Interview by Michael Bullock
Photographed by Terry Richardson
Published in index magazine, 2002
Nike gets a lot of attention in your book. Did they ever get in touch?
Nike slammed the book. They issued a press release on their website, but they didn’t make any specific criticisms. They basically used the publication of the book as an opportunity to talk about all the “great things” they were doing. I debated a Nike vice president on a university campus, and he was very aggressive. Then just two weeks ago I got a call from their Vice President of Social Responsibility asking me to have lunch. It was like, if one strategy doesn’t work, try another.
They probably want to make you their spokesperson.
I didn’t lunch. [laughs] The truth is, I’ve been asked to consult by all the major branding companies — Wolff Olins, Brand Futures — and also by individual corporations like Shell Oil and Unilever.
Have you taken any of the jobs?
No I don’t do corporate consulting. But if I wanted to, I could make a living at that. There’s an industry where you go on the speaking circuit and scare companies, and they kind of like it.
There’s a cell phone company in Europe called Orange. They were the funniest. They asked me to join their think tank, and when I declined they wrote me an e-mail, cc’d to everybody in the company, with the subject heading: “I thought Naomi would want to try and make a difference.”
I feel quite conflicted about it, in that I really do believe that individuals in key positions can have a serious impact within the corporate world if they decide to. The main reason I don’t do the corporate consulting is that a lot of the people who care about the book are rightfully cynical that everyone and everything they really care about will sell out eventually. It’s funny. The guy at Orange tried to get around the issue, saying, “You don’t have to take money from us. You can come and buy me coffee!” It was this whole patronizing thing about my so-called integrity.
So the major companies think you can help them brand themselves to be palatable to the skeptical youth market.
They have teams of “coolhunters” out there doing interviews with young people, and the market research says that there is a growing cynicism about corporate power. It’s not just who’s taking to the streets in Seattle or Genoa — they know it’s more widespread than that. Their job is to understand threats and to use them for their own ends if possible.
So some companies actually approach the anti- corporate attitude as a marketing opportunity.
Absolutely. We’ve already seen images from this new wave of protests in corporate advertising. We’ve seen it with the Gap.
Oh right. They sent all their stores peel-off “Freedom” graffiti to put on the windows.
Yeah. And Sony PlayStation came up with the game “State of Emergency,” which is based on the W.T.O. protests. In the game, anarchists with cool haircuts throw rocks at riot cops.
This is for sale by Sony?
Yeah, I know. There have been a ton of advances, if you want to call them that, both in anti-corporate actions, and in companies co-opting anti- corporate actions and images. It’s gotten surreal, almost like a cat-and-mouse game.
Can you think of an example?
Well, there’s an upscale clothing company in London called Boxfresh. They decided to use images of the Zapatistas to sell their clothing. They put Subcommandante Marcos images in their windows. Some local activists decided this was not cool, so they dressed up like Zapatistas and started leafleting. They eventually got Boxfresh to agree to set up a computer terminal in the store where people could get information about who the Zapatistas actually are. They also got Boxfresh to agree to donate the profits from that particular line to the Zapatistas!
In “No Logo”, you write about the way that political ideas are being co-opted into marketing tactics. You also describe a shift in the way young people are relating to advertising. How did you pick up on those trends?
When I was in college at the University of Toronto in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, we had a real discourse around marketing and pop culture in general. But it mostly centered around images and representation. As “identity warriors” in the politically correct era, we wanted to have more positive images of women and more racial and sexual diversity in media and advertising. Then I actually dropped out of school for a few years. When I came back in the mid-‘90s to finish my degree, I met a new generation of politicized young people whose outlook was very different.
Even though they were just a few years younger than you?
Yeah. This was the generation that grew up with ads in their high schools and all over their university campuses. What they wanted from advertising was not for it to be more progressive, or for it to represent them accurately. They just wanted advertising to shut up once in a while. It was the beginnings of an articulation of a politics about reclaiming public space, as opposed to changing the pictures. I thought, This is the shift. Even though it looks completely insignificant right now, even if it’s just five people defacing billboards in the university bathrooms, I think this is actually the beginning of a new political movement.”
