Marque of allegiance

Branding isn’t just the reserve of big corporations says Hugh Pearman

It was a cleverly designed logo – a simplified bus, squeezing between trees and cars, that spelt out the letter H. Which in turn was part of a flyposter campaigning against a new bus route along a narrow road – the name of which began with an H. It was the sort of poster you see in people’s windows when they are protesting about anything local, from controlled parking zones to airport expansion schemes. And it suddenly struck me: is there any vaguely public human activity that does not now have its own logo?

A few years back, all you’d have got were amateurish slogans along the lines of STOP THE BUSES! But today, there has to be a clever logo. And for good reason. The logo provides a group identity, a sense of belonging. Everyone with this poster was signed up to a collective sense of outrage that big buses had suddenly started shouldering their way along their street. The implication was one of strength and organisation. Lots of separate hand-scrawled placards would have suggested weakness, that these were individuals who could be picked off at will. The logo, with its corporate feel, suggests the opposite. It suggests an opposition of equal forces, even if that turns out to be illusory. And because every neighbourhood of every city – and quite a few rural neighbourhoods too – now has at least one graphic designer in it, there will be no end to it. We are all caught in the crossfire of Logo Wars.

The rise of the protest logo is particularly fascinating, because it is all part and parcel of the loose anti-corporate, anti-globalisation, pro-environment alliance which resists the idea of international branding by playing it at its own game. We have all read, or pretend to have read, Naomi Klein’s No Logo on this. Greenpeace, to take a famous example, was and is a great brand, the corporate livery of its ships implying professionalism from the start, the very name encompassing so much. On another level, the spraycan anarchist symbol – the A in the circle – knits together anyone with a grudge against conventionally organised society.

You may have little in common with the multi-pierced, shaven-headed individual who sprayed the symbol, but if you use that symbol yourself and you see another one, you feel an affinity with some anonymous member of the resistance. And we can all appreciate the sly tweaking of a known global logo in the cause of protest. Whether you agree with this shady practice or not, you have to smile. It’s undeniably clever. And the big corporations sometimes do it themselves when fighting takeover battles.

Grafitti tags are logos too, no less than your signature on your passport. Whereas your signature is private, a tag isn’t. It becomes an advertisement. If Coca-Cola stencilled its logo around your neighbourhood rather than stick it on billboards and signs, you’d feel aggrieved. But only, really, because it wouldn’t have paid for them. It’s a surprisingly thin line between corporate and anti-corporate culture. Of course, nothing is more tightly corporate in its hierarchical structure than a street gang.

I buy bottled Bass occasionally, not only because drinking gypsum-rich Burton ale is a silent protest against global lagerisation, but because of that wonderful red triangle logo, the world’s first registered trademark in 1876. I like the fact a bottle of Bass appeared in a Manet painting. It’s scandalous that the German mineral water brand Apollinaris should have brazenly appropriated the red triangle in 1894. Even so, without that triangle, I doubt Bass would have survived as a brand, particularly now that big breweries no longer own pubs.

So although I’d love to live in a logo-free society, such a thought is both logically and historically absurd. When the forces of Henry Tudor and Richard III met at Bosworth, how did anyone know which way to run in the melée? Because of each side’s standards: clearly recognisable logos, designed for rapid recognition. What were the Wars of the Roses if not people rallying to one brand symbol rather than another, deciding between political Coke and Pepsi?

So here we are, for good or ill, surrounded by the clashing armies of logos. Some owned by big business, some by small groups or even individuals. Anyone with headed notepaper has to some extent branded themself. Does it matter? No, the only important thing is that, in the branding business, you ensure you don’t find yourself marked by someone else. You have to hold on to an old and precious idea, known as freedom of the individual.

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