Treasured symbols

Has the idea of a trusted brand run its course? We assess the value of branding, looking back from the year 2040 where deep fakes and disinformation have de-branded our world.

It’s 1987. Terry Waite, the hostage negotiator, is taken captive in Beirut. For the next three and a half years, he lives in solitary confinement. Every day he begs for a book to relieve the loneliness. Finally, his guard, who can read no English, takes pity on him and drops off a paperback. The title? Great Escapes. The guard’s next delivery is equally absurd – a manual of breastfeeding. So, Terry asks for a pencil and paper and carefully draws a picture of a penguin: “If you see this on the cover, it means it’s a good book.” Two weeks later, he gets As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee.

© alastairhumphreys.com

Once upon a time, before the internet, Penguin was one of millions of trusted brands in circulation. But if we fast-forward fifty years to the present day, things look very different…

It’s 2040. Society now dictates that human beings only need five UltraBrands in order to live. They are: Google, ELON, 大成功, Amazon and I. Officially, these five globally-accredited providers satisfy our every need: information, transportation, health, purchasing and self-actualisation.

How did we get here? First, connectivity changed everything. Rather than rely on the symbols of reputation, people began to investigate the true value of products – and the values of their makers. With ASI tools to guide them, it was easy to find everything they were seeking, branded or unbranded. In the frictionless Personal Recommendation Economy, companies were progressively squeezed out of the conversation.

Then, fake branding dealt a near-fatal blow to democracy. Not just rip-off Rolexes, but Russia masquerading as The White House; China cloning the EU; deepfake video turning celebrities into porn stars; alien invasion warnings broadcast by Alexa; ordinary people’s life savings buried offshore in shell companies; nations routinely committing atrocities under one another’s flags.

Lies, damned lies and doppelgängers undermined the credibility of every organisation. Workers stopped believing in the businesses they worked for, and quickly so did every customer. The very idea of a trusted brand had run its course.

And now here we are stuck with The Five. A perfectly streamlined, perfectly dull, de-branded world. Just like Terry Waite, 50 years before us, we are hostages to greyness, fondly recalling the colourful branded life we once lived.

If only companies had held onto their integrity. If only we’d returned to the brand basics of standing up for something and standing apart. If only we’d treasured that penguin as a portal to something more precious.