On Brands’ Bad Social Media

A woman looking annoyed with something on her smartphone

The unfortunate social media marketing tweets are everywhere: the Twitter account of Sunny Delight regularly goes through existential crises; Netflix occasionally calls out problematic art; and Burger King promotes “not happy meals” for depressed customers. According to journalist Naomi Klein, however, brands have been trying to be our friends for decades. Her influential book No Logo critiqued branding and capitalism long before brands had social media to contend with.

In 2010, Klein wrote for The Baffler about the unfettered degrees to which brands and advertisers have attempted to be “cool.” Discussing how late 90s/early aughts marketing campaigns for Nike, Benetton, and Apple had inspired her book, Klein writes:

I realized that there was a connection among these seemingly disparate trends, and that connection was the idea that corporations should produce brands, not products. This was an era when corporate epiphanies were striking CEOs like lightning bolts from the heavens: Nike isn’t a running shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports…

In her analysis of Klein’s No Logo and the book’s shockwaves, Juliet Schor writes, “Klein explains how Nike, Starbucks, McDonald’s, the Gap, and many of the other global superbrands were expanding their advertising and marketing into new realms such as education and public space. Klein argued that the brand was no longer sponsoring culture, it aimed to be the culture.” This echoes how on today’s social media, brands are often trying to participate in online discourse and appeal to young consumers.

When Klein wrote No Logo, businesses were exploring new ideas about branding. Corporations like Nike and Starbucks aimed to sell ideas rather than products. Klein writes, “The frantic corporate quest to get out of the product business and into the ideas business explained several trends.” Marketing was now about creating meaning for its customers.

Years later, Naomi Klein’s No Logo still resonates. Klein notes, “All of their high-priced market research had found a longing in people for something more than shopping—for social change, for public space, for greater equality and diversity. Of course the brands tried to exploit that longing to sell lattes and laptops.” It becomes a prescient matter as today’s brands use the demand for change, the idea of hope and the resulting exhaustion of both as yet another way to sell their products.

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