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We’re all with the brand

What is it with brands - why do we invest these shopworn icons with such reverence?

Last summer I was walking through an interminable caravan park atop a cliff in Norfolk when I began clocking the makes of the vans. There was the Windsor and the Coronation and the Aspen. Naturally, the Aspen, I said to myself as I plodded past its gemütlich net ­curtains, what could be better branding for a ­mobile home? The quaking aspen of North America - or Populus tremuloides - is noted for its spectacular autumnal display. The round leaves in myriad shades of red and yellow twist freely on their stalks, producing the heady illusion that the very earth itself is in motion. Oh yes, were I to be as free as Margaret Beckett, the Aspen would be the covered wagon for me.

A few weeks later, I found myself in a friend's kitchen while he was caramelising some sugar, and chanced to note the make of his gas cooker. It, too, was an Aspen. Aha, I thought to myself, that's a pretty cool bit of branding for a hob - but the manufacturers
are probably referencing the Colorado town rather than the tree. A Silver Boom mining camp that by 1893, within a decade of its foundation, boasted banks, a hospital, two theatres and electric lighting, Aspen was bust by the turn of the century. It didn't resurge until after the Second World War, when it became a ski centre for the Rockies and subsequently an ­upscale tourist resort.

It doesn't really matter whether the allusion was to the historic Wild West Aspen, or the contemporary, dull, Michael-Douglas-and-Catherine-Zeta-Jones's-umpteenth-vacation-home Aspen. On a cooking appliance, the name still sent all the right messages, suggesting a creative, culinary tension between rugged homesteading and abject luxury. Yes, I thought, as my friend flambéed, if I were to buy a cooker, it would have to be an Aspen.

The Aspen papers

Some time after that, I was sitting at a Parisian café with a perfectly formed but diminutive literary critic when I noticed the brand of cigarettes he was toying with as he lectured me on Oulipo. They were Aspens. Quite right, too, I inveighed against my better self. I mean, with its implications of both the untamed natural world and the brittle sophistication of après-ski, Aspen is the perfect designation for a gasper . . .

What is it with brands - why do we invest these shopworn icons with such reverence? When I logged on to the internet to investigate, I discovered that the fags, the stove and the static homes were only the tip of an Aspen ­iceberg. The Aspen saunas and Aspen rustic furniture were predictable. But what of the ­Aspen sex toys and the Aspen paediatric ­collars, let alone the Aspen credit card - which, having been punted as the ideal form of ­liquidity for those with bad credit, was subsequently . . . discontinued. D'oh! Still, there yet remained Aspen Gold socks and Aspen T-shirts with which to sheath my credulous body, before lacing up my Karrimor KSB ­Aspen walking boots and making for the hills. Then, upon my return, if I was perhaps a little smelly, I could always splash myself with ­Aspen aftershave.

We believe in brands - oh yes we do, even the most sceptical of us. We believe in brands as status symbols - the Louis Vuittons and Ralph Laurens of this glittering world - and we also believe in branding: the capacity of an ­appellation, even when applied to myriad ­different products, to coat them all with a lick of uniqueness. The anthropologist Mary ­Douglas characterised money as only "an extreme and specialised form of ritual", but while money standardises situations and mediates interpersonal exchanges, brands do something far more radical. The ability of the word "Aspen" to conjure up the qualities one might look for in any of the products above is capitalist magic. Money, even at its most engineered and fantastical, remains rooted in materiality - but brands are of the spirit world.

It's mad to believe that a designer handbag, which may be manufactured in some south-east Asian sweatshop identical to the ones where fake designer handbags are manufactured, has a greater cachet than its imitators. Yet this is a form of derangement from which we all suffer. Of course, some brands do live up to their image - Porsche cars, Dunhill cigarettes - but then the owners of these philosophers' stones go and nullify their meaning by slapping them on something wildly different - hence Porsche tobacco pipes and Dunhill pants.

Brand of bothers

A world without brands would be a terrifyingly literal place; instead of the shape-shifting array of things quivering on the supermarket shelves, we would be left with nothing but quiddity: beans would be beans, bread would be bread, and cars would be merely a means of transport. Without branding, all the mystery and all the poetry would be leeched out of economic existence. There would be no added value, and no added metaphor, either. Even the Soviet regime employed some brands to leaven the tyrannically heavy dough of centrally planned production.In downtown Aspen, the designer emporia cluster along the main street as dense and stately as aspens. The plate-glass windows of Prada, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton seem to tremble in the "aspenglow", a local light effect hymned by no less a singer than John Denver. Could it be that the reason this tiny mountain settlement (population 5,804) has attracted quite so many brand names is ­because it itself is a brand? No, no! Don't think on't - for that way madness™ lies.


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Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains