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04 Mar 2009 06:00
Even the well-capitalised commodity countries such as Ghana, Angola and Nigeria are starting to shake and shiver. Now that the masses are restless and hungry, and the political classes steal even more resources—for they fear falling to that wobbly place called “ordinary citizen”—it is time to talk about branding.
We were taught in school that the application of heat and light causes matter to change form.
The verb “to brand” comes from the old Norse word brenna (to burn, light). baernan (to kindle) and beornan (to be on fire).
This is why brand merchants are always pacing stages on YouTube (Steve Jobs) saying things like: “Are we warming up now?”
In Dutch brandenmerk is a branded mark.
In England, in the 1500s, a law called the Statute of Vagabonds was introduced. Here, vagabonds and gypsies were to be branded with a large V. Brawlers got an F—not for Don’t Fuck with Him—for fravmaker. No. I don’t know what fravmaker means, but I can guess it involves fists and alcohol. Then came mass slavery and a whole dictionary of human flesh—burning and signs. Then around the time that car parts were being broken up and put on conveyer belts and Darwin’s theory had been twisted to justify the further animalisation of human beings, concentration camps and the Holocaust and the branding and chopping of hands in the Congo became fashionable among those who make decisions for us.
If, before, bodies were the scene of branding—for they were what we could see and measure best—modern branding is now concerned with seeking authority in the heart and mind.
A successful brand management strategy is one that makes people pay remarkably high prices for products that are inherently cheap to make. This is called creating value. The idea is to manipulate the image of the product or service so that people are willing to pay what the brand planners want them to pay, rather than pay the total cost of production, plus a reasonable added margin. So, on television adverts, we see expressions that humans designed for orgasms and religious rapture applied to plastic things the job of which is to go tick tock tick tock, or to say things like “Beige is the new Fuck”.
Here is the joke. Modernity asked first for the body to be forced to do what money and capital wanted. Then it invested the mind in rational ways to ask it to buy an object because it was cheaper. Now money is made by applying research and strategy to your irrational and religious biology to make you want and buy things you cannot afford and do not need. The great thing about branding is that it kindles, then heats, then burns and you are never the same again. So if you find yourself dissatisfied with your new iPhone and what you are paying for it—your rational mind should tell you to get a no-frills phone, but what you do is invest in a better iPhone and look for more work to pay for it. This continues the higher you go and the richer you get, until you reach the point of no material desire—and you crave the soft grass of the Transkei. But that patch of grass, once free, now costs more than anything in your mind.
You book a spa in Bhutan.
If there has been a climax to branding, the Barack Obama campaign was it. Policy, ideas, biography, charisma, political habit and culture, even race, were all squashed into a simple brand campaign full of religiosity, transcendence and discipline. Like those natural-seeming kids prancing about on happy trampolines because of yoghurt, we are unable to resist what seems spontaneous and from the heart. The Obama campaign succeeded in making something very planned, repetitive and deliberated seem rapturous, spontaneous and transcendent.
In Kenya the Orange Democratic Movement was a branding phenomenon. It was beautifully choreographed and colour-coded. There was planned excitement and giant orange-coloured rallies, music and helicopters. How could a thing so heartwarming sell hate? How could it be “more of the same”? We all knew, quite well, the individuals involved, their long and dirty pasts, their political merry-go-round and their dodgy money.
In Africa the forces of good and vision are machine-age and technocratic and see reason, statistics, evidence and proof as their reason to lead us forward. All these are thrust into a hasty language of outrage that can excite, but people quickly tire of it.
The booming churches got it, the politicos know this, the iPhones specialise in this, more than they do in design or manufacture. This continent is full of visionaries who have ideas, ideals and values that can transform our stagnating nation states.
It is time we learned that the language of desire is irrational, is measurable, is usable. Is necessary.
Read more from Binyavanga Wainaina
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