The etymology of the word, brand, is complex. In the beginning it was a simple mark of ownership, burnt into the skin of an animal or slave.
Then it became a make of product. We would talk of a brand of butter or car. Marx wrote of commodity fetishism, pointing out the projection of human emotions and entanglements onto commodity items: the boy and his modified car, the girl and her shoes. This is of course the basis of commercials, to turn a product into a fetish.
Late last century, there was a shift from the brand naming a certain product to the brand as a more abstract and encompassing thing: Nike or Apple or Coca Cola or Levi. The brand became detached from the product and became the fetish and the fetish then encompassed all the commodities made by that brand.
Coca Cola stands for having a good time. Nike stands for fitness and achievement.
The impulse spreads. It’s not just makers of commodities but suppliers of transport (Air NZ), or electricity (Mighty River Power), or banks (Opportunity) – even governments (Clean Green NZ), and sports teams (the All Blacks).
The branding moves into every area of life: individual sports people, actors and singers become brands (Lorde, Sam Neill, Dan Carter), able to sell their brand to other brands.
Some churches become brands.
Discussing this with Leigh Cookson she pointed out that not just political parties but even activist movements have become brands: Greenpeace, Black Lives Matter, Me Too.
It is rumoured that Trump stood for president as a way to increase the strength of his brand and was aghast when he actually won and now has to do the job.
As brands interweave and penetrate every aspect of life, there is no escaping the system. If you’re not a brand or attached to a brand you don’t exist.
And now writers have been drawn into the game. Victoria University Press lists its authors as brands, with the books they write as the product attached to that brand. E.g. (http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/brands/Eleanor-Catton.html)
Photo Victoria Birkinshaw
VUP presumably provides quality control and helps to publicise the brand(s) through the usual means of performances and appearances. When I read the following checklist from a marketing website, I can see why the Press and presumably its authors found it an attractive proposition. Does your brand relate to your target audience? Will they ‘get it’? Does your brand show the uniqueness of what you offer and why it’s important? Does your brand reflect the values that you want to represent? Does your brand emotionally connect the target prospects with your product and motivate the prospect to buy and thus create user loyalty. In other words, will the reader, like the slave, bear your mark (perhaps your signature) as proof of ownership? Isn’t that the business of being a writer?
At this point I begin to feel like Hamlet. There’s something rotten…
Is there anything that resists this hegemony?
Well, the working class is not a brand and labour continues to resist being a commodity. There have been attempts to make revolution a brand and revolutionaries a brand (Che Guevera) but without real success. And then there is the ethical or creative individual. James Joyce as a brand? Thomas Mann? T.S. Eliot? Bertrand Russell? Freud? Karl Marx? It’s a ridiculous proposition.
Dare I say then that Victoria University Press has entered dodgy and demeaning territory?