Branded Nation

What is common between Prophets, politicians and playwrights? They all tell stories. What determines the popularity of each? How well they sell their stories Moses’ Ten Commandments, Bush’s WMD and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ are all ‘stories’ we recognize and relate to. Storytelling is the core of culture it is through stories that we share our feelings, dreams and hopes.

James B. Twitchell’s book Branded Nation focuses on how the ‘storifying’ of culture has led to ‘branding’ of religious affiliations, educational institutions and museums in America. Witty and full of brand references that we all easily recognize, this book is a must read for advertisers, marketing executives, students and anthropologists. And, if we are to believe Twitchell’s claim of the pervasiveness of branding in every aspect of our culture, religious leaders and academicians can cause a manifold increase in their congregations and enrollment by taking a page out of Branded Nation.

Life, according to Twitchell, is all about marketing. We ‘market’ ourselves to our friends, teachers, employers and would-be spouses. Companies ‘market’ themselves to job seekers and even clerics ‘market’ religion for forgiveness in this world and salvation in the next. Branding facilitates this marketing process for us. For instance, a graduate of IBA or LUMS is more likely to land a job at an MNC than one who graduates from a less prestigious institute. A religious edict by a ‘mufti’ who has been to Al-Azhar in Cairo will carry greater weight and acceptability than one issued by the local Taliban.

Twitchell’s take on religious affiliations is particularly startling. He observes that greater the competition, the deeper the brand affiliation. This, he says, explains the phenomenon of violence between followers of different sects within Islam. Men, he observes, are the crucial ‘adopters’ in religion, which is why all religions and religious sects primarily target men – a fact that our religious clerics already exploit. His theory linking religious affiliation with perceived worldly success is thought provoking – is our profession of faith really motivated by wealth, power and prestige?

When it comes to his analysis of commercialization of higher education in US, Twitchell acts as a whistle blower. College education is no longer just about knowledge; it is now an ‘affiliation’ with an alma mater, an experience that includes ‘…the accessories, the amenities and the aura..’ that results in it being ‘branded’ as such. Universities and colleges expand their ‘consumer’ base by encouraging minorities, women and foreign students to apply and attract ‘consumers’ by investing in sports facilities, malls and fancy dorms. His contention is that university rankings ‘overestimate the importance of a university’s prestige in acquiring college education’ and grade inflation by professors makes it virtually impossible for anyone to fail.

College courses such as ‘Haunto-logies’ and ‘Disney and its Con-tents’ often have little relevance to the real world or literature, and few care that they are being taught by teachers who are outsourced. For all the hype surrounding Ivy Leagues and state universities, higher education in America is all about branding based on perceived and often fictionalised differences where the academy serves as the ‘entrepreneur’ and education is a ‘consumer good’.

Twitchell’s analysis of the commercialisation of the edutainment industry is equally savvy. The exhibitions and demonstrations at art galleries and museums are a part of the entire package including store, restaurant and high tech interface via internet. Art rental to corporations and individuals as well as renting out museum space for events is increasingly common as a means of generating income for these institutions. ‘Art for the sake of art’ no longer holds true.

A cynic would therefore conclude every aspect of our lives is now scarred by commercialisation. Through branding the faith we profess, the education we attain and the goods we consume, we naturally move on to branding our state and nation on the world’s mental map. Thus there are efforts to brand Malaysia as ‘Truly Asia’ and India as ‘Incredible’ and, by certain sections of the media, there are even efforts to brand Pakistan and Iran as ‘terrorist states’. What a farsighted marketer would realize is, however, that we can only experience an emotional ‘high’ for a short time. We need to be able to experience or at least perceive tangible benefits associated with a brand. Harvard must lead to worldly success and America ‘must’ win its war on terror. Otherwise, the story will take an unexpected turn.

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Author Information

Sadaf Azhar, an avid reader, enjoys ethics and history-related literature. She strives to find the time to contribute to periodicals and holds an MBA from the Institute of Business Administration. She currently lives in Chunnia Cantt, Kasur with her young family.

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