How Corporate Branding has Taken Over America

Ten years after the publication of No Logo, Naomi Klein switches her attention from the mall to Barack Obama and discovers that corporate culture has taken over the US government

The following is Excerpted from No Logo (10th Anniversary Edition) by Naomi Klein, reprinted by The Guardian and reproduced on with permission from the author:

In May 2009, Absolut Vodka launched a limited edition line called
"Absolut No Label". The company's global public relations manager,
Kristina Hagbard, explained that "For the first time we dare to face
the world completely naked. We launch a bottle with no label and no
logo, to manifest the idea that no matter what's on the outside, it's
the inside that really matters."

A few months later, Starbucks
opened its first unbranded coffee shop in Seattle, called 15th Avenue E
Coffee and Tea. This "stealth Starbucks" (as the anomalous outlet
immediately became known) was decorated with "one-of-a-kind" fixtures
and customers were invited to bring in their own music for the stereo
system as well as their own pet social causes - all to help develop
what the company called "a community personality." Customers had to
look hard to find the small print on the menus: "inspired by
Starbucks". Tim Pfeiffer, a Starbucks senior vice-president, explained
that unlike the ordinary Starbucks outlet that used to occupy the same
piece of retail space, "This one is definitely a little neighbourhood
coffee shop." After spending two decades blasting its logo on to 16,000
stores worldwide, Starbucks was now trying to escape its own brand.

Clearly the techniques of branding have both thrived and adapted since I published No Logo.
But in the past 10 years I have written very little about developments
like these. I realised why while reading William Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition.
The book's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is allergic to brands,
particularly Tommy Hilfiger and the Michelin man. So strong is this
"morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the
marketplace" that she has the buttons on her Levi's jeans ground smooth
so that there are no corporate markings. When I read those words, I
immediately realised that I had a similar affliction. As a child and
teenager I was almost obsessively drawn to brands. But writing No Logo
required four years of total immersion in ad culture - four years of
watching and rewatching Super Bowl ads, scouring Advertising Age for
the latest innovations in corporate synergy, reading soul-destroying
business books on how to get in touch with your personal brand values,
making excursions to Niketowns, to monster malls, to branded towns.

of it was fun. But by the end, it was as if I had passed some kind of
threshold and, like Cayce, I developed something close to a brand
allergy. Brands lost most of their charm for me, which was handy
because once No Logo was a bestseller, even drinking a Diet Coke in public could land me in the gossip column of my hometown newspaper.

The aversion extended even to the brand that I had accidentally created: No Logo.
From studying Nike and Starbucks, I was well acquainted with the basic
tenet of brand management: find your message, trademark and protect it
and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergised platforms as
possible. I set out to break these rules whenever the opportunity
arose. The offers for No Logo spin-off projects (feature
film, TV series, clothing line . . .) were rejected. So were the ones
from the megabrands and cutting-edge advertising agencies that wanted
me to give them seminars on why they were so hated (there was a career
to be made, I was learning, in being a kind of anti-corporate
dominatrix, making overpaid executives feel good by telling them what
bad, bad brands they were). And against all sensible advice, I stuck by
the decision not to trademark the title (that means no royalties from a
line of Italian No Logo food products, though they did send me some
lovely olive oil).

Most important to my marketing detox program, I changed the subject. Less than a year after No Logo
came out I put a personal ban on all talk of corporate branding. In
interviews and public appearances I would steer discussion away from
the latest innovation in viral marketing and Prada's new superstore and
towards the growing resistance movement against corporate rule, the one
that had captured world attention with the militant protests against
the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. "But aren't you your own
brand?" clever interviewers would ask me endlessly. "Probably," I would
respond. "But I try to be a really crap one."

Changing the subject from branding to politics
was no great sacrifice because politics was what brought me to
marketing in the first place. The first articles I published as a
journalist were about the limited job options available to me and my
peers - the rise of short-term contracts and McJobs, as well as the
ubiquitous use of sweatshop labour to produce the branded gear sold to
us. As a token "youth columnist", I also covered how an increasingly
voracious marketing culture was encroaching on previously protected
non-corporate spaces - schools, museums, parks - while ideas that my
friends and I had considered radical were absorbed almost instantly
into the latest marketing campaigns for Nike, Benetton and Apple.

