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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

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.