The most compact and potent of visual signalling systems, brands allow consumers to express complex beliefs and values instantaneously. But as the lifestyle message becomes the product, companies need to constantly monitor and precisely shape what it is that the brand signifies.

Why have brands become ever more powerful and omnipresent in the landscape of contemporary consumption? The general presumption is that the increasing shift towards brands simply reflects our culture’s on-going obsession with displays of wealth and status: the big name brand signalling that you can afford the best. While there is no doubt truth in this view (especially amongst those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds eager to signal success) it neglects or obscures an understanding of how most brands and consumption patterns have altered - profoundly - over the last few decades.

The rapid rise in importance of brands in the 80s coincided with a political landscape epitomised by Reagan and Thatcher which (breaking with the questioning of wealth for its own sake which had begun with the middle-class Beats and the Hippies) saw no stigma in success. Within this Yuppie worldview, a brand’s capacity to signal that you could afford the best was clearly desirable and the shift away from brands (or, at least, to obscure, smaller, ‘alternative’ brands) which began in the 60s was reversed.

However, even before the 80s were over, this rather simplistic language of brands (= wealth) was beginning to be overstepped by something far more complex: the Lifestyle Brand. When Benetton began an advertising campaign which featured neither their clothes nor the message that their brand was the most costly, they demonstrated an understanding of the fact that more and more consumers wanted brands which signaled the values and beliefs of potential consumers - and that, for many, these values and beliefs were (if not anti-success, wealth and consumerism) at least seeking to display concerns and philosophies which went beyond a purely materialistic definition of the good life.

The rise of the lifestyle brand (or as John Grant, writing in his book The New Marketing Manifesto, has termed it, the 'idea brand') parallels the rise of social fragmentation and communication breakdown which lies at the heart of our post-modern condition. While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, ethnic background and so forth, the world has today rapidly become one enormous, undefined and unstructured mass where identity is more problematic. As I have argued elsewhere (see, for example, Style Surfing),the language of style has been increasingly co-opted as a means by which people can signal ‘I am here’ - I am this, rather than that type of person. Thus, while for my parents ‘People Like Us’ were white, Anglo-Saxon, middle class and Protestant, for my generation, ‘People Like Us’ are more likely defined by the styles of clothing which they wear, their body decoration, the furniture and interior decor of their homes, their choice of car, what they eat and drink, their choice of music, sports and other leisure pursuits, etc.

But even more so than stylistic differences in and of themselves, brands have an extraordinary capacity to compact complex and subtle nuances of differences in values, beliefs and desires. Combining the history of a particular brand with careful marketing manipulation of its current ideological profile as demonstrated in advertisements, sponsorship, use by high-profile celebrities, etc., a brand becomes an iceberg: its logo the visible part above the waterline, its lifestyle message the massive structure which keeps it afloat.

What people urgently need in the world today are signalling systems which allow them to project and advertise their own personal values and objectives. The added value of a brand is semiological: what it allows the consumer to say about him or herself. That is, what the consumer is paying over the odds for is a visual adjective and if this is just the right one then it is remarkably good value for money. (In the process, the product ceases to be an object such as a jumper or a bottle of beer, and becomes the signification of that object - or, more precisely, the signification of the way of life around which the brand has come to be positioned.)

It is therefore of the greatest importance that those whose job it is to promote and shape the future of particular brands have a full and accurate understanding of what their brand says. And to compare and contrast this message with what numerically and economically significant clusters of current and potential consumers wish to say about themselves. While the starting point for such an analysis might be verbal - for example. . .

fun ------------------- serious/ concerned
active --------------- contemplative
wealth oriented ------------ street
urban --------------- rustic
hot ----------------- cool
laid-back ------------------- over the top
formal -------------------- casual
hard ------------------ soft
unisex ------------------ masculine/feminine
positivistic ----------------- nihilistic
minimal --------------------- baroque

. . . the final result, in keeping with the subject, would incorporate a full range of visual imagery. Even more so than our style choices, our brand choices present a highly compacted projection of what kind of person we want to be seen to be. As such brands are themeparks - Gucciland, Pradaland, Superdryland; visions of heaven which we employ as a radar signal designed to connect with those with similiar values, beliefs, dreams and desires.

