© Sarah Henderson 2008
In 1999 Ford announced that the manufacture of cars would be “a declining part of Ford’s business. They will concentrate in the future on design, brand [and] marketing” (Olins 51). This seems to me a particularly striking example of the increasing pervasiveness of corporate branding as a kind of non-literal, symbolic and semantic manufacture. Ford is a car company, yet they are transitioning from the literal manufacture of cars to a kind of non-literal manufacture of cars (the manufacturing of particular meanings and values which can be ascribed to their cars). A 2000 analysis of the world’s most valuable brands concluded that 59% of Coca Cola’s capitalization, 61% of Disney’s capitalization and 64% of McDonald’s capitalization was attributed to the worth of the company’s brands (Balmer and Gray 15). Again, the worth of these companies is not produced through the tangible goods and services they provide, but the intangible webs of meaning that their particular brand identities suggest. The implications of this are somewhat staggering. The manufacture of meaning via branding and trademark is a multimillion-dollar industry that seeks to create and control the connotations of words and images as they relate to particular products.
I am interested in branding as a proprietary mode of communication, an explicit attempt to control the connotations of a particular word or image. This mode of rhetoric that is deliberately non-literal, euphemistic, symbolic, but simultaneously proprietary and controlled strikes me as unique to corporate language as a site where association between signifier and signified is vital, but the directed interpretation of significance is equally vital. Further, the signifier often has no real connection to the signified, beyond that which has been constructed by the corporation. This use of neologisms may not be unique to “corporate speech” but branding is perhaps one of the most visible and intrusive examples of it. In this report, I will focus on the linguistic components of trademarks and brands as a language that is non-literal and proprietary in ways that are frequently held in tension.
Making Meaning (Branding and Slogans)
My project looks at corporations’ engineered uses of language that add to or replace a word’s usual denotations. I will be using “corporate speech” in two primary ways. Firstly, I use the term to suggest the particular ways that corporations are invested with a meaning beyond the goods and services they literally provide. This meaning is almost exclusively invented and imposed by the corporation itself although to be successful it has to be adopted by the consumer. The manufacture of meaning operates in several major ways: brands denote ownership, build image, create associations between symbols and key values, provide a means by which to construct identities, and create a conduit by which pleasurable experiences may be consumed (Balmer and Grey 4). In other words, besides selling a particular product, the language of branding sells specific experiences, values and even identities to the consumer. How are these supplementary layers of meaning expressed through language? I will consider trademarks and corporate slogans in this context.
A secondary form of “corporate speech” I will examine is the way that brands may become so pervasive that they come to replace the words that they describe. Asking for a Kleenex instead of tissue is an example of this kind of replacement. Another form of replacement is when a brand name (a noun) begins to be used as a verb. The obvious example here is “Google it” instead of “look for it on an online search engine”. Leslie Savan asserts that the former is simply more “fun” to say. Certainly this is part of it; however these forms of branded words are codes of belonging and signal a reassuring sense of participation in pop culture. I will further consider the implications of this word replacement later in the paper.
The final part of my paper will consider the implications of corporate speech. Is it threatening to the integrity of language and the genuineness of interpersonal communication? How is the increasing pervasiveness of corporate language resisted? I will consider potential answers to these questions.
In his Processing Meaning and Metaphor, Dan Fass uses the term “non-literal” language to refer to figurative modes of speech such as metaphor, metonymy (a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another which is closely associated with it, ie. crown for monarchy), synecdoche (a figure of speech in which the part stands in for the whole ie. ten sail for ten ships) and personification (imbuing an inanimate object with animate characteristics ie. the chair was kind to his aching bones). Interestingly, all these figures of speech figure prominently in corporate language. Word replacement is, at least partially, a form of synecdoche: for example, Xerox can be used as a generic term for any kind of photocopying. Metonymy is a key device for corporate slogans: for example, the slogan “Redbull gives you wings” where “wings” replace or stand in for energy. Personification is another key element of attaching meaning to particular products in countless examples, particularly bound to the creation of identity through consumption: for example, Apple is young and hip, Axe body spray is sexy, BMW is luxurious and wealthy. Non-literal language then is simply language where a meaning is conveyed in language that is somehow figurative or symbolic, as opposed to strictly and accurately descriptive.
