Philosopher, wildly successful entrepreneur and now Business School Prof, Martin Kornberger spent many years investigating the Brand phenomenon. His research into the philosophy, psychology and sociology of brands to find the cultural significance and transformative power of brands is published in a wide ranging and thoughtful book by Cambridge University Press: Brand Society.

1: Why bother looking at the book?

a. Brands are the key concept to understand how society and economy are being transformed in late capitalism.

b. The argument of the book is that capitalism has evolved through brands — with brands, capitalism turns into the management of values, identity, and lifestyle. Brands are the bridge /medium/interface that connects economy and society, production and consumption, commerce and culture

c. Capitalism is meant to be cold, rational and money hungry. It disenchants the world and alienates the producers from those who consume the fruits of their labour, or so the story goes. Brands have broken up the divide between consumers and producers and introduced themselves as a new medium. In other words, brands have changed the rules of the game.

d. Why is this paradigm shift of importance?

e. First, because it fundamentally challenges the way organizations (from political parties to cities, from professional services firms to open networks) need to be managed.

f. Second, because brands transform society through the notion of ‘lifestyle’ - brands are the props and scripts that individuals use to ‘style’ their lives.

2: Why bother reading about brands?

a. Brands are pervasive and ubiquitous — everything is a brand, from chocolate bars to presidents — Obama is crafted like a brand, and so are mega-churches, cities, schools, NGOs (like Greenpeace) … you name it — they are all first and foremost brands that compete over mindshare of potential consumers and supporters. Marketshare follows mindshare.

b. This is reinforced through the web — there are no physical barriers or shopfronts — the brand name is all that people and organizations have to make sure that customers remember them and come back to the same web portal. The competition is only a click away. What stops people from clicking is the brand.

c. Brands are most valuable asset of organizations — Coke would prefer its factories to burn down than for people to forget the brand; when BMW buys MINI they do not buy British manufacturing plants but the brand.

d. So — brands are pervasive, powerful, valuable and ubiquitous — yet we have little understanding what they mean for organizations and society at large — this is the point of departure/difference in regards to other books that preach DIY branding … while tools are important, they don’t allow us to see the bigger picture. This is what this book aims at.

3: What’s the big idea?

a. Capitalism constituted the sharp divide between the world of production and consumption. There are those who think, innovate and do, and then there are those who passively chose what ends up on the shelves

b. This is model of transaction based economy

c. Brands subvert that model — they are based on interaction; brands are meaning systems that evolve out of interaction between people. As such they cannot be owned, controlled, or manufactured like other things. This poses big challenges for management (see below).

d. Brands bridge that gap between production (management, organization) and consumption (lifestyle) because they shape both, the way we produce things and the way we consume them

e. Book explores how brands transform how we produce and how we consume; in so doing it offers a narrative that is holistic and offers the reader to see the Big Picture

4: How does the book explore the idea?

a. First part of book explores how brands become so influential over the past century; it explores how they are made and who these agencies are that make them.

b. The practice of branding is described as a form of magic where meaning and sense is instilled on otherwise meaningless things.

c. This process relies on society’s culture to act as large reservoir of symbols, meanings, ideas, styles … that the brand-builder can draw upon (think of Hip Hop as subculture and hw it is used by Adidas etc); in this sense, branding re-introduces meaning and qualities into capitalism. It’s focus is one value — not prize. Brand is the spirit of capitalism.

d. Second part focuses on how brands change management and organizations; key insight is that brands represent the identity of an organization — and the identity of an organization is its most valuable strategic asset. To understand that asset means to understand how brands work. It also implies that branding is too important to leave it to the marketing department (as David Packard once said “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.”) branding becomes the concern of the top management.

e. Brands represent a new way of managing the culture of an organization by opening up the boundaries around a firm and inviting brand communities to interact — transgressing inside/outside divide, bringing new ideas into the organization. brand acts as a medium, as interface that organizes interaction.

f. This is key for innovation — in open source environment brands function as interface and attractors that bring together people with passion and ideas. Open source innovation communities crystallise around brands. Hence managing innovation means managing the brand.

g. Third part focuses on how brands change lifestyles — or better how brands create lifestyles; key message is that brands provide the props and scripts that people use to build their identities. We are no longer defined by what we do (produce) but by what we consume — I consume, therefore I am.

h. Lifestyle is the masterconcept that makes brands so important: brands start to quite literally style life. My iPhone, my American Express Gold card, my MINI, … are the mosaic stones that put together shape life. Lifestyle is the contemporary answer to age-old problem of individual and society: style allows us to be different and yet makes us the same. Style prescribes clear conventions and objective structures; at the same time, it allows the individual to satisfy his need for distinction and difference. Style allows an individual to identify with a certain group or movement and be part of an objectified culture. While it connects with others, style simultaneously allows one to differentiate oneself from others. Style elevates and equalizes; it creates envy and approval.

Kornberger commented, “Brands are a fait accompli". They are much exploited, but little explored. This book is about rectifying the ratio between exploiting and exploring through sketching out a theory of the brand society. Brands are ready-made identities in a world where lifestyles are patterns that shape our taste, behaviours, action, preferences and beliefs; they are like a mosaic made up of individual brands. But brands don’t just transform society into lifestyle tribes. We shape brands as much as they shape us. In fact, without us as their silent partners in crime, they would not exist at all.

That’s the bottom line of the brand society: brands are a new way of organizing production and managing consumption.”

About the author

Dr. Martin Kornberger (35) was born in Austria and lives between Sydney and Copenhagen where he teaches at Copenhagen Business School. He’s a prolific researcher with more than 25 journal articles in international journals and books as well as being co-author and co-editor of six books. He co-founded PLAY and, within 5 years, grew the start up into Australia’s best brand experience agency (won all Australian awards in that category in 2008). Martin is in a unique position to write a book on brands — he’s advised market leading firms on brands, founded his own and has a PhD in philosophy.

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