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What’s inside a brand?

Glass cleaner
Wild albacore tuna
Toothpaste
Power

What a brandless brand is selling you

How the paradox at the heart of those Instagram ads could signal the horizon of capitalism.

If you spend much time on Instagram, there’s a decent chance you have been served an advertisement for the online retailer Brandless. Launched in 2017 and headquartered in San Francisco, Brandless claims it lowers prices on basic household goods by cutting out what it calls the BrandTax™: “the hidden extra costs you typically pay for a retail brand,” which encompass both logistical and branding expenses. The company sticks to that mission by presenting its products as purely functional and obstinately generic: it offers Glass Cleaner (not Windex), Wild Albacore Tuna in Water (not Starkist Chunk Lite), and Fluoride-Free Peppermint Toothpaste (not Pepsodent). To commit to the bit, each product comes in monochrome packaging bearing a simple, white label that denotes exactly what’s inside — no interpretation or imagination required.

For now, let’s set aside the obvious paradox: Brandless is itself a brand, just as normcore is itself a style. Despite (or because of) its minimal aesthetic, it’s obvious that great care went into designing the look and feel of Brandless’s products. Likewise, the company’s “I’m-not-like-other-brands” schtick is meant to communicate something about the values of those who buy those products, which is branding in its purest form. No one should operate under the illusion that Brandless exists for any reason other than the one all companies exist for: to take your money. Brandless, which has raised some $290 million in funding, is a collision of Madison Avenue mind games and Silicon Valley sensibilities. At a moment of total brand saturation — by some estimates, American consumers see up to 10,000 branded messages each day — branding quickly starts to look like one more industry to disrupt.

And yet! Perhaps there’s something to Brandless (and brandless-ness) that gets lost when we simply acknowledge the paradox and raise a middle finger in capital’s general direction. What exactly is it about our present moment that makes brandless-ness attractive to consumers and financiers alike? Is the seeming success of a company like Brandless a genuine sign of dissatisfaction with our overly-branded world, or just a cynical elaboration of a familiar logic? Will consumers beholden to branded goods ever defect to so-called brandless ones? And, if they do, what does that portend for branding?

Asking these questions means taking stock of the history of branding, which, as it turns out, is also the history of capitalism. If we want to understand what branding is, why it now dominates so much of our lives, and where, if anywhere, it’s going, it helps to know where it all began.

What exactly is it about our present moment that makes brandless-ness attractive to consumers and financiers alike?

Branding emerged alongside consumer capitalism around the turn of the 20th century when, for the first time, humans’ ability to produce commodities outstripped our ability to consume them. As supermarkets and department stores gathered a baffling array of goods under one roof, branding offered a way for products to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. Brands were meant to build trust between consumers and increasingly distant producers, providing reassurance that a given commodity was safe to eat or use at a moment when government regulation was nearly non-existent. Brands, in a sense, took on the labor once performed by shopkeepers who had, up until that point, been expected to know and stand by all their wares. It’s no coincidence that many early brands — Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima, etc. — consciously staged an encounter with another human, albeit ones laden with unfortunate stereotypes.

As the century wore on and consumer capitalism gradually came to dominate more of the social world, branding’s purpose began to evolve beyond issues of recognition and trust. In a world in which status was becoming linked to one’s ability to consume things, rather than make them, branding offered companies a way to expand their markets by associating their products with the “right” ideas, which often tied profitability to progressive causes. American Tobacco Company, famously, linked its cigarettes to the women’s liberation movement through its “Torches of Freedom” campaign, doubling its potential market while also combating what it called “an ancient prejudice.”

Given the surplus of options shoppers became accustomed to, purchasing goods was no longer just a matter of satisfying a human need. Effective branding, companies increasingly realized, could signify an entire lifestyle. Branding’s importance grew in turn, and, in many ways, by the late 20th century, it had surpassed that of even products.