Jurgen Habermas employs a slightly different term for non-literal language, particularly in the context of the language of marketing. Habermas describes the language of marketing as “distorted communication” (quoted in Holt 3). He describes the ideal speech situation as one in which each party has a chance to speak “unencumbered by authority and in which norms of comprehensibility, sincerity, legitimacy and truthfulness are upheld as the standard” (quoted in Holt 3). Habermas sees marketing and corporate language as “distorted communication” because these standards are deliberately manipulated or discarded altogether in the interests of influencing the consumer
Habermas’s more sinister characterization of non-literal language points to an interesting tension. Polio et. al estimate that people utter approximately 1400 figures of speech a day (quoted in Fass 2). This means that non-literal language is a huge part of interpersonal communication. The designations of ‘figurative’ or ‘non-literal’ imply a kind of creative and imaginative freedom of speech, in which rules of logic can be transgressed or manipulated for effect (ie. “I’m dead tired”). However, the use of non-literal language in corporate speech often has opposing effects. As Habermas suggests, it may be used to inhibit truth and sincerity in the interests of influencing consumers, and it also, as I will describe later in the paper, is not freely associative as conversational figurative speech might be, because connotations and implications are rigidly directed. This is not to overstate the linguistic and ideological freedom of figurative language. It is often the most effective mode of speech for persuasion, and is certainly deployed in the interests of specific agendas. I merely suggest that the corporate use of figurative language is perhaps more restrictive in directing interpretation while attempting to convey it as truth. So while “Red Bull gives you wings” is very obviously a non-literal way to suggest energy, it also attempts to ensure that energy is defined and understood in terms that are strictly related to the properties of Red Bull. And at the core of the statement is the assumption, intended to be a truth statement, that Red Bull dramatically increases one’s energy level. Jurgen Habermas argues that consumers can fend off the marketer imposed code if they are able to disentangle the marketer’s artifice, conveyed linguistically, from the actual use value of the product (quoted in Holt 3). This represents a need to distinguish the figurative from the literal, in ways that call attention to the agenda embedded in the figurative speech.
Trademarks and Distinctive Characters:
Upon wikipedia-ing (not to be confused with googling!) trademarks and brand names, I learned that “a trademark may be eligible for registration…if among other things it performs the essential trademark function and has a distinctive character” (Wikipedia, italics original). Trademarks, although consistently non-literal, operate in varying degrees of relation to the literal. Their distinctive character indicates that, even if they are not new words, they must be deployed in new ways.
An inherently distinctive trademark comprises an entirely invented sign. For example, “Kodak” had no meaning and could not be found in any dictionary until it was applied to a particular brand of photography equipment. This is an example of non-literal language that begins with no denotations or connotations. From a marketing perspective, this is useful because Kodak can attribute any qualities to the word and the word is used exclusively to refer to their products. It also potentially involves more work in creating associations between the word “Kodak” and whatever qualities the company wants to be attributed to Kodak. Kodak’s slogan is thus very straight forward, “you press the button, we do the rest”, indicating what Kodak does and that it is easy to use. Because the word itself is meaningless, the slogan has to work harder to create connotations and connections in the consumer’s mind.
An arbitrary trademark is usually a common word which has no relation whatsoever to the product it is being used to sell (Wikipedia). “Apple” is a great example of this. It is eligible for trademark because it is being deployed in a unique way: to describe a brand of computer. It is generally accepted that the trademark “Apple” refers to Sir Isaac Newton’s famed apple, and thus implies discovery and innovation. Again, this web of inference and meaning has nothing to do with a literal apple. The word can be owned only when it is redeployed rhetorically or culturally.
A suggestive trademark:
tends to indicate the nature, quality, or a characteristic of the products or services in relation to which it is used, but does not describe this characteristic, and requires imagination on the part of the consumer to identify the characteristic. (“Harvard cyber law”)
An example of this is “Blu-ray”. It suggests some kind of technology, the use of ‘ray’ suggests it is perhaps a digital or laser technology, but these are all inferences on my part as the potential consumer. The words themselves do not necessarily describe the product at all. This is rhetorically very interesting. It relies on a common interpretation of non-specific words and in some ways places more control of the trademark in the hands of the consumers who interpret it. Of course, all brands and trademark rely, to varying extents, on consumer interpretation, but this without any literal referent this interpretation becomes even more critical. In terms of the proprietary assumption of trademarking, it is also interesting as the words in the brand Blu- ray, for example, signify independently (if we assume blu=blue) yet they can be trademarked when they are used to vaguely suggest a specific product. The “i” prefix is another, topical example of a piece of corporate speech that really has no literal meaning, but is interpreted by consumers in specific ways. This seems to me entirely unique to corporate language where potential connotations can be purchased and controlled.
A descriptive mark is a term with a dictionary meaning which obviously describes the product, for example “Sweet” to describe a brand of sweetener. This kind of trademark can not be registered unless the corporation can show that the word is specifically affiliated with their product, or a distinct character of their product, through explicit and repeated use in the marketplace. It would probably not be possible to trademark “Sweet” as the name of a sweetener because the word is not specifically and exclusively associated with sweetener. It must also be shown that the word is not affiliated with sweet things in general, but with the corporation’s specific sweet product. Interestingly, descriptive trademarks or company names can be unsuccessful for being too obvious. Neil Taylor cites one UK company entitled “Phones4U” which was a spectacular failure. As Taylor points out: “Calling your phone company “Phones” is like calling your dog “Dog”—it doesn’t distinguish yours from anyone else’s” (Taylor 6). A certain oblique or fanciful component seems to be desirable in a trademark or brand. This is an interesting example of non-literal language being employed to set a brand apart by being deliberately non-descriptive. It seems to be desirable for a term to be vague enough to allow the consumer enough room to interpret the word(s) in their own ways, but also focused enough that the consumer will not interpret the words in negative ways.
