Millennials – a term commonly used to describe people born between 1980 and 1995. Being born into the world without internet and growing up while watching how it evolves and changes everything around them makes this generation truly unique – being the last one to remember the simpler times. At the same time, it is the largest generation yet with 80 million living in the US alone (2.5 billion worldwide). It is unquestionable that the journey those people have gone through is one of its kind and constitutes an unprecedented phenomenon that various institutions around the world tried (and still do) to take advantage of. In this essay I will explore the change they have experienced, where did it come from and how different companies and brands are responding to this significant change. I will assess what advantages does the digital era give Silicon Valley and entertainment industry, as well as how do they exploit it. Moreover, I will discuss how ordinary citizens are affected by those changes – their daily struggle associated with creating healthy relations and continuous attempts in avoiding constant surveillance. Finally, I will explore the issue of how different entities try to stand up to the consumption driven economy in question.
At the outset, before discussing any brand tactics and behaviours, the question of what branding actually means needs to be answered. Unfortunately, there is no set right answer, as many designers disagree with each other on that matter. Nevertheless, there is one issue that not a single designer will try to argue with – branding cannot be simply reduced to the very basic notion of logo itself. It seems impossible to talk about branding without mentioning its guru, Goldsmiths University alumnus, Walter Landor, founder of Landor Associates that is responsible for creation of visual identity of brands such as Marlboro, Bank of America, British Airways and Coca-Cola. Landor’s most famous phrase “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind” was always inseparably written into the history of branding, as well as into many designers’ hearts (AIGA, 2016). In his article for the Eye Magazine creative director Rob Camper expanded on Landor’s statement defining branding as “a foundation, stating who you are, what your association is, what you offer to the world, and how your audience should (or does) perceive you” (Camper, 2004). In the light of the above mentioned facts it is argued that branding is not just a brand identity, brand personality, its values, promises or concepts. It ought to be defined as all of these sub-disciplines combined together in order to form a discipline we recognise as branding. Discipline based on a very simple notion of seeing and being seen.
The next issue that needs to be assessed is when did this notion become a widely recognised policy. The XVIII century world that witnessed the French, Industrial and American Revolutions was definitely one of the most interesting periods in our history. However, except those big political events happening, there was also one crucial shift in the organisation of society. It is not a change that will be mentioned in the main Wikipedia page, nor will it be found it in basic school textbooks. This was an alteration of the way in which power was gained. It no longer came solely from hierarchy or fear but was “a power that acts by means of general visibility” (Foucault, 1979, p.171). It included the way in which urban spaces functioned. From then on every school, prison, and camp would be built in a way that enabled individuals to see each other. This strong, panoptical feeling of a constant gaze had a powerful effect and made people watch over themselves at the end. This was a beginning of the policy of gaze and constant surveillance.
Couple hundred years later this policy still exists in our daily lives and grows more than ever in the new digital era, which introduced novel communication media. “Culture is created and preserved mainly by communication. (..) For decades, communication had circulated mostly within the borders of countries, helping to build strong national cultures. Toward the end of the twentieth century, much of popular culture became global.” (Holt, 2016). Modern citizen feels constantly watched not only when he walks on the streets, but also at work and even at his own home. It is not hard to feel this way when “UK has 4 million cameras, which equals to 20% of the World’s total surveillance camera installations” and “the average citizen appears on a security camera over 300 times a day” (Time2, 2016). However, cameras are not the only technology that is used to spy on regular citizens. Since entering the digital era personal data has become easily accessible, which doesn’t come as a surprise when we look at how many information are included in an average Facebook profile. Big brands use those data to spy on their target audiences, constantly learning about changing needs of the market, enabling them to make their branding more personalised and therefore more effective. The black market of data has become very powerful with security breaches reported every week. Just in May 2016 eBay reported a breach to its entire database, and 56 million customer records were stolen from Home Depot in September (Trendmicro, 2016). Apart from obvious threats, such as the use of data by thieves, there are also other agents that might benefit from it. This stolen data is regularly used to build branding strategies. By seeing users online journey, liked profiles, pages and videos seen the process of building target audience profile has never been so simple. Those very profiles are the basics of any successful brand strategy – a notion of knowing your audience. That way brand owners not only know which advertisements should follow potential customers, but also where they regularly go (which streets and parts of the city are mostly visited by their would-be customers).
In order to test the depth of this ‘brand infiltration’ I documented my own online journey, while carefully researching types and placements of following me ads. I realised that even though I consider myself a digital world resistant person I could not escape ads. Browsing around websites with articles (Creative Review), design studios (Saatchi & Saatchi) and purely visual content (Pinterest) I saw ads I have never noticed before. I could see the image of shoes that I recently bought in store, having firstly searched for them online, following me all the way through different platforms. Going further I realised that not only I see things that I indicated being interested in (for example on my Facebook profile) but also what people I like have followed are keen on – which truly scares me. In fact, Facebook may not directly read our private messages, it is us alone that provide it with so many information about our habits and interests. On the other hand, some may accurately point it out that individuals cannot expect their public statement (such as Facebook profile) to go unnoticed by the retail industry if they are the ones that voluntarily publish it there. Nevertheless, although the Internet might be the most powerful medium in the XXI century, it is certainly not the only one.