“The 1980s saw a growing recognition of the value of the brand itself, separate from the product,” explained Dr. Dennis Mumby, a professor at the University of North Carolina who researches branding. “Corporations understood that the key to value accumulation lay not in the product, but in the brand.”

If that seems counterintuitive, consider two advertisements for Dove soap separated by about 50 years. In a 1957 television spot, the camera’s near-fetishistic attention on the look and feel of the newly-introduced Dove bar is supplemented by a breakdown of its chemical composition (“¼ cleansing creme!”) and a pseudo-scientific demonstration of its effectiveness. Compare that to Dove’s 2006 Super Bowl XL commercial, part of the company’s famous (but well-critiqued) “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Over the ad’s 45 second-long ode to women’s insecurity, Dove products appear exactly zero times. What matters is no longer Dove soap’s cleansing creme or demonstrable superiority to water, but how the brand associates itself, and those who use it, with a message of social empowerment that reaches well beyond the bathroom.

Cultural theorists have come up with a number of ways to describe this shift, but the most influential term is what the Italian Marxist Mario Tronti called the “social factory.” When branding appeared at the apex of industrial capitalism, the means of production were still largely confined to literal factories, cordoned off from spaces of consumption. These days, however, that distinction isn’t so clear. “The whole of society lives as a function of the factory,” Tronti concluded, “and the factory extends its exclusive domination of the whole society.” Social media is most obvious example of how this works in practice: without its user’s posts, Facebook would be an empty software shell. Until we start “working” for Facebook, there is nothing for us to consume, troubling any clean break between production (making value) and consumption (using it), which are inescapably amalgamated.

Branding, in different and subtler ways, also capitalizes on this shift towards “prosumption” by enlisting consumers in the “work” of managing the brand. Modern branding encourages us not just to loyally purchase or even promote our preferred brands but to be the brand by embodying its virtues in our own lives. If you buy Apple, you must be creative, and, if you’re creative, you must buy Apple. All branding then becomes a collaboration, not between products and celebrities but between brands and the ordinary people who use them. In consumer culture, brands are a primary source of meaning, and it’s (in part) up to us to make them meaningful, creating value for capital in the process.

Former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jefferies offered a notorious illustration of this logic in 2006 when he announced, in a Salon profile, that he wasn’t interested in having anyone but popular, attractive teens wear the brand’s clothes. “In every school, there are the cool kids and the popular kids,” he admitted with no apparent hesitation. “Candidly, we go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes. And they can’t belong.”

Jefferies is, obviously, an asshole. But his comment correctly diagnoses how branding has changed, as well as the work consumers are now expected to do on its behalf. When your customers are active partners in “making” and “managing” the brand, policing who is allowed to shop at your store is, weirdly enough, a hiring decision like any other. We’re used to thinking of production and consuming as separate activities, but, as Jefferies shows, in modern branding, they are one and the same. Making sure the “right” person consumes your clothes is a way to enhance a brand’s value. Like it or not, then, modern life gives you little choice but to “work” for a brand, putting all of our social lives in the service of capital. What branding offers is belonging (for a price).

In consumer culture, brands are a primary source of meaning, and it’s (in part) up to us to make them meaningful, creating value for capital in the process.

Frankly, this sucks. And Brandless, held up against this history, can, in a tortured kind of way, seem like a balm for the mess we now find ourselves in. A generous interpretation of Brandless might make the point that, in some ways, we are back where we began, back before consumer capitalism gave new names to the objects we need to make our way in the world, and used this foothold to colonize the rest of social life. Seen in this rosy light, products without brands are no different than products before brands, when there was no need to compete in an economy of symbolism. There is a certain nobility to this simplicity, and Brandless is refreshingly honest in its refusal to pretend that its products are not what they already are. A spoon is a spoon is a spoon, and it points only to itself. That, and it’s just $3.

