Saturday, August 2, 2008

Did the Nazis perfect branding?

The short answer is, yes. When it comes to creating a single brand voice embracing all touch-points in a coherent experience, Hitler’s team were evil geniuses. Of course, they had a tactic unavailable to modern brand managers – they controlled their Nazi brand by means of mass murder.

But the question at hand is, does Hitler’s mastery of branding taint today’s salaried drones working in corporate marketing to build brand loyalty? Is branding itself “vile”? This beareth discussion.

We are provoked by today’s Times review of Steven Heller’s book IRON FISTS: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. The review opens: “How did a practice as vile as branding become so valued, indeed, the very mark of value?” While the reviewer dances around the issue of whether corporate branders are tainted by their link to Hitler, he does enjoy ascribing that view to Heller.

The book’s thesis is that the totalitarian villains of the 20th century were masters at what we all muddle along doing in a more benign way: Develop brands. The author is quoted as writing that, “the design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar” to those of, well, you and me.

The book links Hitler’s (and Stalin’s, Lenin’s and Mussolini’s) totalitarian art and pageantry to today’s purveyors of toothpaste and soap. “Heller, by means of unsettling images and shrewd analysis, amply restores vileness to branding,” says the reviewer.

Can I dispatch such a provocation in the space of four hundred words on this blog? Nay, give me a mere three bullet points to do so.

First: The term branding – once confined to cattle or to consumer goods wrapped in foil paper – is now accepted as the act of using multiple messages and means – to sell anything, even an English Department. Oh, English Departments aren’t very good at branding, because they clumsily lose a lot of customers by making six volumes of Jane Austen a mandatory part of the brand experience.

Second: That Nazis were branding champions – with their logo, torch-lit parades and snappy salutes backed by the promise of Aryan supremacy – is a commonplace idea. But they were also good at building roads and jet planes. Shall we consider these vile as well?

Finally: Branding on a continental scale a la Nazi Germany was made possible by the 20th century technologies of mass propaganda and mass brutality. But on a more limited scale – in frontier political campaigns, for example, branding has been around for generations.
Did you know that 1830s congressman and Alamo fighter Davy Crockett branded himself in a book about his exploits and philosophy? He had the iconic coonskin cap and trademark long-barreled shootin’ iron. Ol’ Davy even had a tagline. “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Not much when compared with the lyrics to Deutschland Uber Alles sung by blonds in shiny jack-boots. But branding it was.



Jay Livingston said...

The branding-is-vile thesis may be more that of the reviewer than the book itself. (I haven't read the book, so I wouldn't know for sure.)

But it raises the questions:
Is branding a purely neutral tool which can be used for good or evil?
Is it a tool that lends itself to bad purposes more easily than to good?
Or is there something inherently vile about branding; even when it's done well in the service of a noble cause, might it play to people's less noble faculties?

brandsinger said...

Jay - You ask the key ethical question about branding: "Is it a tool that lends itself to bad purposes more easily than to good?"
I think branding is viewed by many - or viscerally believed to be – a form of mind manipulation. The better we are at branding, the more power we have over the poor saps under control of the mighty brand experience. I think, of course, that branding is a neutral tool -- like a paper weight, fireplace poker or laptop -- though you could use any of these as a club.

markatos said...

Well, I think all perceptions of "branding" here, including the original book review, have an antiquated notion of branding.

The difference between what Hitler was doing and what branding firms of the 21st century are doing, is that Hitler controlled what Brand Nazi was. Today, a company's brand is controlled largely by public perception and opinion.

This notion of branding as vile, then starts to fall apart when we consider that the public has way more control of the brand than the company.

brandsinger said...

Super point Markatos. Thanks for setting us straight, young dude.

Eivind Says said...

You should definitely look into the works of:

A major inspiration for Joseph Goebbels.

brandsinger said...

Will do -- thanks, eivind. We're about motivating people here at brandsinger... and manipulating masses is certainly relevant... and fascinating.