It was also the cinematography that was brought to our homes by the new digital era, a luxury that once was so distant and unreachable, which can now be easily reached by a simply move of a finger. By looking at what movies customers watch, brands can now also improve their product placement techniques that flourished in the XX century. One of the world’s leading experts on branding and innovation, Douglas Holt, mentions in his articles for the Harvard Business Review how easily brands had infiltrated western culture by attaching themselves to successful TV content. Fast food chains sponsoring new blockbuster movies, and luxury car commercials displayed just before golf and tennis competitions. (Holt, 2016). This new ‘trick’ became so overused that it quickly begun to irritate people, ultimately achieving the opposite effect. It reached the point when in order to watch 30 minutes of film the user is forced to watch 20 minutes of unwanted commercials beforehand. Today almost everybody walks away from the receiver for these 20 minutes to avoid spending this time in an ineffective and unnecessary way (this situation became even more absurd when users were allowed to rewind the commercials). It is observed that nowadays more brands turned to product placement as means of promotion then ever before. There are many obvious examples that almost every user will notice, as it is the case with espresso machine in one of the Bond movies. 007 spends 40 seconds of screen time making M espresso only to hear from his boss: “Is that all it does?”. Others we will not even notice, but they stay embedded in our subconscious. Our favourite characters never just go to a supermarket, they go to Tesco, Target, The Home Depot. Nothing is left to coincidence in the branded to the core Hollywood. The car that actors are driving, the hotel they are staying in, the phone they are using – all have been carefully picked and lavishly paid for. Interestingly, people are often unaware of this phenomenon’s extent. Hollywood Branded is one of the world’s leading entertainment marketing agencies specializing in building brand recognition and creating consumer desire to purchase products endorsed by celebrities (Hollywood Branded, 2016). Its website explains how to achieve desired goals, among others, in product placement and branded content. In their portfolio there is an interesting example/evidence video of this brand behaviour illustrating how Blackberry phones infiltrated the movie industry. A four minutes long footage shows examples of their phones being captured and mentioned in major blockbuster movies from the last two decades. Surprisingly enough this goes unnoticed by an average viewer.
Nevertheless, the infiltration as a whole does not go completely unnoticed. While the majority of consumers does not find it relevant enough to care, there are some people, organisations and groups that oppose this consumption-based model. This opposition is commonly known as the Culture Jamming. One of its finest leaders is a magazine called “Adbusters”. Through their website and magazines’ pages people are encouraged to join their anti-consumer movement, and by organising events like buy-nothing-day they are forcing the industry to acknowledge consumers as something more than merely an easily manipulated, mindless crowd. Their whole identity is built around the notion of an anti-brand, with their logo being made to actually be an ‘anti-logo’ – a dark space with no image, no caption and no promotion. Starting as a small publisher, they have grown to become an international movement gathering together people from various classes, races, religion and age. However, it needs to be noticed that Adbusters did not stop at publishing and organising events. 15 years ago they started a shoe business called Blackspot with the aim to cut into Nike’s market share (eventually beating the giant in its own game). The shoes are Adbusters’ worthy design with no logo, a recycled tire sole, 100% vegan, organic hemp, being at the same time rated number one friendly shoe in the world by the Ethical Consumer Magazine. They aim to achieve similar results as those noted with their own craft beer, which has taken away 12% of market sales from the mega-brands (Blackspot, 2016).
In addition, Adbusters are also trying to prevent the overly consuming growth of the digital world, playing especially significant role among the middle class youth, described most accurately by Sherry Turkle as “semi-engaged multitaskers”. Nowadays, young people seem so attached to their virtual world that they let it interfere with their real one. It is argued to create a serious obstacle responsible for difficulties in forming healthy interpersonal relations, making someone feel more comfortable in a fake digital world than the actual one. Ultimately, it embeds the whole idea of online “dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments” (Turkle, 2016). New language is being created, language of shortcuts, emoticons and hashtags, which destructively affects the development of basic academic skills.
In conclusion, it is submitted that while exploring where the societal need to see one another came from, one can understand how the policy in question managed to expand to achieve the international range it has today. What started as a means of self-defence, enabling individuals to feel safe, ended up being the very thing individuals fight to avoid. The boost of surveillance enriched in technology development that occurred between 1990 and 2010 became not only a powerful tool for governments and criminal organisations, but also for retail and entertainment industry. Having explored how different brands use this tool leaves us wondering what will it look like not even in next 30/50 but in 5/10 years? Will the legal regulations become stricter with regards to the personal data protection? What other tactics will brand owners develop in order to stay on top? Finally, how will the changes we witness today affect our future as consumers? Time will tell whether consequences caused by those developments become serious enough to change the world beyond recognition.
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