When rebrands go wrong

(And how to avoid the pitfalls)

'Brazillians are rallying the ad slogan for their fight'

Consumer culture. It’s one of the most used and yet least understood concepts in the modern lexicon. It’s a phrase usually wheeled out when society is deemed to be spending too much or to describe the proliferation of brands on the high street. But the concept of consumer culture and its implications for society are far more complex and important than that.

Mark Ritson

The term ‘culture’ means the complex soup of meanings that a particular group use to make sense of their world. Preface that term with ‘consumer’ and we arrive at a peculiar situation in which the act of consumption, the brands being consumed and even their advertising messages form the basis from which people make sense of their world. Consumer messages are used to identify oneself with others and, equally crucially, to define one’s own identity internally. In a consumer culture, the act of consumption and the practices of marketing become more important than simply selling and buying goods – they become the means by which we understand things.

I was reminded of this over the weekend while watching the footage of the national wave of protests sweeping Brazil. After a brief spurt of economic growth and national optimism, Brazil has been mired in a downturn in the economy. Corruption and the growing spectre of spending billions on the 2014 World Cup have only served to add fuel to the fire and the streets of São Paulo, Rio and more than 100 other Brazilian cities have been filled with protesters angry at the country’s current malaise. 

Traditionally, the protesters would have flown red flags and chanted The Internationale in Portuguese. At first sight the banners on display –  ‘Vem Pra Rua’ (Come to the streets) and ‘O Gigante Acordou’ (The Giant has Awoken) – might appear to be political statements drawn from the local imagination. But, Brazilians, like all of us, are firmly in the grip of consumer culture. These protests are not Marxist slogans or Brazilian calls for revolt. They are advertising slogans.

Vem Pra Rua is a major campaign launched by Fiat to promote its sponsorship of the World Cup 2014. The slogan was launched this year via social media and a major TV campaign in which Brazilians are shown emerging from their houses wearing their national colours and rising to support the Brazilian football side. O Gigante Acordou has been the Brazilian slogan for Johnnie Walker for two years. Initially, this was a masterful attempt by Diageo to link its global brand campaign – Keep Walking – with the local market climate in Brazil. A fabulous TV commercial shows Rio’s famous ‘Sugar Loaf’ mountain transforming into a giant who rises and begins to walk. The campaign was meant to capture the growing Brazilian economy and its cultural renaissance. Once again, however, protesters have taken the ad and its slogan and applied an entirely oppositional context, even going as far as creating a mash-up video for YouTube mixing the original Johnnie Walker ad with footage from the protests. It ends not with the words ‘Keep Walking’ but ‘Keep Fighting’.

The media is calling this interesting phenomenon ‘subvertising’ but they are missing the point. This is a much older, more established activity and it has a name: bricolage. It is a term first used by media theorist Dick Hebdige to describe how a disenfranchised subculture will use the signs and symbols of the dominant group within society, add a twist and then present them as their own. 

A century ago, young African-American men took to wearing the top hat and tails of the upper classes and rioting with them on. In Britain, punks took the safety pins and bin bags of the domestic middle classes and turned them into fashion items to protest mainstream societal values. In America in the 1990s, gay men and women took the slogans and logos of big brands and gave them a gay twist (Häagen-Dazs became Fag’n Dyke, Nike became Dike) to protest at the lack of explicit recognition that gay people were getting
from mainstream brands.

And now in Brazil a new generation of protest has emerged by taking the campaigns designed to support Brazilian success and its upcoming World Cup and turning them into a critical call for change. This is what we really mean by consumer culture. Not simply the passive increase in shopping, but the use of brands and slogans to make sense of and make changes to the very heart of society.

Readers' comments (5)

  • Nice piece Mark. You might like to read our thoughts on the same theme from a week ago http://www.synergy-sponsorship.com/blog/20130628/changebrazil-the-implications-for-brands-sponsorship/ Just one factual point.Fiat isn't a World Cup sponsor - in the auto category, that's Hyundai. As we point out in our piece, the Fiat campaign is actually ambush marketing. A classic case of the ambusher ambushed!

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  • Mark, I love the word 'bricolage' to describe how a disenfranchised subculture subverts the signs and symbols of the dominant group. But it's so last millennium. The contemporary 21st century digital rebel prefers the phrase 'meme fuck'. So much more expressive. Its a phrase I treasure and try to use at least once a day.

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  • Close but no cigar Mark. Currently living and working in Paris where I can tell you that "bricolage" simply means DIY. And these protests are definitely DIY. Thats should have been your angle. As for the punk reference: way off! Sid Vicious was a full on smack head who spent everything on heroin. He could not afford new clothes and used safety pins to hold his gear together. The dumb fans simple copied the hapless loser.

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  • Yes, its true Bricolage does mean DIY or more correctly to be a "Jack of all trades" in French.

    But the word, and specifically the idea of a "Bricoleur" was then used by Claude Levi-Strauss in the Sixties to refer to the way in which signs could be used and re-used to formulate new myths, specifically:

    "The bricoleur works with signs, constructing new arrangements by adopting existing signifieds as signifiers and 'speaking' 'through the medium of things' - by the choices made from 'limited possibilities'"

    That was the concept then taken up by Dick Hebdige in his seminal work on sub-cultures in which he specifically refers to Punks as a core example of bricolage.

    Cigar all mine....

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  • Dear experts on marketing, any idea who would be the most disappointed potential sponsors in the Worldcup Brazil 2014 story? We came up with an idea that could make local people better from the Cup. When having a minimum budget for it, we're modest in thinking it can't fail. We're looking for support and funding for it. Any tips you could give us?

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