I decided to write No Logo
when I realised these seemingly disparate trends were connected by a
single idea - that corporations should produce brands, not products.
This was the 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, Starbucks isn't a coffee shop chain, it's about the idea of community.
Down on earth these epiphanies meant that many companies that had
manufactured their products in their own factories, and had maintained
large, stable workforces, embraced the now ubiquitous Nike model: close
your factories, produce your products through an intricate web of
contractors and subcontractors and pour your resources into the design
and marketing required to project your big idea. Or they went for the
Microsoft model: maintain a tight control centre of
shareholder/employees who perform the company's "core competency" and
outsource everything else to temps, from running the mailroom to
writing code. Some called these restructured companies "hollow
corporations" because their goal seemed to be to transcend the
corporeal world of things so they could be an utterly unencumbered
brand. As corporate guru Tom Peters put it: "You're a damn fool if you
own it!"

For me, the appeal of X-raying brands such as Nike or
Starbucks was that pretty soon you were talking about everything except
marketing - from how products are made in the deregulated global supply
chain to industrial agriculture and commodity prices. Next thing you
knew you were also talking about the nexus of politics and money that
locked in these wild-west rules through free-trade deals and at the
WTO, and made following them the precondition of receiving much-needed
loans from the International Monetary Fund. In short, you were talking
about how the world works.

By the time No Logo came out,
the movement was already at the gates of the powerful institutions that
were spreading corporatism around the world. Tens and then hundreds of
thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits
and G8 meetings from Seattle to New Delhi, in several cases stopping
new agreements in their tracks. What the corporate media insisted on
calling the "anti-globalisation movement" was nothing of the sort. At
the reformist end it was anti-corporate; at the radical end it was
anti-capitalist. But what made it unique was its insistent
internationalism. All of these developments meant that when I was on a
book tour, there were many more interesting things to talk about than
logos - such as where this movement came from, what it wanted and
whether there were viable alternatives to the ruthless strain of
corporatism that went under the innocuous pseudonym of "globalisation".

recent years, however, I have found myself doing something I swore I
had finished with: rereading the branding gurus quoted in the book.
This time, however, it wasn't to try to understand what was happening
at the mall but rather at the White House - first under the presidency
of George W Bush and now under Barack Obama, the first US president who
is also a superbrand.

There are many acts of destruction for
which the Bush years are rightly reviled - the illegal invasions, the
defiant defences of torture, the tanking of the global economy. But the
administration's most lasting legacy may well be the way it
systematically did to the US government what branding-mad CEOs did to
their companies a decade earlier: it hollowed it out, handing over to
the private sector many of the most essential functions of government,
from protecting borders to responding to disasters to collecting
intelligence. This hollowing out was not a side project of the Bush
years, it was a central mission, reaching into every field of
governance. And though the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its
incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state, leaving behind
only a shell - or a brand - was approached with tremendous focus and

One company that took over many services was Lockheed
Martin, the world's largest defence contractor. "Lockheed Martin
doesn't run the United Slates," observed a 2004 New York Times expose.
"But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it . . . It sorts
your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security cheques and
counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air
traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code
than Microsoft."

No one approached the task of auctioning off the
state with more zeal than Bush's much-maligned defence secretary,
Donald Rumsfeld. Having spent 20-odd years in the private sector,
Rumsfeld was steeped in the corporate culture of branding and
outsourcing. His department's brand identity was clear: global
dominance. The core competency was combat. For everything else, he said
(sounding very much like Bill Gates), "We should seek suppliers who can
provide these non-core activities efficiently and effectively."

laboratory for this radical vision was Iraq under US occupation. From
the start Rumsfeld planned the troop deployment like a Wal-Mart
vice-president looking to shave a few more hours from the payroll. The
generals wanted 500,000 troops, he would give them 200,000, with
contractors and reservists filling the gaps as needed - a just-in-time
invasion. In practice, this strategy meant that as Iraq spiralled out
of US control, an ever-more elaborate privatised war industry took
shape to prop up the bare-bones army. Blackwater, whose original
contract was to provide bodyguards for US envoy Paul Bremer, soon took
on other functions, including engaging in combat in a battle with the
Mahdi army in 2004. The sprawling Green Zone, meanwhile, was run as a
corporate city-state, with everything from food to entertainment to
pest control handled by Halliburton. Just as companies such as Nike and
Microsoft had pioneered the hollow corporation, this was, in many ways,
a hollow war. And when one of the contractors screwed up - Blackwater
operatives opening fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007, for
instance, leaving 17 people dead, or Halliburton allegedly supplying
contaminated water to soldiers - the Bush administration was free to
deny responsibility. Blackwater, which had prided itself on being the
Disney of mercenary companies, complete with a line of branded clothing
and Blackwater teddy bears, responded to the scandals by - what else? -
rebranding. Its new name is Xe Services.

The Bush
administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it
admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired
around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its
policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand
America" for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful
attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media
relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in
frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger
not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure
of its policies. "I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs
officials at State and the White House," Floyd told Slate magazine.
"They'd say: 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd
say: 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving
us trouble.'" A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger
or a running shoe. America didn't have a branding problem; it had a
product problem.

