The rise of brandganda and why so much is no longer what we thought it was

From the "Be Berlin" branding campaign
From the “Be Berlin” branding campaign

by Prof Cathy Parker

I feel like I am trapped in one of those dreams where my predicament is getting steadily worse; more and more zombies are chasing me, causing me to fall off bigger and bigger pavements whilst I gradually lose the ability to scream out for help. Only I am not asleep. This is no night terror, this is just my day-to-day lived experience in post-referendum Britain.

How exactly did I get here? Commentators have already used other bedtime metaphors. For example, Angela McGowan, Chief Economist of Dankse Bank thought we slept-walked into all this. Nevertheless, even the staunchest Remainer didn’t predict the political chaos that has ensued after the 24th June. That’s because I think Brexit is part of a wider phenomenon, one I am terming brandaganda, which may explain why so much that we used to believe in and trust is rapidly disintegrating.

“This constant bombardment of brandaganda is a maelstrom of meaningless. The brands and slogans are no longer a shorthand for anything real – they are nebulous, meaning anything and nothing at the same time. Likewise, finding out who is behind the malpractice is also unclear.”

Brandaganda, as you may have already guessed, is a mash-up of brand and propaganda. Modern-day marketers define a brand as simply the set of associations consumers have about a product. Old-fashioned dictionaries define propaganda as ideas or statements spread which are false or exaggerated. Thus, brandaganda forms associations in people’s heads that are not related to anything valid. With branding there has to be some actual substance behind the brand. Imagine paying for a McDonald’s burger to be just told by the store assistant, ‘your lovin’ it’, before leaving the premises empty handed. But, with brandaganda any tangible reality is an unnecessary consideration. No need to invest in the actual product, service, place or policy as a way of building relationships and a sense of shared perception with your consumers, all your effort and resources can go straight into the campaigns, the slogans, the logos, the hashtags; using ambiguities that speak to hearts not minds.

Just as the practice of branding has spread from the private to the public sector, to charities and the voluntary sector under neoliberalism, so, the malpractice of brandaganda is recognisable in all aspects of life from politics to products and even places.

Brexit or #Brexit is text-book brandaganda, uniting both Vote Leave and Leave.eu campaigns into a quasi-structure that looked like a brand but, unlike real brands such as The Conservatives, NASA or Fairy Liquid, there was no corresponding organisation behind Brexit. Pre-referendum, Brexit was a loose and uncomfortable alliance of UKIP, some Tories, less labour and some influential people who either had a lot of money, power over the media, or both. Post-referendum we realised just how fragile the ties between these protagonists were when all their bonds evaporated under the pressure of actually winning.

Just as there was no corporate structure behind Brexit, there was also no product. What would Brexit do? It was not tied to any policies, even the ones made about immigration and the National Health Service were hastily retracted. “The Remain Campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally” said Leave funder Arron Banks. This was a triumph of opaqueness; Brexit could mean anything to anyone. Ambiguous slogans such as ‘take control’ could be interpreted as booting out foreigners to a racist, they could equate to two-fingers up at the establishment for people who felt let down, or simply represent a way of telling Germans to stop telling us what to do. Every single Brexit voter had their own perception of what they voted for. But, we will all have to wait many years to find out what the actual Brexit product is.

“Even public space is a medium to transmit the ubiquitous, vacuous strapline; telling the homeless they are in, ‘the city that has it all’ (apart from enough housing of course), reminding citizens they live in a, ‘clean community’ even though the city is polluted because the land is contaminated.”

We are not safe from brandaganda when it comes to well-known commercial products either. German automobile producers (Volkswagen, Porsche, Opel, Audi and Mercedes), once the world’s bastion of reliable manufacturing, ‘vorsprung durch technik’ or truth in engineering, have had to recall over half a million cars for, err, downright lies in engineering. The brands’ promises of low emissions could not be supported by the actual performance of the diesel cars, which emit nitrogen oxide pollutants tens of times over what is allowed. Another example of brandaganda, where fakery and falsehoods, rather than the performance of the product, are used to manipulate perceptions. Just like Ribena’s brandaganda in New Zealand: Promoting lunch-box drinks to parents by saying blackcurrants have four time the vitamin C content of oranges. This may well be so – but their ready-made Ribena contained no vitamin C.

Sadly, we are exposed to brandaganda in all aspects of our lives. Even public space is a medium to transmit the ubiquitous, vacuous strapline; telling the homeless they are in, “the city that has it all”* (apart from enough housing of course), reminding citizens they live in a, “clean community”** even though the city is polluted because the land is contaminated.

This constant bombardment of brandaganda is a maelstrom of meaningless. The brands and slogans are no longer a shorthand for anything real – they are nebulous, meaning anything and nothing at the same time. Likewise, finding out who is behind the malpractice is also unclear. In the case of the political and place brandganda the brands are not coterminous with an organisation. Brexit became the cause without a rebel. Similarly, place names (Manchester, Macclesfield, Moston) belong to nobody – so exactly who has the right to promote certain associations over others? Even in the case of the manufacturers guilty of brandaganda the curation of perceptions and ‘reputation management’ has become more important than the product features (or telling the truth). No wonder I find myself in this nightmare. Not sure who to trust, what is real and when I am going to wake up.

* from a poster in Manchester, UK

** from a welcome sign in Garfield, USA


This article was originally published in Prof Cathy Parker’s blog.

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