In his upcoming book, Buying In (which I plan to review more thoroughly in a few weeks), Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, discusses protest brands: brands consumers latch on to to try to flaunt to the world that they are indifferent to brands or too knowing to subscribe to them. His main example is Pabst Blue Ribbon, the lousy beer that has become a staple for a certain breed of hipsters. It’s likely that the beer’s popularity has a lot to do with its being the cheapest option in bars too cool to stock Miller or Bud, which is precisely Walker’s point—PBR seems like an alternative to the majors not because it is a substantially different product but simply because the makers don’t advertise. PBR has a vaguely authentic-seeming legacy, so its name resonates and allows consumers to attach their own sets of meanings to it while still tapping into the reach that national brands seem to have. According to this view, co-opting a brand is sort of like seizing control of a radio station or something; but really it’s a matter of consumers doing the marketing for a company that can’t afford to—this way they can broadcast their belonging to a “creative” niche. Walker argues that brand owners are doing this deliberately, masking their overt marketing efforts and instead doing “murketing” that recruits consumers in doing the meaning making for them. Since there was a void where the national message for PBR might have been, consumers were able to fill it by making the beer signify a rejection of the brands that advertise heavily. It’s one way of rejecting the fog of hype we live in (as this n+1 essay details) without simultaneously foreclosing the chance to participate in our culture—which is made up primarily of brands and whatnot. Of course, the protest brands are parasitic and derive their resonance from the mainstream brands; thus, protest brands are a kind of extension of the mainstream brands and don’t really do much to undermine their strength.
Having once experimented with smoking moribund brands of cigarette (Tareytons, L&Ms, Larks), I could relate to this, though eventually I became a Marlboro smoker (in the soft pack only; still needed some distinction) before I quit. And when I read this BusinessWeek article about Li Ning, a fledging Chinese athletic-shoe brand, I had a twinge of the same feeling that had me smoking Tareytons. Athletic shoes are much like beer and cigarettes in that for all the supposed qualities that separate the various makes, they are, for most ordinary consumers, indistinguishable beyond the branding. So they are a fertile field for a nascent protest brand, as no one will get confused and think you chose the protest brand because its goods are of superior quality.
The important thing for a would-be protest brand is to be a brand with some scope—it needs to be recognizable on a broad scale in order to bear the message. That’s why identity-conscious anti-brand folk seem to find it insufficient to protest brands by simply using nonbranded goods. There needs to be an idea, a focal point—a name, a logo—around which a community can coalesce, something others can copy (or maybe just something we could imagine others registering and possibly copying if they thought we were cool) when they understand and appreciate the message a person has used a brand to communicate and want to send the same message about themselves. The unavoidable presence of advertising and brands in the public sphere make us feel deeply that brands are part of an internationally recognized language of self-fashioning that we need to be speaking. Otherwise our identity-making gestures will likely go unheard, and alternatives for garnering public recognition—for publicly communicating a sense of ourselves—are not so obvious as brands.
So consider Li Ning’s logo:
Li Ning makes no bones about admiring its bigger rivals. Its gleaming corporate campus near Beijing, complete with indoor swimming pool, basketball courts, and a climbing wall, seems like a page out of Nike’s play book. Ads feature the slogan “Anything is Possible” (which the company launched before Adidas came out with “Impossible is Nothing,” but long after Nike’s “Just Do It”). And its logo is strikingly similar to the Nike Swoosh. “They just dusted off a Nike marketing plan, took bits and pieces, and said, “Voilà!’” says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike China executive who runs Shanghai sports consultancy Zou Marketing.
The article calls Li Ning a paper-tiger brand, because it is trying to use the Olympics and non-Chinese endorsees to foster the illusion that the brand has greater international reach than it actually does to appeal its national market. It wants the same credibility Nike has in the eyes of its domestic market.
But these same moves may give it a reverse appeal internationally. The aura of not caring about aping established brands seems a good one for a protest brand, which after all is supposed to allow its consumers to demonstrate a knowing superiority (that verges on irony) to the desperate cool seeking of straightforward brands. Openly proclaiming “We’re a lame knockoff” somehow mitigates the fact of being a lame knockoff. Wearing the lame knockoff brand proudly has a similar effect with regard to the identity one is trying to display: “I don’t care what people think of me. I am going to wear these shoes that say just how little I care.” Or “I don’t need to try that hard to distinguish myself with brands. I’m going to take this lame brand and invest it with my credibility.” And wearing Li Ning serves the fundamental purpose of saying, “I resist and reject all the marketing of the big athletic-apparel companies. I don’t need their cachet to feel good about my sneakers.”
At the same time, Li Ning is obscure and novel enough to make its wearers seem exotic. At this point the brand’s consumers can feel like innovators, discoverers rather than followers. You can’t wear Nike without feeling somewhat like a follower, unless you are doing some counterintuitive rationalizing. In order to wear Nike in a hip anti sort of way, you must make the case to yourself that its ubiquity has made it invisible. You can signal an indifference to brands by selecting the überbrands, trying to suggest a laziness that led you to pick the most widely available option.