What I find most exciting about your book is that you go from talking about the surface of things — like identity politics — to the big picture. You ask, “How is this all working together on a global scale? How are we all affected by these trends everyday?”
Yeah, I wasn’t just interested in marketing issues or cultural issues. I was also thinking about the kind of jobs that young people were getting. When I left college the first time, it was the beginning of the last recession, so a lot of my friends and I weren’t getting jobs, or we were getting lousy contract jobs. And yet there was this strange duality, because we were also being treated as this incredibly hot cultural commodity. For the first time, there was no cultural delay between when an idea was thought up and when it was sold back to us. Every opinion was treated as precious metals — no idea was too passing to merit a focus group of some kind.
You were being stalked by marketers.
So the group of young anti-corporate activists I met when I went back to school actually inspired No Logo. They were ad busters and culture jammers, and they had an attitude like, “If you don’t like it, hack into it, change it.” They weren’t intimidated by technology, or by global corporations in general. They were undaunted. And it seemed to me that there was something in their approach that liberated them.
How did you begin your research for the book?
I started reading tons of ridiculous management consulting books and magazines like Fast Company. Basically, I realized we’re in an era of selling brands instead of products. Brands were no longer a mark of the quality of a product — the true product became the brand idea, the brand identity. The measure of a successful brand is how well it stretches into as many different areas as possible. Like Disney. You’ve got the movies, the channel, the theme park, the toys and clothes ...The project is to build a lifestyle in three dimensions.
Can you give me an example of a company that actually made a concerted effort to change philosophy, from selling a product to selling an idea?
Well, I interviewed a guy named Robert Louis-Dreyfus. He’s the head of Adidas, formerly an executive at Saatchi & Saatchi. His goal was to turn Adidas into a Nike-style company, i.e. to sell off all the factories and become, as he says, “a design and marketing firm.” And that shift, which determines under what circumstances products are made, is impacting the ability of workers to improve their conditions. It explains the explosion of sweatshop labor in the U.S., as well as around the world.
The big companies hire a guy who hires a factory, so they can never be held responsible for their labor practices.
That was Nike’s first line of defense when the allegations of sweatshop labor started surfacing. “They’re not our factories, we don’t own them.” But people didn’t accept that. They said “It’s a Nike shoe — it’s your problem.”
Are there any major brands left who’ve gone against that trend to outsource?
Sure. Ericcson, the Swedish cell phone company, recently decided that they want to be like Nike. They want to be a communications brand, and they don’t want to make cell phones anymore. They’re one of the biggest companies in Sweden, and a lot of people lost their jobs. At the same time, Nokia made the very fact that they’re not going to outsource part of their brand identity. A few months ago they very publicly said, “The difference between Nokia and Ericcson is that we’re going to stay where we are. There’s an entire city in Finland that is built around Nokia and we’re not going to leave it.”
I know that Maxmara still makes all of their clothing in their hometown of Reggio Emilio. A lot of other Italian companies in design and fashion do the same.
Zara, the Spanish company, is the only clothing company I know of that has made a similar decision. They’re bucking the industry trend, continuing to own their factories. And that means that they’ve got less money to spend on advertising.
And yet, branding isn’t really about advertising.
No, it’s about the end of advertising. Advertising wants to interrupt. Your ads in this magazine are interrupting your articles. Right? They’re hitching a ride on your cultural product. Branding would want to have the whole magazine ...
Like the Starbucks magazine, “Joe”.
Right. The goal of branding is seamless integration. The brand becomes the cultural infrastructure, and as journalists and artists we become brand content. We are in their structure, not they in ours. That’s kind of a subtle slip and it’s easy to miss. Because it’s not about whether ads are there. The question is who’s branding who? Who’s riding who? I always saw those wrap-around ads on buses and on buildings as the best metaphors for this shift.
You mean the vinyl screens that appeared in the mid-‘90s?
Right. Suddenly you had giant chocolate bars going down the street. And you had people inside them looking like a giant Mars Bar! Something was different.
