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Of course a brand can be your friend

Sam, I've been trying to understand the opinion piece you wrote entitled Brands Are Not Your Friends. And I'm trying to understand you. For people new to this topic, here's Biddle's nutgraph.

They exist solely to distract, deceive, and manipulate us out of our money—and in the case of Coca Cola, freely dispense diabetes and obesity. There is nothing relatable in a brand. It's an entity designed for the single purpose of extracting money from you by any legal means, no matter if you don't need or even want what's being sold.


Of course, the temptation is to dismiss your brand-bashing essay as sophomoric attention-grabbing, playing to a gallery of a few hundred journalists on Twitter and a few hundred people you want to sleep with. My own motives are subject to obvious question: as the largest shareholder within Gawker Media, my wealth depends on brand advertising. But before we write off every opinion as hopelessly compromised by its origin, let's try to have a discussion.

Based on a narrow point about a soft-drink maker's use of social media, you come to some very broad conclusions, characterizing consumer brands, or corporations in general, as uniquely and temperamentally manipulative. That's your view, forcefully expressed as always.


My starting point is different. I appreciated the creativity of both the Coke campaign, turning mean tweets into ascii art, and Gawker's Mein Coke prank, turning ascii art back into a media scandal. It was disappointing they could not co-exist.

It is absurd to think any organization, especially one with commitments both to open communication and transparency, can speak with one voice. At Gawker Media we have differed, publicly, on subjects ranging from personnel changes through to tax efficiency. It appears we also differ sharply on the role of brands in a modern economy. We're an open platform, and pretend no monolithic belief, except freedom of expression, which I am exercising.


Here's where I take issue. By generalizing about brands, and treating them as uniquely duplicitous organizations, we lose our ability to differentiate between good brands and bad brands. Worse, we lose the ability to encourage any kind of incremental progress, by identifying better social media campaigns that Coca Cola might learn from, for example.

Brands are shorthand reputations. Everybody has one, not just corporations. Think about yourself. You work for me; and I am a proud builder of media brands. Our journalism depends on technology and entertainment brands who covet our audience more than our docility. Your department's board has a blog presence, Politburo, which suggests ironic communist dinosaur.


Sam, you write for a brand within a brand within a brand. In fact, you are yourself a brand: puerile, nihilistic, infuriating, occasionally infuriatingly brilliant. As Simon Owens says: "Sam Biddle complaining about #brands is like a teenager decrying capitalism as his parents pay for his private school."

Your invective, while deployed against Coca-Cola, applies more broadly to all organizations. Groups, whether a company, a government department or a movement, take on a character and purpose of their own. They become businesses or guilds, with expectations and professional rules attached to them. And they reliably lose sight of the original objective, whether it's the satisfaction of the client, the furtherance of a principle, or the understanding of the reader. This is a variant of what economists would call the principal-agent problem.


Similarly, your argument, applied to marketing campaigns like Coca-Cola's nohaters tweet-to-graphic gimmick, could be made against all salesmanship, against even the slightest divergence between public and private personas.

All communication, whether journalistic or persuasive in purpose, requires simplification, sometimes to the point of distortion. Attention, from a retail customer or a media audience, is limited. It's a hard job to boil down an organization's history and dreams into a succinct summary. I know because Gawker Media is currently going through a fascinating exercise in self-definition with a branding agency. In fact, Max Read, to whom you report, has been integral to the process.


A journalist should have sympathy for the salesman, because he or she is one, aware how hard it is to convey a proposition in 30 seconds or even in 1,000 words. Sure, the investigation and synthesis of current affairs is so important that it is protected by the First Amendment. But the nuanced truth, which we seek to discover through debate, is at odds with readers' preference for straightforward narratives, as evidenced by their actions, by their clicks. In pitching a story, we streamline the truth.

That part is obvious. Here's where I'll definitely lose you: I'd argue that consumer brands are actually among the more accountable organizations out there, not necessarily out of choice, but as a function of circumstance.


First, consumer companies operate in public, and under the constant glare of media attention. When a brand's identity diverges too far from reality, journalists and other critics jump in to exploit the arbitrage. It's in your interest when brands stretch the truth, because that's information customers will click for, and you like the attention, and the company profits from it. In fact, the media's role in this ecosystem is at least as opaque than that of the consumer brands.

Second, consumer brands generally operate within competitive marketplaces. This point is muddled, I admit, by the presence of highly regulated local monopolies in supposedly market sectors such as cable television. But even in a category such as cellphones, where four main companies share the market, a challenge is possible, as T-Mobile demonstrated in the US. However limited, there is a choice between brand propositions, and competitive marketing, which keeps the contenders slightly more honest.


Third, consumer companies are democratic. Brands make great efforts to communicate simply, and the broader the customer base, the more they seek to synthesize the product proposition. In interactions with retail brands, you pay money, and receive a service. Compared with transactions between companies, or between individuals and the government or healthcare industry, it's a blissfully simple procedure. Among the challenges of modern life — career uncertainty, inadequate education, impenetrable bureaucracies and existential fear, for instance — shopping does not rank high.

Outside the university-educated classes of North America and Europe, and the fringes of left-wing politics, brands are as beloved as ever. In Eastern Europe and China, although some of the initial enthusiasm has worn off, consumer brands are a welcome facet of the market economy, certainly more broadly accepted than an adversarial press or democracy.


The less privileged the upbringing, the more the enthusiasm for retail brands even in a jaded developed world. In the US, Apple or Google engender more favorable feelings than Congress. Millennials' attachments to automotive brands are weakening, but that's because they're less interested in cars: their loyalties have simply formed in a new era.

New names such as Snapchat and Uber are becoming famous, faster even than the first generation of internet brands. And I remember one Millennial, a writer on Gizmodo, becoming rather attached to a drink called Four Loko, which is indeed still a brand, even if made more palatable by ironic branding and marginal status.


You bemoan the continuing affection for the consumer economy like an old Marxist blaming the false consciousness of the masses. And still, people love slobbering all over branded membranes... Brands aren't forcing themselves on us—we're standing around with our pants undone and our tongues wagging out. We make it easy for brands to succeed. This is corporate America today. We are their willing, unpaid flacks.

Hunh? You write as if consumers are drones who've lost the ability to define their own desires, their weak minds ridden with parasitic memes. You're insulting the very people whose well-being you purport to care for. Just because you're over the market economy, you won't easily persuade others who still aspire to its pleasures.


This essay will do nothing to dissuade lovers of sugary soft drinks, as your campaign against Uber did nothing to dissuade the drivers and passengers who embrace the online car service. Your default rage at the market economy is a brand strategy, for sure, but a niche one, with appeal limited to a narrow social class.

That's been the fate of much independent journalism. I hope we can be more ambitious, speaking to all our readers. It's the only way we'll achieve real change.

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