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.