Don’t miss Will Partin’s piece in The Outline about the company “brandless” and how the concept of banding is changing. An excerpt:

If that seems counterintuitive, consider two advertisements for Dove soap separated by about 50 years. In a 1957 television spot, the camera’s near-fetishistic attention on the look and feel of the newly-introduced Dove bar is supplemented by a breakdown of its chemical composition (“¼ cleansing creme!”) and a pseudo-scientific demonstration of its effectiveness. Compare that to Dove’s 2006 Super Bowl XL commercial, part of the company’s famous (but well-critiqued) “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Over the ad’s 45 second-long ode to women’s insecurity, Dove products appear exactly zero times. What matters is no longer Dove soap’s cleansing creme or demonstrable superiority to water, but how the brand associates itself, and those who use it, with a message of social empowerment that reaches well beyond the bathroom.

Cultural theorists have come up with a number of ways to describe this shift, but the most influential term is what the Italian Marxist Mario Tronti called the “social factory.” When branding appeared at the apex of industrial capitalism, the means of production were still largely confined to literal factories, cordoned off from spaces of consumption. These days, however, that distinction isn’t so clear. “The whole of society lives as a function of the factory,” Tronti concluded, “and the factory extends its exclusive domination of the whole society.” Social media is most obvious example of how this works in practice: without its user’s posts, Facebook would be an empty software shell. Until we start “working” for Facebook, there is nothing for us to consume, troubling any clean break between production (making value) and consumption (using it), which are inescapably amalgamated.

Branding, in different and subtler ways, also capitalizes on this shift towards “prosumption” by enlisting consumers in the “work” of managing the brand. Modern branding encourages us not just to loyally purchase or even promote our preferred brands but to be the brand by embodying its virtues in our own lives. If you buy Apple, you must be creative, and, if you’re creative, you must buy Apple. All branding then becomes a collaboration, not between products and celebrities but between brands and the ordinary people who use them. In consumer culture, brands are a primary source of meaning, and it’s (in part) up to us to make them meaningful, creating value for capital in the process.

***

If going Brandless really is cheaper than sticking with Windex, Starkist, and Pepsodent (which isn’t actually true, probably), it’s not because the company has eliminated the expense of branding, but shifted the work it does onto consumers. The company’s true innovation, then, has little to do with cutting costs, and everything to do with redistributing creative labor. If late 20th century saw branding evolve into partnership between consumer and producer by blurring the line between production and consumption, brandless-ness pushes this responsibility even further onto customers. And, in fact, Brandless’s ‘About’ page waxes about the work its customers do on its behalf, casting that free labor as a kind of empowerment.

But if branding also traces the development of capitalism in the last century, then the paradox of Brandless isn’t just about branding, but capitalism itself. It’s voguish, in many circles, to lament that capitalism has taken over everything, that every day is Cyber Monday, and that life now exists only as a background to the ether of buying, selling, producing, and consuming. Whether or not that’s an exaggeration (it probably is), it raises another, possibly more hopeful, question: If capitalism is already everywhere, where does it have left to go? Brandless, having ground through the contradictions of late capitalism, is one answer: nowhere. Exactly like its labels, Brandless is a white flag that says capitalism is out of ideas. What now?

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Posted by Carlos Alvarenga

Carlos A. Alvarenga is the Executive Director of World 50 Labs and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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