Brand Society by Martin Kornberger

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Brand Society by Martin Kornberger

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Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Although perhaps not for the casual reader, this is a thought provoking analysis of the role that brands play in today's companies and culture. It analyses all sides of the arguments and is both academic and pragmatic and ranges from management thinking, to sociology, philosophy and even modern art in its holistic approach.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 328 Date: December 2009
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 978-0521726900

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Brand Society is fundamentally not a business management book. This might come as some surprise given the title. Management books, at least the how to management books, tend to be simple and easy to follow. But, I suspect Kornberger would agree, that's what limits their use. They are over-simplified to the point of uselessness. Rather, Brand Society takes an holistic approach to the subject of the prevailing nature of brands in today's world (at least the Western world). He suggests that today's brands exist without a prevailing theory to understand them or make sense of them. So what Kornberger does, after first looking at how brands transform management and organizations, is present a brand-centred conceptual map for thinking about things like politics, ethics and aesthetics.

Accordingly Kornberger draws on the work of sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers (the author has a PhD in philosophy so he does this rather well), even modern art, as well as more conventional management theorists. On top of that there are a number of case examples drawn in part from the author's previous life in a brand agency. The result is a complex mixture, but fascinating for that very reason. I think his idea (a word which sounds like it should be an Apple brand) is that only if you tackle the complexities do you get to anything like a real understanding.

It takes only a moment's thought to acknowledge the extent to which brands infiltrate our lives - and have done for many years. Heroin was, for example, a Victorian brand for German pharmaceutical company Bayer, while others such as Hoover, Coca Cola etc quickly became synonymous with their products. But more recently the notion of branding has been pushed to the fore with companies like Virgin, Nike, Apple to name but a few. Even the anti-brand literature like Naomi Klein's No Logo have become 'brands'. The problem with brands is that they are established beyond the control of the companies who own them (think of the effects on the Burberry brand when it became the fashion of choice for any football thug who was serious about his chosen pastime, or the use of brand names in the latest Hip Hop music of Snoop Puffy Dog or whoever it is). This takes them beyond mere marketing - and makes them a fascinating area of study.

The writing style is somewhat varied. At times some of the concepts presented, particularly when he is summarising others' research findings, can be quite heavy going, but at others Kornberger has an almost cheeky touch. Products and brands relate to each other, he suggests, like gynaecology and sex: one fulfils a purpose, the other mesmerizes indefinitely. Quite. Of course, that's a fine definition of The Bookbag brand, I'm sure you will agree, dear reader! These lighter touches, together with some easy-reading case studies, come as welcome respite from some of the deeper issues analysed.

The book is nicely laid out and very modern-looking. But be warned, this is not for the passive reader. The subject matter is complex and, at times, dense but the reader will be rewarded for embracing this complexity and it is thought provoking stuff. Does he come up with any satisfying answers in his goal of providing an overarching theory? Well, as he acknowledges maybe not, but in the process he adds a whole level of richness to the subject. It's the sort of book that is too academic for most managers to read, but it's exactly the kind of thinking that they ought to embrace if they are to understand the complexity of the issues.

A couple of minor niggles do exist however. Most annoyingly there are several very obvious spelling errors that you would hope would have been picked up in editing - particularly galling when he misspells a Shakespearean quote: 'the stuff that dreams are made off [sic]'. Ouch! Secondly, for a book with a sole author credit, the use of the editorial 'we' is annoying. As Mark Twain so eloquently opined only presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial 'we'.

Huge thanks to the good people of Cambridge University Press for inviting The Bookbag to review this thought provoking book.

If you want more on the subject of brands, why not try Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders by Adam Morgan or for a business book that is more one to dip into, try the excellent The World of Business: From Valuable Brands and Games Directors Play to Bail-Outs and Bad Boys by The Economist.

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