Monday, November 15, 2004

Not Your Father's Oldsmobile

The topic of branding automobiles came up last week, and it brought to mind a commentary I did on "Fresh Air" a couple of years ago on GM's desperate efforts to redeem the failing Oldsmobile line in the 1990's. It also reminded me of a piece that James Surowiecki wrote in Wired recently about the paradoxical decline of brand loyalty; as he puts it: "Even as companies have spent enormous amounts of time and energy introducing new brands and defending established ones, Americans have become less loyal."

As it happens, I dug both of these out the other day in connection with a chapter I'm writing about the Democrats' efforts to rebrand themselves as a party of "values" (read, "traditional family values") in the face of the Republicans' near-ownership of the word. Is there any connection here? Can brands really float as free signifiers, even if they don't evoke a compelling and plausible narrative about the product they're attached to?


Blogger yardi said...

My answer is no. To me, these seem like different definitions of the word "brand." (I realize that to respond to this question by quoting dictionary definitions and linguistic uses to Geoff could be setting myself up to be eaten alive, but here goes).

The American Heritage Dictionary gives a number of definitions of “brand,” of which the two below I think are relevant.
1. a. A trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or a manufacturer.
b. A product line so identified: a popular brand of soap.
c. A distinctive category; a particular kind: a brand of comedy that I do not care for.

2. A mark of disgrace or notoriety; a stigma. See Synonyms at stain.

I would argue that the branding we talked about last week fits in the first definition. There is usually some physical entity that is being branded, such as Abercrombie & Fitch clothing or Starbucks coffee.

Brands floating as free signifiers only make sense in terms of the second definition. For example, after the elections, some argued that Democrats’ support for gay marriages branded them as lacking moral values and that that branding caused them to lose the election. In terms of the second definition, it doesn’t make sense to turn it around and try to brand the Democrats positively.

12:14 AM  

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