Traditional branding attempts to convince us that what matters isn’t what’s in the bottle (or whatever) but what’s on and around it — the sensibilities and relations it conveys. Refuse this distinction, as Brandless purports to do, by admitting that there was never any difference between the “inside” and “outside” of a product, and this entire symbolic economy collapses. No one, of course, can seriously claim that Brandless is a Marxist plot to sabotage the social factory. But it’s also possible (if naïve) to see Brandless as a genuine challenge not simply to brands, but a sign of growing dissatisfaction with the entire mode of (social) production that made branding so valuable in the first place.

Just as every conversation that does not take place on a Facebook-owned service is, from Facebook’s perspective, potential value (read: data) being lost, every conversation that refers to a tissue instead of Kleenex is an opportunity squandered for Kimberly-Clark.

“One argument is that as key institutions — class, family, community — have become more fragmented, the brand has become a new institutional form,” said Dr. Mumby, when asked why branding has such a grip on modern life. “It’s a way for people to develop a stronger identity and a sense of connections with others in the brand public. People enact agency through their consumer identity, rather than as a citizen.”

Taken seriously, branding forms the symbolic and linguistic terrain on which we live our lives, mediating our interactions with each other, and ensuring that whatever futures exist are circumscribed by corporate imaginations. There is, then, an end-game to branding, and it’s one of the easier dystopias to imagine, which is why one trope of fictional corporatocracies is an obsessive attempt to control language. Perhaps the most hopeful thing that could be said about Brandless is that it tries to put a roadblock up between today and this bleak tomorrow by the radical act of calling things what they are.

That’s a tempting fantasy, which is exactly why Brandless is selling it. But there are no fresh starts in history, and Brandless (and brandless-ness) is not a return to some innocent moment before branding because brandless-ness only “works” at a moment in which branding is the unquestioned norm. Erasure presumes existence, and negation is not the same as absence. Plus, there’s the inescapable fact that Brandless, sorry to say, is not as brandless as it pretends. To scan the some 300 products Brandless offers is to see a brand engaging with the same kinds of signifying and affective gambits that regular brands do. Sans serif and monochrome convey a utilitarian sensibility, attempting to “fix” a particular association between product and brand. Not only is the obvious true — that Brandless is anything but a refutation of branding — but Brandless may also be simply a novel elaboration of the logic that has animated branding all along.

There are no fresh starts in history, and Brandless (and brandless-ness) is not a return to some innocent moment before branding

“One could argue that ‘brandless brands’ simply extend the model of brand engagement that is au courant,” surmised Mumby, bemused but ultimately unimpressed by Brandless’ bait and switch. “It’s even more up to consumers to ‘color in the lines’ of the brand experience. Seems to me that it saves a whole lot of money on creative marketing, and puts even more labor onto the consumer. It appears to be a clever way to monetize free consumer labor.”

If going Brandless really is cheaper than sticking with Windex, Starkist, and Pepsodent (which isn’t actually true, probably), it’s not because the company has eliminated the expense of branding, but shifted the work it does onto consumers. The company’s true innovation, then, has little to do with cutting costs, and everything to do with redistributing creative labor. If late 20th century saw branding evolve into partnership between consumer and producer by blurring the line between production and consumption, brandless-ness pushes this responsibility even further onto customers. And, in fact, Brandless’s ‘About’ page waxes about the work its customers do on its behalf, casting that free labor as a kind of empowerment.

But if branding also traces the development of capitalism in the last century, then the paradox of Brandless isn’t just about branding, but capitalism itself. It’s voguish, in many circles, to lament that capitalism has taken over everything, that every day is Cyber Monday, and that life now exists only as a background to the ether of buying, selling, producing, and consuming. Whether or not that’s an exaggeration (it probably is), it raises another, possibly more hopeful, question: If capitalism is already everywhere, where does it have left to go? Brandless, having ground through the contradictions of late capitalism, is one answer: nowhere. Exactly like its labels, Brandless is a white flag that says capitalism is out of ideas. What now?

Will Partin is a freelance writer and doctoral student. He researches labor, technology, and culture.