And yet, you can’t quite say, “I remember the good old days when there were only billboards on the side panels of city buses.”
Right. A nostalgia about a pure unbranded age is not the issue. The issue is what happens when marketing becomes our cultural infrastructure, when we are literally living inside the ads, working or riding inside them.
There’s also been a shift in people’s self-perception. People are thinking of themselves as having branded tastes, and they can only operate in these terms.
Well, the American flag has just surpassed the Nike swoosh as the most popular tattoo in North America. Before September eleventh, the most popular tattoo was the swoosh.
It is, but it’s also entirely predictable. Brands are opportunists, and we have a profoundly human desire to be part of something larger than ourselves — to have greater meaning than just being shoppers. And that’s what branding is about.
I guess people used to brand themselves by political party or school or religion.
It’s the most basic tribal impulse, to invest a symbol with meaning. To mark yourself, and to build identity and belonging around that. Religions do it, political parties do it. And so do corporations. The issue is that they sell false community. But the reason branding has been so successful is not because we all draw identity from our running shoes. All the market research shows that we want more than running shoes, and lattes, and laptop computers. In order for us want them so much, these consumer products have to be elevated to another level.
A spiritual level.
That’s why I find all this discussion about shopping to fight terrorism so interesting. In many ways, it’s the ultimate triumph of the logic of branding. See, this new era of relationship branding came out of the last recession. People weren’t shopping enough. The companies needed to find a strategy to build a deeper sort of loyalty, so they began to comb the culture. They asked consumers, “What is it that you care most about? Community? Democracy?” Once I sat down with Andy Law, the founder of the most cutting-edge ad agency in Britain, St. Lukes. I asked him to define the brand identities for the companies he works with. I said, “What does Ikea stand for?” He said, “Democracy.” “What does Virgin stand for?” He said, “Power to the people.”
People really want freedom. That proves that there’s a market for political activism as far as I’m concerned. They really want democracy. But they’re definitely not going to get it just from putting together their own Ikea furniture.
Here in New York, shopping has definitely been elevated to the highest form of patriotism.
Since September eleventh we have conflated shopping and fighting terrorism. It’s a branding dream come true. There was a “Canada Loves New York” rally recently. Thousands of Canadians went down to the city with their depleted currency, the ravaged Canadian dollar, to say they were supporting New York. And by the way, the U.S. itself is facing a brand crisis right now. Bush just hired Charlotte Beers, the former head of the J. Walter Thompson agency, to help with the branding of the war. Ironically, one of the problems she’s supposed to solve is that people associate America with American corporations. In other words, American brands have usurped the “America” brand.
A while back, you mentioned coolhunters. Their job is to identify trends before they hit the mainstream by watching what “early adapters” are doing and buying. But if a new skeptical generation is trying to get away from branded products, spaces, and events, where does that leave the corporations who want to capitalize on the trend-setting youth market?
From their perspective, the next logical step is to create sub-brands and boutique brands, and that’s already happening. But I don’t think the corporations understand where the emotions are coming from. With their new strategies, they’ve enraged their critics and fed the feeling that everything is for sale and everything is commodified. What’s driving so much of this activism and this new thinking is a genuine desire for a defense of the public sphere. When I visited Andy Law at St. Lukes he said, “Everybody wants unbranded public space now, so we’re thinking of creating websites that are unbranded, but brought to you by a brand. There wouldn’t be any ads, and people would go there and hang out.” Unbranded space would be the new luxury item.
It’s like Celebration, the Disney town in Florida. There are no billboards or signage. And yet everything in Celebration is, in effect, an ad for Disney. The cleanliness, the architecture, the ponds, mailboxes, whatever. It manages to be the most branded place you can be.
Exactly. When people see this happening, it makes them more determined to find free space, whether through indie media, through sharing files with their friends, or by trying to chase corporate money out of politics.
This morning you were named one of the thirteen Women of the Year by Ms. Magazine, along with Michelle Yeoh, Jane Fonda, and Yoko Ono, to name some of the others. I’m curious who some of your heroes are.