I used to think that, but I may have been wrong.
When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely
have been more battered - Bush was to his country what New Coke was to
Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama,
in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all
time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of
Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new
president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the
stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs
spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.

So, it seemed that the United States government could solve
its reputation problems with branding - it's just that it needed a
branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and
exciting to compete in today's tough market. The nation found that in
Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has
surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social
networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young
founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desiree Rogers, a
glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David
Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public
Strategies, a PR firm which, according to Business Week,"has
quarterbacked campaigns" for everyone from Cablevision to AT&T.
Together, the team has marshalled every tool in the modem marketing
arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated
logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama
ringtones); product placement (Obama ads in sports video games); a
30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally
heralded as "authentic"); and the choice of strategic brand alliances
(Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end
of hip-hop stars for street cred).

The first time I saw the "Yes
We Can" video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas front man,
featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther
Kingesque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as
cool as Nike. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the
presidential elections, Obama beat Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win
the Association of National Advertisers' top annual award - Marketer of
the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the 1990s, brands upstaged
politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on
Obama's cache (Pepsi's "Choose Change" campaign, Ikea's "Embrace Change
'09" and Southwest Airlines' offer of "Yes You Can" tickets).

everything Obama and his family touches turns to branding gold. J Crew
saw its stock price increase 200% in the first six months of Obama's
presidency, thanks in part to Michelle's well known fondness for the
brand. Obama's much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been
similarly good news for Research In Motion. The surest way to sell
magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama
on the cover, and you only need to call three ounces of vodka and some
fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for
it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of "the
Obama economy" - the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires - at
$2.5bn. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Rogers got into trouble
with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with The Wall
Street Journal. "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand," she
said. "Our possibilities are endless."

The exploration of those
possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory.
Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform
his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush,
having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further,
turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show
starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-90s
branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of
traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional
"experiences" - branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the
personality of their favourite brands. The problem is not that Obama is
using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to
move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is
that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do
not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.

it's too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know
this: he favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change
every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the
notorious Guantanamo Bay prison - while going ahead with an expansion
of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in
Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who
authorised torture. He will boldly appoint the first Latina to the
Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a
new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy,
while championing the fantasy of "clean coal" and refusing to tax
emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of
fossil fuels. Most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in
Iraq, and will retire the ugly "war on terror" phrase - even as the
conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and

This preference for symbols over substance, and this
unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where
Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements
from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his
cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant
farmworkers - si se puede). These movements made unequivocal
demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher
wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands,
these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies.
Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to
transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing:
create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their
deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the
committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential
demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it
gushed that the Obama brand is "big enough to be anything to anyone yet
had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy". And then their
highest compliment: "Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and
Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and
distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player."

way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street
party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an
insurgency against the two-party monopoly through dogged organisation
and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in
the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall
Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic
party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then
pursued "bipartisanship" with crazed Republicans once in the White

Does Obama's failure to live up to his lofty brand
cost him? It didn't at first. An international study by Pew's Global
Attitudes Project, conducted five months after he took office, asked
people whether they were confident Obama would "do the right thing in
world affairs". Even though there was already plenty of evidence that
Obama was continuing many of Bush's core international policies (albeit
with a far less arrogant style), the vast majority said they approved
of Obama - in Jordan and Egypt, a fourfold increase from the Bush era.
In Europe the change in attitude could give you whiplash: Obama had the
confidence of 91% of French respondents and 86% of Britons - compared
with 13% and 16% respectively under Bush. The poll was proof that
"Obama's presidency essentially erased the battering the US's image
took during eight years of the Bush administration," according to USA
Today. Axelrod put it like this: "What has happened is that anti-Americanism isn't cool anymore."

was certainly true, and had very real consequences. Obama's election
and the world's corresponding love affair with his rebranded America
came at a crucial time. In the two months before the election, the
financial crisis rocking world markets was being rightly blamed not
just on the contagion of Wall Street's bad bets but on the entire
economic model of deregulation and privatisation that had been preached
from US-dominated institutions such as the IMF and the WTO. If the
United States were led by someone who didn't happen to be a global
superstar, US prestige would have continued to plummet and the rage at
the economic model at the heart of the global meltdown would likely
have turned into sustained demands for new rules to rein in (and
seriously tax) speculative finance.

Those rules were supposed to
have been on the agenda when G20 leaders met at the height of the
economic crisis in London in April 2009. Instead, the press focused on
excited sightings of the fashionable Obama couple, while world leaders
agreed to revive the ailing IMF - a chief culprit in this mess - with
up to a trillion dollars in new financing. In short, Obama didn't just
rebrand America, he resuscitated the neoliberal economic project when
it was at death's door. No one but Obama, wrongly perceived as a new
FDR, could have pulled it off.

