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Rethinking our relationship with brands

Do we have the power to influence big corporations into doing good? Branding Consultant Bruce Philp says so, in his latest book. 

Do you feel helpless amidst the battle of the brands? In the recently released Consumer Republic, author and branding consultant Bruce Philp pushes readers to reconsider the relationship between consumers and corporations.

Philp writes, “I ask you to think about the corporation not as an omnipotent, evil psychopath, but as a primitive, single-minded organism. A cow. A beast, ploddingly bent on profit, and simply blind and deaf to everything that isn’t an enabler or an obstacle.”

By dropping the belief that consumers are, or ever were, manipulated by evil geniuses on Madison Avenue, Consumer Republic explains that “today’s disillusioned consumer is tomorrow’s lost business,” showcasing the leverage consumers hold when companies rely on brand reputation. 

Philp’s writing is clever, often funny, and perceptive of contemporary marketing, making Consumer Republic an engaging and topical read. A fan of twitter himself, Philp is plugged into the various ways in which social media can transform the reputation of brands, citing examples of how corporations have scrambled to regain ground after a thread has left their reputation to run amok.

During an interview, I asked the soft-spoken author what motivated him to write Consumer Republic.

“Ever since No Logo, in a way, I felt like we were in some danger of tossing the baby out with the bath water. And, being a life-long marketer, I had some sense of what it was really like on the other side.

What triggered the decision was the beginning of the recession that we were coming out of. For the first time in my memory, consumers were asking themselves questions -- real questions about how this happened, how it can happen again, and collective culpability. It became a real teachable moment,” Philp said.

Naomi Klein’s No Logo became a cultural manifesto after its induction into popular culture in early 2000, critiquing brand bullies for stifling free market competition. Klein promoted a rejection of corporate capitalism by showcasing various grassroots movements of rebellion.  

Consumer Republic pokes fun at Klein’s position from the “gloomy left,” saying No Logo “came up short in terms of offering an alternative vision for how we ought to live.”

Asked if his book is a more nuanced response to branding than No Logo, Philip responds that both books agree on two out of three basic principles: 

“She (Klein) rather brilliantly observes that we don’t have an industrial economy anymore, we have a branding economy. That industrial economy has gone somewhere else. The companies that sell us things are much more busy with their social meaning now than they are with their physical manufacturing.

"The second thing she did was identify that brands are the soft underbelly of corporations and have this vulnerability.

"Where we come apart is that she promoted a kind of insurrection against the system and a disengagement from branded marketing, and to me that’s a bit like taking to the street with guns and revolting. To me, the right way to make positive change is to stay engaged in the system and use your vote, and brands give that to us,” Philp said.

His blog, BRANDCOWBOY, has a header that reads: “Come on, admit it. You like brands. A world without brands sounds a lot like communism. And we all know how that worked out.”

Consumer Republic astutely observes that most of us don’t want to live in a world without brands. Evidence of this abounds in our local neighbourhoods; try kicking a stone in Vancouver without hitting a crowded Starbucks.

As somewhat of a sceptic, however, I wasn’t quite sold on the idea that the elimination of brands would result in a North Korea-like state of deprivation. Looking for further elaboration, I asked Philp to explain the book’s warning, “abandon brands and we’ll surrender the marketplace to scoundrels.”

“This is an idea that people tend to resist immediately, but then not for long. The idea is that the more famous a brand is, the more the corporation behind it is accountable because the fame is a part of its value. Everything it does is profit.

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