Adam Arvidsson, “Brands: A Critical Perspective”

Adam Arvidsson, “Brands: A Critical Perspective,” Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol. 5(2): 235-258, 2005.

  • Intro
    • Value of brands in case of Martha Stewart
    • “it is meaning-making activity of consumers that forms the basis of brand value”(237).
    • Douglas Holt: “postmodern brand management” – offers brands as ‘cultural resources’; capitalizes on what consumers produce with those resources.
    • Naomi Klein (in No Logo): brands – tendency to colonize public space,…
    • Arvidsson: a model for “how ‘looking’ can be conceptualized as ‘labor’“; “how the human ability to create … an ethical surplus – a social relation, a shared meaning, an emotional involvement that was not there before – around a brand can be understood as the direct basis of its economic value“(237).
    • Autonomist Marxism: from a Fordist production process to post Fordist system of production (more diffuse and expended).

      = include both “productive aspects of consumption” + “controlling or exploitative aspects of brands”


    • Part1 : Brands = a form of capital; a resource that generates value
      • What kind of labor can be the source of such brand value?
      • Consumption = can be conceptualized as one manifestation of the ‘immaterial labor’
    • Part2 : how brands can function as capital (both formally and in reality)
      • brands provide different kinds of mediatic spaces that pre-structure and anticipate the immaterial production of consumers: spaces where it unfolds as the production of a particular form of life”(238)
    • Part3 : how brand-capital actually generates value from consumption-labor
      • M-C-M’ formula
      • how brands can be said to exploit consumers
    • Conclusion : suggests that “the relation between brands and consumption can be understood as exemplary of how capitalism has responded to the condition of post-modernity.”


  • Brand Value
    • Brand value… represents an important immaterial asset in contemporary capitalism.
    • Interbrand : the value of the world’s 100 most precious brands = $434 billion in 2001

      = 4% of US GDP = 3 times US adv. Expenditure

    • David Aaker: consider the “emotional and self-expressive benefits as well as functional benefits”(239) – building brand equity =attachment around the brand (experiences, emotions, attitudes, lifestyles, loyalty…)
    • “Brands are monetizable symbolic values” (Groz)
    • Who produces these immaterial assets?
    • Brand managers? Or consumers?


  • Consumption as Immaterial Labor
    • Consumption = “labor” = an activity that produces value
    • Different paradigm of consumption
      • traditionally, consumption = activity occurs in the domain of circulation

        ≠ produce value (240)

      • value of female reproductive household work
    • Lash & Urry : contemporary production process must include circulation

      “inclusion of circulation” – blurring of the boundaries between circulation & production – information economy

    • Circulation of information = production of information
    • Autonomist Marxism (integration of production + circulation)
      • Negri + Alquati : integration of communication and production is a central characteristic of the post-Fordist labor process
      • socializing worker“: ability to put communicative action to work in producing a meaningful framework for the production process (communication -> production process) ( Cf. Cyber-Marx, p. 79-80, “socialized worker”).
      • Maurizio Lazzarato: “immaterial labor” – practices that produce either the immaterial content of commodities, or the social context of production itself (241).
        • utilizes a common ability to interact and socialize; common symbolic framework; common knowledge; common jargon…
        • these common competences are based in symbolic repertoire diffused by a virtually omnipresent media culture. àGeneral Intellect” (ubiquitous symbolic resource)à immaterial labor produces “ethical surplus” (a social relation, a shared meaning, or a sense of belonging).
        • the ‘cycle of immaterial production’ presupposes the existence of a ‘socialized and autonomous labor force.’
        • “one of the most important instances of immaterial labor transpiring outside of salaried organization is consumption. Contemporary consumers do not simply use up resources, rather they produce a social relation…within which goods can make sense.”
      • Consumer studies (cultural studies, anthropology, critical consumer studies) (242)
        • modern consumers ≠ passive victims of producer interests

          = they actively engaged in the social construction of the value of consumer goods, and functioned as part of the productive dynamic that has driven capitalist development.

        • Consumption = productive activity
        • “consumption produces a common in the form of community, a shared identity or even a short lived ‘experience’ that adds dimensions of use-value to the object”
        • The immaterial productivity (that consumers engage in) is ‘free’: unpaid + beyond the direct control of capital (Terranova).