Yet rereading No Logo
after 10 years provides many reminders that success in branding can be
fleeting, and that nothing is more fleeting than the quality of being
cool. Many of the superbrands and branded celebrities that looked
untouchable not so long ago have either faded or are in deep crisis
today. The Obama brand could well suffer a similar fate. Of course many
people supported Obama for straightforward strategic reasons: they
rightly wanted the Republicans out and he was the best candidate. But
what will happen when the throngs of Obama faithful realise that they
gave their hearts not to a movement that shared their deepest values
but to a devoutly corporatist political party, one that puts the
profits of drug companies before the need for affordable health care,
and Wall Street's addiction to financial bubbles before the needs of
millions of people whose homes and jobs could have been saved with a
better bailout?

The risk - and it is real - is that the response
will be waves of bitter cynicism, particularly among the young people
for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics. Most
won't switch parties, they'll just do what young people used to do
during elections: stay home, tune out. Another, more hopeful
possibility is that Obamamania will end up being what the US
president's advisers like to call "a teachable moment". Obama is a
gifted politician with a deep intelligence and a greater inclination
towards social justice than any leader of his party in recent memory.
If he cannot change the system in order to keep his election promises,
it's because the system itself is utterly broken.

It was a
conversation about changing the system that many of us were having in
the brief period between the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November
1999 and the beginning of the so-called war on terror. For the movement
the media insisted on calling "anti-globalisation," it mattered little
which political party happened to be in power in our respective
countries. We were focused squarely on the rules of the game, and how
they had been distorted to serve the narrow interests of corporations
at every level of governance - from international free-trade
agreements to local water privatisation deals.

Looking back, what I liked most was the unapologetic wonkery of it all. In the two years after No Logo came
out, I went to dozens of teach-ins and conferences, some of them
attended by thousands of people, that were exclusively devoted to
popular education about the inner workings of global finance and trade.
It was as if people understood, all at once, that gathering this
knowledge was crucial to the survival not just of democracy but of the
planet. Yes, this was complicated, but we embraced that complexity
because we were finally looking at systems, not just symbols.

some parts of the world, particularly Latin America, that wave of
resistance spread and strengthened. In some countries, social movements
grew strong enough to join with political parties, winning national
elections and beginning to forge a new regional fair-trade regime. But
elsewhere, September 11 pretty much blasted the movement out of
existence. What we knew about the sophistication of global corporatism
- that all the world's injustice could not be blamed on one rightwing
political party, or on one nation, no matter how powerful - seemed to

If there was ever a time to remember the lessons we
learned at the turn of the millennium, it is now. One benefit of the
international failure to regulate the financial sector, even after its
catastrophic collapse, is that the economic model that dominates around
the world has revealed itself not as "free market" but "crony
capitalist" - politicians handing over public wealth to private players
in exchange for political support. What used to be politely hidden is
all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate
greed is at its highest point not just in my lifetime but in my
parents' lifetime as well. Many of the points supposedly marginal
activists were making in the streets 10 years ago are now the accepted
wisdom of cable news talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages.

yet missing from this populist moment is what was beginning to emerge a
decade ago: a movement that did not just respond to individual outrages
but had a set of proactive demands for a more just and sustainable
economic model. In the United States and many parts of Europe, it is
far-right parties and even neofascism that are giving the loudest voice
to anti-corporatist rage.

Personally, none of this makes me feel
betrayed by Barack Obama. Rather I have a familiar ambivalence, the way
I used to feel when brands like Nike and Apple started using
revolutionary imagery in their transcendental branding campaigns. 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. Yet it seemed to me that we on
the left owed the marketers a debt of gratitude for all this: our ideas
weren't as passe as we had been told. And since the brands couldn't
fulfill the deep desires they were awakening, social movements had a
new impetus to try.

Perhaps Obama should be viewed in much the
same way. Once again, the market research has been done for us. What
the election and the global embrace of Obama's brand proved decisively
is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change - that
many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled
by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations
out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very
much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.

kinds of transformative goals are only ever achieved when independent
social movements build the numbers and the organisational power to
make muscular demands of their elites. Obama won office by
capitalising on our profound nostalgia for those kinds of social
movements. But it was only an echo, a memory. The task ahead is to
build movements that are - to borrow an old Coke slogan - the real
thing. As Studs Terkel, the great oral historian, used to say: "Hope
has never trickled down. It has always sprung up."

Extracted from a 10th anniversary edition of No Logo to be published by Fourth Estate on 21 January.

© 2023 The Guardian