Bret Easton Ellis’ dystopian account of life among New York yuppies in the 1980s was arguably the first literary text where brand names played a prominent part. Ellis’ characters are defined by the branded items that they wear, use or otherwise endow themselves with, and the presence of one brand instead of another is often what defines a person or triggers a social situation. Throughout the novel, people remain anonymous and distant; brands speak for them, define them and make them into what they are. (And the main character, Patrick Bateman is often taken for a ‘Marcus Halberstam’, who allegedly wears the same kind of Brooks Brothers non-prescription glasses.)
Ellis’ novel depicts a period in which the brand in its present form made its entry on the social scene. In the United States, yuppies, a relatively small but culturally significant elite, had cast off the last remains of the progressive heritage of the 1960s and 1970s, to devote themselves to consumption in the pursuit of life-style and self-realization (Bonner and du Gay, 1992; Ehrenreich, 1990; Featherstone, 1991). In marketing brand management became the new paradigm, and advertising went through its second ‘creative revolution’ to put a renewed focus on the construction of image (Mort, 1996; Nixon, 1996, 2003; cf. Seguela, 1982). In the 1980s, the present wave of brand extensions began, building on new possibilities to out-source production. A number of luxury brands like Armani and Polo Ralph Lauren added on a wide range of new products – like soap, perfume, home appliances and, in the case of Ralph Lauren, paint – to end up selling paraphernalia for a more or less complete life-style (Twitchell, 1996). Some of these, like Pierre Cardin, over-extended themselves, effectively devaluing the brand name. Logos acquired a new visibility, and knowledge about brands, what they signified and how they differed became a central component of the middle class habitus. Significantly, the rise of brands did not only affect consumer culture; the world of work was also taken in. In the 1980s, management discovered the importance of ‘organizational identity’ (later ‘organizational branding’) as a way to give direction and coherence
to complex, transnational organizations, too flexible and adaptive for the old bureaucratic style of command (Heelas, 2002). It now became important to ‘sell’ the organization, its values and goals to employees, to make them embrace its culture and make it their own (du Gay, 1996; Olins, 2000). Finally, the 1980s saw the efforts of the Reagan administration to privatize and de-regulate media, public space and public institutions. This facilitated the contemporary omnipresence of brands in schools, art museums and across the lived cityscape in general. It also enabled the media mergers and acquisitions that by now have produced the common media culture that makes global branding feasible (Mattelart, 1991; McChesney, 1999).