brands in the anthropocene

2020, Logo Insignifica, Masters in Branding, SVA

Though not necessarily in name, our contemporary notions of brands have long been with us--not as individual finite creatures, but rather with US on whole, as the single collective organism we call humanity. With the invention of agriculture over 10,000 years ago and the subsequent emergence or large-scale settlements and complex societies, human beings have had to also invent means to communicate, enmasse, in ways that transcend spoken language alone. While these large scale methods of communication might be traditionally conceived of as religion, culture or politics, with the advent of mass-production in the Industrial Age humanity has witnessed how nearly all mass-ideas can be commodified, spent and held in reserve as brands. In other words, brands are both the product of, and a requisite for, modern human civilization. They are both a metaphysical manifestation of the Anthropocene and are also our best hope for collectively understanding and addressing this current epoch in our planet’s history.   

If we accept anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s limit to meaningful human interaction to be correct, at around 150 individuals, it would seem that we collectively have had to develop work arounds beyond traditional language to understand our individual place in mass-society.[1] From an anthropological perspective the mass-ideas that have helped establish and maintain stability, resilience and cohesion in human society, in lieu of complete direct or intimate individual contact, have traditionally been conceived of as concepts like culture, religion, or political organization. With the dawn of the Anthropocene, these concepts have evolved alongside other simultaneous developments--most importantly humanity’s exponential population growth and the advent of mass-production, mass-consumption and mass-communication. 

Just as Walter Benjamin observed the effects of industrialization and technology on art in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” a similar effect has transformed our understanding of human culture as a whole. Benjamin observed that “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual.”[2] Similarly, technological reproducibility and mass means of dissemination have emancipated culture and collective ideas from specific physical or temporal contexts, or so some wish to believe. These emancipated ideas are ofcourse what one might call “brands” from our contemporary perspective. Just as Duhamel noted that his “thoughts have been replaced by moving images” when observing cinema, so have our contemporary thoughts been replaced by an ever evolving parade of interconnected brands. 

From an existential perspective this relatively new reality is not all that different from the human perspective of the pre-Anthropocene or even the neolithic era. Contemporary notions of brands, albeit conceptually very complex, are simply a model for understanding the cosmos not unlike traditional concepts of religion, language, culture or politics. Brands bring humanity no closer to the true nature of the universe than we have ever been, but they are the best models we have to make sense of our collective existence in an epoch of massive population growth and increasingly complex and diversified social and economic stratification.

To better understand brands as models for human thought, it is perhaps useful to have a model for understanding brands within the context of the Anthropocene. Scientist and renowned Systems Analyst Donella Meadows developed a model of thinking to understand both natural and manmade systems that can be applied to both brands themselves as isolated systems, as well as their relationship to anthropogenic systems writ large. One very interesting concept within Meadows’ system of systems theory is the idea of stocks. A stock can be physical in nature, like an inventory; conceptual, such as brand equity; or both, as in capital. It would not be too far of a stretch to think of Meadows’ concept of stocks as not unlike Martin Hieddegger’s notion of the standing reserve. 

For Meadows however, the most important factor for understanding a system’s strength and resilience is understanding the efficacy of what she calls its “reinforcing feedback loop.” Just as Marx noted that capital begets more capital, thinking in brands begets more brand thinking--and in our current economic system both beget each other. Meadows notes that a system with an insufficient feedback loop that does not take into consideration its long-term resilience (sustainability, a continuously competitive marketplace, etc.) will ultimately result in its own demise (ecological collapse, monopolies, etc.).[3] Returning to Walter Benjamin, a similar parallel can be drawn when he suggests that “the logical outcome of facsism is an aestheticization of political life” which in turn results in war and “[self] annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”[4]

In order to intervene in a system that is progressing toward self annihilation, Meadows notes that changing the course of a resilient system is by its nature very difficult, but not impossible if one learns to work with (or as shes writes “dance with”) a system and its reinforcing feedback loop(s). To do this Meadows suggests approaching a system along 12 different leverage points that she ranks in order of efficacy and feasibility--which tend to have an inverse relationship with each other. Aside from being applicable to our individual and collective system of brands, Meadows’ list suggests that an adept understanding of brands and brand thinking can have a profound impact on our ability to intervene in the myriad anthropogenic systems that seem to point to our inevitable ecological or socio-economic demise at this particular point in the Anthropocene. As applicable to branding, the relevant leverage points skew towards the upper echelons of Meadows’ list, or in other words the more effective but more difficult points of leverage. These include addressing Information Flows (6), models for Self-Organization (4), System Goals (3) and Paradigms (1-2).[5] 

Paradigms in particular present a very exciting and infinitely interesting point of leverage for brand thinking. For all intents and purposes, one could substitute the word ‘paradigm’ with the word ‘model’, ‘world-view’, ‘metaphor’, or ‘brand'--or perhaps, for Fredrick Jameson, ‘utopia.’[6] Just as modern brands simultaneously were born out of and permitted the development of mass-society, brands simultaneously emerge from, reinforce, and, sometimes, transform the societal archetypes that shape, expand and limit our understanding of the world--both natural and otherwise. For Meadows this chicken and egg relationship would not be confounding, but rather is an example of a classic reinforcing feedback loop. To change these feedback loops, Meadows stresses, among other strategies, the importance of developing an understanding of the non-linearities that interact with all systems that might not be readily apparent to our linear oriented minds. She writes, “Nonlinearities...change the relative strengths of feedback loops. They can flip a system from one mode of behavior to another.”[7]

If nothing else, understanding brand thinking is an exercise in nonlinear thought. It is an almost futile attempt to make sense of the creation and evolution of meaning that arises from a near infinite interplay of biological and cultural systems that have in turn arisen from equally infinite collective and individual interactions. Despite the seeming impossibility of complete mastery over brand thinking, its allure is irrefusable as there is seemingly no anthropogenic problem that brand thinking can not address-- be it an unsustainably inequitable distribution of economic resources or self-annihilation in the face of human conflict or ecological collapse. Just as the Anthropocene is defined by humanity's profound, complex and irreversible physical impact on the Earth’s geological record, brands as collective manifestations of humanity are perhaps one of the most profound and complex metaphysical creations to emerge from the cosmos--creations that will forever be one of the most intricate expressions of the universe, whether we ourselves survive to record its history or not.

  1.  Dunbar’s number. Wikipedia. December 14, 2019,
  2.   Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. 1932. p. 256-257
  3.  Meadows, Donella. Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. p. 103.
  4. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. 1932. p. 269-270
  5. Meadows, Donella. Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. p. 156-165.
  6. Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future. London, Verso, 2005.
  7. Meadows, Donella. Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. p. 92.