  • Brand Management
    • Modern, or Fordist marketing – attempt to take control on the productivity of consumer
    • “While these attempts met with varying degrees of success, it is clear that the intent was to
      discipline consumers, and to educate or ‘rationalize’ their tastes and desire“(243).
    • Marketing’s disciplinary paradigm began to fragment in the mid 1950s.
      • New forms of ‘expressive’ middle-class consumer pattern
      • Booming youth culture
    • Consumers had to be granted a certain degree of autonomy.
    • Marketing technique centered on the concept of the brand
      • Brand
        trademark or maker’s mark; significance that commodities acquire in the mind of consumers
      • Brand (contemporary):
        context of consumption; a specific way of using the object, a propertied form of life to be realized in consumption (244).
    • Brand only exist as long as consumers act on them… -> tricky problem
    • Brand is an ‘open-ended object’ à this mobility must be controlled and kept within the boundaries of the intended brand identity.
    • Brand management techniques (innovation – conservation)
      • selective appropriation of consumer innovation
      • make consumer’s use of branded goods serve to reproduce the forms of life that the brand embodied
    • Brand management is not a disciplinary practice – not seek to impose a certain structure of taste or desires… à
      brand management works by enabling or empowering the freedom of consumers so that it is likely to evolve in particular directions.
    • Brand management – provide an environment which anticipates the agency of consumer: “You Must!à “You May!” (245)
    • Management of the media image of the brand
      • … defines the contours of what brand can mean, by creating inter-textual links in media culture.
      • inter-textual commodity” (Marshall): “a mediatic space that anticipates the agency of consumers and situates it within a number of more or less precise coordinates.”
        • “within those coordinates consumers are free to produce the shared meanings and social relations that the branded good will help create in their life.”
        • E.g.) Nintendo, BMW…
    • Management of consumer’s lived interaction with the branded environment – “bio-political governance”(246)
      • Use of architecture and design (physical space) – department store; bazaar; Disney them parks; Starbucks; McDonald’s; Niketown…
      • George Ritzer – how most such ‘new means of consumption’ rely on the active involvement of consumers to produce the desired experience.
      • “The purpose of these spaces is to make consumers produce a particular relationship to the brand” (247).
    • Construction of branded community
      • Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Jeep, Harley Davidson à create spaces for customer socialization
      • eBay, à involving customers in producing a dimension of trust or authenticity through users’ review, discussion and rating system…
      • mobile Internet game (Real Space)
    • brand management –
      building inter-textual, physical and virtual spaces that pre-structure and anticipate the agency of consumers. (Within this space) Consumers are free to themselves produce a set of social relations and shared meanings – a common.
      • “Brands work as platform for action that enable the production of particular immaterial use-values: an experience, a shared emotion, a sense of community”(248).
    • Productivity of consumers as “innovation” and as “reproduction
      • “By thus subsuming the productivity of the social, brand management works to ensure that the productivity of consumers becomes productive labor”(249).


  • How Brands Generate Value
    • (1) contemporary consumers tend to engage in activities that can potentially function as immaterial labor à produce an ethical surplus in the form of a social relation, a shared meaning or a common.
    • (2) brand management contains a series of techniques by means of which this autonomous productivity is posited as immaterial labor à add to the form of life that the brand embodies (either through innovation or through reproduction)
    • “How brand generate value?”
    • In so far as M’>M, then some form of surplus value has been extracted (251)
    • Brand managers be said to exploit consumers?
      • surplus value = ethical surplus or surplus community that consumer produce
      • exploitation process
        • quantitative point of view: absorbing the free time of consumer
        • qualitative dimension: making the productive sociality of consumers

          à filtering the creativity of consumers; depriving it of certain undesirable qualities

    • new forms of mediatization + new forms of social organization – enhanced the capacity of social actors (net-worked multitude) to produce an ethical surplus(252)…
      • productive co-operation – file sharing communities; open source software; self-organization of slums.
      • Brand management comes to work against the productive potential of the social, on which it ultimately builds.


  • Conclusion
    • brand à consumer market àmanagement, welfare, politics and construction of local identities
    • brand – understood as paradigmatic of the post-Fordist mode of production
    • unpaid immaterial labor = source of surplus value
    • in the form of brand, the unstable and reflexive nature of post-modern social relations works as a precondition for the self-valorization of immaterial capital.


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