While branding creates frameworks of meaning, the process of extraction can only be fully realized with the implementation of managerialism on a societal scale. French historian Johann Chapoutot has shown that Nazi theorists crucially contributed to the invention of modern management, with some of the key Nazi ideologues running management schools after the second world war, educating and influencing hundreds of thousands of executives around the world. Post-branding expands the discipline of communication design in new ways, showing that the branded images produced by organizations directly relate to their inner workings, and that the implementation of any real alternative also demands a rethinking of how organizations and societies are organized, and to what end.

We also need to be aware of the branders attempts at “inevitablizing” their industry with revisionist claims, such as those by Lippincott at London’s Design Museum, like: “The concept of branding dates back to the beginning of time, before humans even walked the earth. From the monarch butterfly’s spotted wings to the Bengal tiger’s stripes, branding is nature’s way of organizing the complex world, using simple visuals to communicate a distinct and consistent message.” How did this half-baked propaganda even get past the gatekeepers of a major museum?

In the book, we define the essence of post-branding as designing “collective identity that can create relations which include the interdependencies, needs and desires of a broad constituency, rather than the exclusive priorities of a minority corrupting power.” And we lay out a framework with three main dimensions and corresponding principles as a strategic counter to branding’s totalizing, predatory ideology. These dimensions are: 1) transparency and open-source principles; 2) participatory design approaches, and; 3) diversity and commoning. The ideas themselves aren’t new, but using them to replace branding’s exploitative principles can be radical.

Why and how will post-branding work in a world that has embraced the brand as holy grail?
We trust it will resonate with organizations and designers whose sensibilities are alive and not yet colonized. It will be embraced by those who are looking for an alternative model. Although it will probably be used more thoroughly in some cases than in others, we hope it will be a process of change and learning. Of course, there will be resistance. But post-branding will empower designers and organizations, and if both sides do embrace these ideas, amazing things can happen. In fact, in the book we illustrate each post-branding principle with a case study, demonstrating already existing, real-word practical application of the ideas.

This book is a guide as well as a dictionary of pictorial rhetoric. Please explain the “Mixed Messages” section. Are these real or false equivalencies?
“Mixed Messages” is a visual essay, an alternative visual text that illustrates and extends the initial text. When making this section, which is all images, we really thought of the process as writing, more than illustrating or designing.

The facing images on a spread relate to each other closely and they also connect sequentially to the subsequent and previous images, as well as connecting to the written text. These juxtapositions are not necessarily equivalencies; the images are not the same as each other, but rather they have some kind of objective or dialectical relationship. The image captions are then grouped together at the end of the section as an invitation to interpret the juxtapositions first.

For example, there’s a spread where the left-hand page shows a 1755 coin, and on the right is a replica of a branding iron originally used in the Transatlantic slave trade. They are two physically unrelated artifacts, but their incidental visual similarities (e.g., common ‘V,’ symmetry, materiality and depicted scale) become metaphoric of their political and moral relationship. The coin displays the Dutch East India Company logo, likely the world’s first-ever multinational company logo, which became a hated symbol of violent colonization as the Dutch ruthlessly pursued a global spice trade monopoly. The company was also deeply involved in the slave trade.

Another spread shows an ancient Roman terracotta oil lamp with the maker’s mark “Fortis.” These lamps were one of the first-ever mass products and were made from about 70 AD to the end of the second century. Opposite is a 1907 poster by Peter Behrens for AEG’s Metal Filament Bulbs—Behrens of course is considered by some to be history’s first industrial designer and the founder of corporate identity. So both images feature lamps—a couple of millennia apart! But notice the formal similarities: repeated round floral motifs; central serif titling; repeated lineal borders; even the general form of the lamps. We have no idea if Behrens was even aware of this ancient artifact, but the visual and conceptual echoes through history were really satisfying to discover and illuminate.

As we’ve mentioned, one of the book’s main theses is that modern branding has fascist tendencies and genealogy. One of the spreads shows a Nazi propaganda spectacle in Nuremberg in 1938, and opposite, Coke bottles coming off the production line. Beyond the fact that Coca-Cola collaborated with the Nazis during the war, something to consider is that if we can accept that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and her other films, for example, had a significant impact on modern filmmaking, then can we also accept that the ubiquitous and systematic application of the swastika in 1930s Germany has had a real impact on modern commercial communication? How do we come to terms with that?

What do you hope will be the outcome of your book? Do you believe those who believe in the positive power of branding will change? Do you see the world changing its “late-capitalist” rituals?
Branding is not inevitable; it’s not even that old. We did some research where we looked at the shift in how design studios have promoted themselves and self-identified. In Australia, for example, there were virtually no graphic design practices that called themselves “branding agencies” or offered “branding” as their key service prior to the year 2000. Only two decades later, in 2022, around 85% were doing it. Also consider branding guru Wally Olins’ bibliography. All his books prior to 2000 have “identity” or “corporate identity” in the title, but from 2003 (with On Brand) they all feature “Brand” instead. Universities design programs used to teach “visual identity design”; now they teach “branding.” This isn’t just the adoption of new terminology, it’s the emergence of a new industry.

It is really hard to imagine branding fading or being replaced because it is so entwined with the imperatives of capitalism. But the discipline of design is changing, and is much more capable of envisioning itself in a different relation to the world than it was few decades ago. Generations are changing, and awareness is growing. Critical design theory and philosophy is developing. What we really need is a stronger transition between these ideas into the professional sphere. If designers use the concepts presented in our book, with some effort they will see that there are organizations and people with whom these ideas will resonate. We are offering these ideas with the hope that they will make them their own, use them, and develop them further.

Capitalism itself will, at the very least, have to change and adapt to the converging crises it has caused. These crises have already begun to bite, and as they continue to wreck our communities and our ecology, we’ll eventually have to reject all their enabling machinery just to survive. In the meantime, we hope to throw a post-branding spanner in the works with an alternative framework that counters branding’s worst harms.