I first became interested in lifestyle brands while writing a book about the Italian clothing company Diesel (Thames and Hudson 1998).

Here are some quotes from this book (© Ted Polhemus) which you may find of interest:

‘’Welcome to the Diesel planet.’ This is how they answer the telephone at Diesel Industries - makers of world-renowned anti-fashion fashion, and what are probably the world’s most surreal advertisements. And what a strange planet it is. A place where here and now can be anywhere and any time. A post-modern planet which time-warps the past into the future - and the future into the past - while sampling and mixing all known (and some unknown) intergalactic cultures into a funky, cosmic melange.’

‘’We don’t do advertising, we do communication - which we see as our ‘face’. The product is the communication and the communication is also the product. It’s all a system - a way to live, ‘Successful Living’ - which we and the customer create together. Our communication and our clothing are one and the same thing.’ The speaker is Maurizio Marchiori, Diesel’s [then] advertising and communications director. Undoubtedly, many within the fashion establishment would react to his words with horror. But to do so overlooks two important points. Firstly, the importance of marketing image is hardly a new phenomenon in fashion; Coco Chanel, for one, was at least as skilled at creating a ‘face’ for her company as she was at designing. Secondly, the ‘keep fashion about fashion’ approach ignores the extraordinary extent to which today’s clothing exists and functions as communication.

In an ever more fragmented and heterogeneous world we all need to be able to send out instant visual signals which explain ‘where we are at’. Branding allows an enormous amount of often complex and subtle information to be transmitted in our appearance, with the entire marketing image of a company being compacted into a recognisable style or logo. When we choose to buy and wear certain brands, this information becomes part of our own personal ‘advertising’ campaign, our own logo. For those who want to project a certain off-the-wall, surreal, knowing and ironic image, the Diesel brand is priceless.’

‘Diesel’s advertisements may take us to Africa or India, Switzerland or France, but we always remain firmly within ‘The World According to Diesel’. The ironic, surreal twist, the use of colours which are a shade too bright or black and white which is a little too noir, converts America into ‘America’, Japan into ‘Japan’, France into ‘France’. It is a world within quotation marks - also the defining characteristic, according to many cultural theorists, of the post-modern condition.’

Dieseland: ‘’One hundred percent Diesel’ is what Renzo Rosso and his team say they are aiming for. Their ‘stores project’ - establishing their own, purpose-built retail outlets around the world - is beginning to make this dream a reality. While their flagship shops in New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Rome and San Francisco may all have distinctive looks, their atmosphere is none the less most certainly ‘one hundred percent Diesel’.

‘You need to be perfect in every aspect’ says Rosso of his retail environments. ‘In the window, in every square foot of the store. Even ten years ago it was enough just to create the product and the advertising. Now you need to produce a total environment, a world in which everything fits together perfectly’.’

‘We started out just selling jeans, and now we’re selling a way of life.’ - Renzo Rosso, Diesel’s director

‘Horizontal development has long been Diesel’s developmental direction. While hardly unique to the company, it is Diesel’s long-standing, explicit and enthusiastic recognition of this trend that makes it an important visionary. This is the essence of what branding is all about - breaking down the boundaries not only between clothing and furniture, for example, but also between designed objects and the philosophies which (through a total communications strategy) are embedded in them. Diesel is an important pioneer in its understanding of itself as more than a creator or garments.

Post-modern philosophers have prophesied that one day the entire world will become one giant theme park. If Renzo Rosso has his way (and he usually does), it will be called Dieseland and it will be a place of ironic humour, heartfelt intuition and global thinking, where stylishly dressed people - young and old - will experience the delights of successful living. No doubt already, in some distant part of the galaxy on planet diesel, they are toasting yet another successful interplanetary conquest.’

Ted Polhemus