30 July 2006

The brand underground [The New York Times]

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“Aaron Bondaroff, aka A-Ron, whose life weaves through the most elusive subcultures of lower Manhattan, has turned his lifestyle into a business called aNYthing.”

“Young people have always found fresh ways to rebel, express individuality or form subculture communities through cultural expression: new art, new music, new literature, new films, new forms of leisure or even whole new media forms. A-Ron’s preferred form of expression, however, is none of those things. When he talks about his chosen medium, which he calls aNYthing, it sounds as if he’s talking about an artists’ collective, indie film production company, a zine or a punk band. But in fact, aNYthing is a brand. A-Ron puts his brand on T-shirts and hats and other items, which he sells in his own store, among other places. He sees it as fundamentally of a piece with the projects and creations of his anti-mainstream heroes.”

“This might seem strange, since most of us think of branding as a thoroughly mainstream practice: huge companies buying advertising time during the Super Bowl to shout their trademarked names at us is pretty much the opposite of authentic or edgy expression.”

The article then continues into a thoughtful reflection on the nature of branding:

“Of course, companies don’t go into business in order to express a particular worldview and then gin up a product to make their point. Corporate branding is a function of the profit motive: companies have stuff to sell and hire experts to create the most compelling set of meanings to achieve that goal. A keen awareness of and cynicism toward this core fact of commercial persuasion — and the absurd lengths that corporations will go to in the effort to infuse their goods with, say, rebelliousness or youthful cool — is precisely the thing that is supposed to define the modern consumer. We all know that corporate branding is fundamentally a hustle. And guys like A-Ron are supposed to know that better than anybody.”

“Which is why the supposed counterculture nature of his brand might arouse some suspicion. Manufactured commodities are an artistic medium? Branding is a form of personal expression? Indie businesses are a means of dropping out? Turning your lifestyle into a business is rebellious?”

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