I do kind of worship Gloria Steinem. She was one of the first people to come out and talk about the day-to-day pressures that magazines face from advertisers. I don’t always agree with that wave of feminism, but I do think feminists were some of the original culture jammers. But what really amazes me about Gloria is her endless capacity to mentor. She has an incredible openness to younger women’s ideas. And I love Arundhati Roy. She won a Booker Award for the novel The God of Small Things, and ever since, she’s been engaged in grassroots activism in India, fighting mega dams that are displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
After the success of her book, instead of getting comfortable with being a celebrity, she got even more hardcore about her politics.
She’s an absolute hero of mine. Basically, I’m interested in how women use leadership differently. I’m interested in people who use a platform in a way that makes room for more people instead of just going, “I’m the chosen one, I will lead you to the promised land.” I’ve thought a lot about this since all the Radiohead stuff.
You mean the band?
Yeah. About eight months after No Logo came out, Radiohead released Kid A. In their interviews, a few of the band members casually mentioned that they had read No Logo while they were producing the album, and it had influenced the way they released it. They sort of de-branded themselves, playing their British tour in a big blue unmarked tent without any sponsorship. It became a big story, particularly in Britain because the press there hangs on Thom Yorke’s every word. So all of sudden, a constituency was reading the book that probably never would have otherwise. And I started getting hundreds of letters from teenage Radiohead fans all over the world, asking how they could get involved in globalization activism. The experience made me realize how contagious optimism is. It also showed me the power of leadership through storytelling, as opposed to evangelizing.
Did all of the media attention make you feel like you had to un-logo yourself?
Yeah, I did feel like I had to un-logo myself. [laughs] That’s why I’ve been thinking about people who use leadership differently. Marcos may be a cliché, but he’s important to me as a theorist. The Zapatistas are unlike any other liberation struggle because they’ve turned the whole idea of solidarity on its head. They’re saying, “Actually what we want is less of your help with our struggle. We want you to go back to where you’re from and do it yourself, wherever you are.” I love Marcos’ whole dialectic of being the anti- Che. Instead of this beautiful figure, he’s a masked man. Now, some people think that’s just a media stunt, but I think it’s genius that he says, “My mask is a mirror. I am you. You come looking for leadership from me, and you’ll see yourself.”
Right. So do you go to protests?
I’ve been to about half the big ones. I go mostly to bear witness to the police actions. Because afterwards there are always debates about what happened and who started what. I’m not big on chanting — it’s just not my thing. I’m really a hermit. But it’s important for me to be there because I’m a writer, and these events get so distorted in the media.
When you say you’re a hermit, what does that mean? I know you travel a lot.
I’ve traveled a lot since the book came out. But the skills that allow you to spend four years researching something are not the same ones that make you comfortable on platforms. In some people those skills coexist — I’m not one of them. It’s a struggle for me to do all the public speaking and protests, even though I have had moments of pure exhilaration. Usually those involve a convergence of music and activism.
I would think that being a public figure is stressful.
Well, I get attacked a lot. I was compared to Bin Laden recently. An article that was originally printed in the New Statesman, which was then reprinted in a lot of other places. It discussed Bin Laden’s relationship to Al Qaeda. It said, “He is not a leader in the traditional sense. His relationship to leadership is more akin to Naomi Klein’s relationship to the anti-Globalization movement.” When it was reprinted in Australia, the headline was, “Bin Laden Meets Naomi Klein.”
Wow. I guess that means you’re a celebrity.
I wouldn’t say a celebrity! The book is a best-seller in other countries. In the U.S., it’s a book that people tell their friends about. I prefer that in some ways. The paparazzi thing is really intense in Italy.
They have a celebrity culture around intellectuals that is just completely foreign to North Americans. When I was first exposed to it I thought, “What? I wrote a nonfiction book!” But seriously, in Italy there’s a company that has started a line of “No Logo” olive oil. And there are “No Logo” cell phones. It’s hideous. It’s ridiculous. But that’s what happens when you don’t trademark your logo.