"In the 90’s...marketing started to become more ambitious, and you started to see these companies position themselves as ‘lifestyle brands.’ ...This changed manufacturing dramatically, because once you decide you’re in the business of selling an idea, not a product, then it doesn’t really matter who makes your product...Your real value is your name and how you build that up,"
- Naomi Klein on Democracy Now, June 2017
When the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and their money were protected under the First Amendment in 2010's Citizens United, distinctions between company, brand and human being were already a bit blurred.
But in recent years, we have come full-circle: corporations are people, but we are also potential brands ourselves, with special, corporate-friendly versions of own stories, our own voices, and our own unique quirks for larger brands to borrow from - and use as new platforms for hawking their own branded wares.
(Or, at the very least, we’re all potential ‘brand ambassadors.’)
As Klein said, we’re not encouraged to buy products, but "game-changing", "disruptive", and "new" concepts and ideas - despite having emerged from the same old white hetero capitalist patriarchy that business is always born from. (Apps that get poor people to do stuff for you, like walk your dog or do your laundry or drive you around? #whoa #gamechanger #neverbefore)
As businesses big and small shift to the internet, millennials have become incredibly literate in the language of brand. Of course, there’s money to be made in "brand storytelling", as if that tech brand's origin really involved something more fascinating than a bunch of well-off engineering students wearing gray sweatshirts huddled over a laptop.
Job ads for tech companies always have some brand story about how they're the quirkiest, hardest-working team of heartfelt game-changers in the biz, passionate and determined to change the way men buy sandwiches or whatever. They're not just an ordinary office, they're a dynamo brand - kind of like how "employee" has been replaced with "teammate" and “writing” has become the placid, business-friendly “content" and words like "you", "we", "me" and "us" are used to describe both company and consumer.
These cutting-edge tech brands leveraged millions in investments not on the strength of a solid and reliable product, but because they've convinced some rich old investor guy that they're brand is so incredibly innovative. (Plus they remind that old rich guy of himself, back when he was just a young, sort-of rich guy trying to start his own company.)
Many of these big corporations famously don't even make any money, except for their investors and shareholders. But who needs a product - or even a profit - when you have a brand, right?
Companies, like governments, usually cultivate an image, often one that has little to do with their actual product or means of production. But now corporations have become savvy about promoting their "lifestyle" to an online audience, and corporate brands and identities have become personified parts of social media as well. (Remember how major brands were totally clueless about social media until recently, but now have "edgy" campaigns and personalities and people are like, “Whoa, Denny’s is so sassy on twitter?”)
Despite the lack of access to health care that goes along with it, we are becoming a nation of freelancers: bloggers, content marketing experts, web developers, photographers and personal brands, all ready to lend a personal touch to that multinational corporation's bottom line.
Millennials are forced to turn to entrepreneurship and crafting online personas to get by and sell ourselves in the new economy - there we find a shift in the mindset of work and identity. We are all potential “influencers”, both the consumer and the brand.
As a creative person, an artist or a writer or a performer - you are now simply a "creative" and your art, your style, and your quirks are your brand. Then, you can lend the power of your brand to an even bigger brand - as long as you stay on-brand, of course.
The problem with us being walking, talking potential brands is that a brand exists to sell something, not to encapsulate the complexities of life. Where does the word even come from but a ‘mark of ownership" like the one put on cattle, or god forbid, human beings. (Not to get too “Think about it, man!!!!” but you know, think about it.)
To be a brand, then, is to self-edit, because people are messy and corporations don't want that. And it’s no surprise that this fresh new way of thinking tends to reward young, white, conventionally attractive personal brands. Just like always.
L'Oreal tried to capitalize on the social justice "trend"' by hiring Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender model and activist. L'Oreal hired her to enhance their brand as part of their new “diversity initiative”, but to their dismay, she spoke some truth about all white people profiting off systematic racism, and they booted her out. While some people use a passion for social justice as a brand, most consciously avoid any political talk, lest they offend their audience or alienate potential sponsors.
For many millennials, life itself has become a brand. To be a brand you have to be constantly present. You have to keep up your social media accounts and update constantly and not miss an opportunity to talk about how much you love, love, love your fans or photograph your morning acai bowl. If you are a brand, then every moment is a potential moment for brand growth. For our generation, where social media follows us everywhere we go, we have to smooth out any rough edges in our personalities, because we often must sell ourselves as brands, even if we are looking for a regular old job in a company.
When millennials came of age, they immediately faced a horrible job market, an economic recession, and the foreclosures of millions of homes. While "Get a job!" was long considered to be the panacea to all one's problems (despite the fact that the working poor have always existed in America, with certain populations, especially women of color, never being allowed to get a real foothold), with millions of working people on food stamps and the diversity of careers largely dried up, no longer were large employers there to employ us, at least not on a large scale, no longer could we just slip into the machine, Homer Simpson-style, and come out with an okay job that paid for a one-bedroom apartment.
As millennials, we are merely trying to cope with the world we were born into. The wheels were set in motion long before we came around - and the truth is, what all these companies really want is something we made, something we created, just like it took them ten years to realize the internet even existed and another ten to master social media, all while we were doing it naturally.
Raised on the Internet, we are incredibly good at it, too. It amazes me to see the endless scope of our breathless, branded entrepreneurship, how good we are at styling ourselves and our images and producing content and, yes, branding.
The personification of the brands, from chatty, friendly YouTube videos to our desire to have a corporation speak to us through goofy slang to our general, aspirational obsession with "wellness" and "lifestyle" do say something about our culture: we want to connect with human beings.
We want friends, we want to chat about our interests. We want a comfortable lifestyle with the time to care for ourselves and others, and we want creativity, and spirituality, and all that. In this world of late-stage capitalism, with so many of us adrift from real culture and community, we use social media to take its place, so it’s no wonder that brands - whether human or not - have become our new, and best, online friends.