Branding, the name for the elaborate and sophisticated efforts that companies and their marketers use to make one widget seem cooler than another by infusing it with emotional or cultural meaning, is practically synonymous with cajoling us to buy more new stuff -- from T-shirts to gadgets to cars -- whether we need it or not. And if your old stuff happens to end up in a landfill before its time, well, sorry. That's not a problem that branding was designed to address.
This has inspired a relatively small but vigorous anti-branding movement that sees corporate brands as the crude emblems of our materialistic age. One form it takes is caustic criticism aimed at commercial persuaders in magazines like Adbusters, which mocks the machinery of the marketplace through fake ads that subversively mimic real ones, a practice known as subvertising. And you see it in the provocative, culture-jamming works of guerrilla artists like Ron English, who illegally hijacks billboards, altering their texts and images to make his own politically charged points about consumption.
As someone who writes often about branding and marketing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the crucial roles they play in our ever-accelerating consumer culture. And while I can appreciate a culture-jammed billboard or a cleverly conceived fake ad as much as the next guy, I also wonder if there might be a more effective, and possibly even more subversive, line of attack against the endless cycle of purchase and disposal in which branding is implicated. What about a strategy that didn't deny or attack the idea of the brand but instead appropriated it -- effectively branding efforts like recycling and creative reuse?
Now, I'm not naïve. I know there's never going to be a massive advertising campaign telling you how sexy you'll be if you just hang on to your car for another 20,000 miles, or how cool it is to rediscover some long-forgotten shirt or dress that's been languishing in the back of your closet for years.
Nevertheless, the idea of branding things you already own appeals to me for a couple of reasons. First, it aims to create value rather than undermine or diminish it. Second, this idea could potentially shift consumer attitudes regarding the value of "newness." Whatever the effect of any given advertisement may be, the cumulative message of the branded marketplace -- and frankly, this includes green products as much as it does others -- boils down to celebrating the new and simultaneously making you feel just a little self-conscious about the old. What interests me is the possibility of flipping this dynamic inside-out: conferring coolness on something because it's already owned and, more specifically, because someone has figured out how to re-tailor, redefine or repurpose it.
Around the same time that I was mulling over these ideas, some like-minded collaborators and I co-founded a group blog that we called Unconsumption. Our initial idea was to highlight inspiring examples of creative reuse and maybe, in the process, help slow the arrival of prematurely disposed-of objects into landfills. We've built up a nice audience -- we have more than 20,000 followers at the moment -- but at some point we decided that, like any growth-minded enterprise, we needed a logo. One of our colleagues created a symbol we began referring to as "Mr. Cart": an upside-down shopping cart, flashing a smile. It was the perfect image, we all thought, to represent the Unconsumption project.
So now we had a brand! Given the nature of our endeavor, though, producing branded merchandise was out of the question. As much as I loved our adorable new logo, we had no products to emblazon. But there was an obvious, not to mention philosophically consistent, alternative: brand things that already exist.
Specifically, we invited a few crafty masters of creative reuse (the sort we feature on Unconsumption all the time) to repurpose Mr. Cart. One of them converted some used bottles into bud vases, featuring Mr. Cart rendered in glass-etching cream, as well as a pair of earrings depicting Mr. (and Ms.!) Cart, fashioned from recycled plastic. Another used a vinyl cutter and a ceramic kiln to transform some secondhand Art Deco plates into genuine Mr. Cart tableware. One contributor embroidered the logo onto a previously plain T-shirt. Interestingly, she flipped the logo, so it looks "right" only to the person wearing it; for everyone else, what seems to be a frowning shopping cart serves as a potential conversation starter.
Needless to say, a conventional brand would never allow its logo to appear wrong side up. But we decided to encourage others to tweak, remix, customize, and/or generally mess with Mr. Cart. Through a Creative Commons license, we've made the Unconsumption logo available to anybody who wants to use it to breathe fresh life into any old thing. So when one reader sent us pictures of a tote bag she'd fashioned out of an old T-shirt -- and snazzed up by inkjet-printing Mr. Cart onto it -- we were thrilled.
As you've probably deduced by now, what we're up to with this is more of an intellectual provocation than a straight-faced attempt to make it into the annals of advertising history. (After all, the Nikes and Starbucks of the world spend millions making their logos familiar; the Unconsumption marketing budget for the current fiscal year is precisely $0.) In one sense, Mr. Cart has something in common with those parodies in Adbusters: we're making a point, not building a business. Indeed, not building a business is part of the point.
One of my Unconsumption colleagues has dubbed these Mr. Cart–branded objects "The Uncollection," and that wry reversal of fashion-industry lingo is right on target. For starters, there's never going to be an exclusive fall line or a spring collection of Unconsumption anything. Our brand is actually the opposite of exclusive, since it is brought into existence, object by object, through the actions of whoever chooses to participate in our collaborative creative-reuse project.
Of course, requiring hands-on participation from others necessarily limits Mr. Cart's ability to penetrate the mass psyche through conventional means. But impractical as it may be, I like the idea of a meaningful brand with no new widgets -- a brand that marks things you already own. Yes: you. Should you ever feel the urge to signal your eco-consciousness while shopping at the farmers' market, you needn't acquire a new eco-branded tote bag to do it. Instead, take the lamest giveaway tote that's been sitting in a forgotten corner of the laundry room and smack Mr. Cart over whatever logo it already carries. Then smile: you've just joined an international community of simpatico souls and added branded "value" to something that only minutes earlier you had probably regarded as pretty worthless.
Again, I'm not naïve. I have no illusions that creative rebranding, on any scale, is the road to sustainability. Solving our environmental problems will require genuine and lasting changes in regulatory policy, business practice, and consumer behavior, both in the United States and around the world.
But here's why converting the "brand" idea into something that might inspire action, even on a small scale, matters. I once heard Joseph Reser, who teaches psychology at Griffith University in Australia, make the case that there are real benefits to small, individual acts. He was responding to arguments -- you've heard them -- that this or that individual-level behavior makes no measurable difference in the face of a challenge like, say, climate change. Even when that's technically true, Reser countered, every such action does some calculable good. "It's psychologically very important," he said. "It's motivating, validating, and [individuals] can feel they are part of the solution."
What's useful about this insight is that making consumers "feel they are part of" some bigger idea, or movement, or group, or social class, is the very thing that branding does so effectively. So while we're all waiting for consumer-culture critics to dismantle the commercial persuasion industry, maybe it's worth trying something else: stealing the essence of branding's appeal and using it to inspire behavior that feels like part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.