[grid::brand] The Infinite Regress of Branding

I’ve been thinking about my contribution to the grid blog on the “BRAND” for a few days now. Like Anne, I had to resist the temptation of writing about Stewart Brand.

I can’t help indulging in some word play using the word brand, calling attention to the fact that “brand” not only denotes “a trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or manufacturer” but also “a mark formerly burned into the flesh of criminals…a mark of disgrace” (both definitions thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary). But perhaps that connection is a little too obvious in a post-Starbucks, post-Nike world.

I also weighed referring to an article I came across in the Georgia State University alumni magazine about a study co-authored by GSU marketing professor, Naveen Donthu, arguing that single consumers may cope with loneliness by identifying with BRANDS. The suggestion is single poeple can compensate for their feelings of isolation by connecting with a box of Tide Detergent or a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter. But the empty promise offered by these products, by te images attached to these products (the product will never satisfy the need it creates), is only part of this dynamic. Consumers identify with products for a variety of reasons (Richard Ohmann’s fantastic work, Selling Culture, is one good example among many).

All of these defintions are at least partially right. BRANDS offer something familiar and safe in an unstable and sometimes isolating world, but at the same time, the BRANDS themesleves seem to contribute to this instability (the “IKEA Boy” jokes in Fight Club capture this sentiment nicely). I’ve reflected on those arguments that BRANDS offer imaginary solutions to real problems many times.

And, yet, when I think about the BRAND another image comes to mind: an image of infinite regress, a vertiginous image that always unsettled me when I was a child: the Land O’ Lakes BRAND packaging with the Native American woman holding a package of Land O’ Lakes butter with an image of a Native American woman holding a package of Land O’ Lakes butter with an image….

When I was a kid (around six years old as I recall), I remember standing in the grocery store, staring at the packaging, and trying to see deeply into the image, trying to see how many levels of packaging I could contain inside my young brain at the same time. It was (and is) a captivating image, simultaneously pure surface and infinite depth. For whatever reason, we never bought this paricular BRAND, but I think seeing the package in the bright lights and wide ailses of the local Safeway (rather than in our cramped kitchen) is partially what gave the image its power.

I’m not sure I can say anything about the BRAND that hasn’t already been said; in fact, the BRAND, like the Land O’ Lakes packaging, seems to resist any final explanation….

Thanks to Ashley for suggesting the grid blog. Perhaps the coolest part of this project is that I now have had the opportunity to explore many other blogs that were previously unfamiliar to me.

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