Significance and Implications:
The above examples of different forms of trademark all point to a tension between the figurative and the proprietary: the meanings and implications of the trademark may be largely ephemeral but they can still be corralled to represent specific products and services, and owned in that capacity. Whether a word is invented or used in new ways, trademarks represent the relationship between the non-literal and the proprietary. I’d like to now consider the webs of meanings attached to brands as a further example of the affiliation between the figurative, or non-literal, and the proprietary in corporate language.
Brands and Meaning:
B.B. Stern suggests that branding is dependent on “connotative meanings found in metaphoric associations signaled by labels” (Stern 5). Further, he argues that “metaphors are so common in everyday language that interpretation is a frequently repeated skill invoked almost unconsciously” (5). This certainly corroborates Polio’s assertion that human beings use 1400 figures of speech a day. Branding is perhaps a brilliant way to tap into unconscious processes of interpreting figurative and symbolic speech. Because this interpretive work is often unconscious or non-deliberate, we do not necessarily deconstruct figurative associations and thus may absorb the implied connections between a product and a set of values without really questioning them. Of course this model is perhaps too passive, but I will explore that objection a little later in the paper.
Abstraction and Brand Mantras:
Holt argues that the modern paradigm of marketing is built on two pillars: abstraction and cultural engineering. He suggests that brands are used as concrete expressions of valued social and moral ideals (Holt 11). I find his notion of abstraction particularly interesting in light of my consideration of figurative language. Again, it is abstraction that is always rigidly connected to a specific brand and there is a tension between what can be named and purchased and the intangible affiliated meanings that compel a consumer to purchase in the first place. Balmer and Grey build on this idea of abstraction in their exploration of “brand mantras” (Balmer and Grey 11). According to Balmer and Grey, brands make “promises” –frequently encapsulated in three key words—that combine the brand functions with “descriptive and emotional modifiers.”. Nike’s brand mantra is “authentic, athletic, performance” and Disney’s is “fun, family, entertainment” (Balmer and Grey 11). These “brand mantras” attempt to delimit the way that the brand is interpreted by the consumer by creating very clear, positive associations between the brand and a certain kind of experience or identity. The idea that a running shoe can somehow represent authenticity is slightly ridiculous, but indicates the rhetoric that companies employ to push their product outside the sphere of its immediate and logical meaning. A running shoe then becomes not only a construction of rubber, but an entire philosophy towards athletics and life more generally. As Olins suggests, “through symbols, metaphors and allegories brands now were magically transformed by advertising to embody psychological and social properties” (Ollins 11, emphasis mine).
Embodiment and Identity:
The concept of embodying, remarkably similar to personification more generally, is central to the success of corporate language. This is operating on several levels. Branding absolutely seeks to encourage consumers to create an identity based on the products that they consume. As Savan points out: “…it’s you the consumer that is the real product being sold” (Savan 39). Consuming certain brands allows one to “express” or define their personality. What is more interesting for my purposes here is the way that the corporation is embodied as an individual with a particular personality and philosophy (corporations are now encouraged to come up with a “corporate story”, a kind of creation myth) (van Riel), but they are also imbued with the power to embody particular values for the consumer. This is achieved primarily through the ways that marketers “methodically drive home linkages between product attributes and a package of desirable personal characteristics” (Holt 12). Consider the 2003 Coca-Cola slogan “Coca-Cola is refreshment and connection” (cited in Moore 107, emphasis mine). The use of “is” is fascinating. The soft drink doesn’t represent refreshment and connection, it doesn’t support refreshment and connection, it literally embodies these two values. Further, the nouns used here, particularly connection are vague enough to make the statement almost entirely meaningless. The words are both sufficiently positive however, that no matter how you interpret refreshment and connection it will be in some way that is beneficial to Coca-Cola. The language in a Kelloggs print advertisement operates similarly. The advertisement claims: “Kelloggs is now synonymous with health and vitality” (quoted in Moore 108). Although Kelloggs is slightly more reserved than Coca-Cola in claiming their embodiment of certain values (they are synonymous with these values, not the values themselves) there is a similar movement to align vaguely positive values with a particular brand. These are both patently non-literal statements, and both incredibly proprietary. The implication in both advertisements is that the brand exclusively possesses the values listed. Of course we are aware of this as a rhetorical strategy as opposed to any kind of truth statement, but we are still potentially affected by the idea that product somehow gives us a unique access to these values.
This suggestive use of branding is a relatively contemporary marketing strategy. As Holt describes, in the 1950s advertisements tended to take the form of “puffery laden messages about product benefits” (Holt 12). In other words, marketing was often more “direct”. It featured spokespeople speaking specifically and literally about the benefits of a specific product. These benefits may have been exaggerated, but the focus was generally on the merits of the product itself. Clearly, the webs of connection between product, identity and lifestyle have become more complex, and also more opaque—so much so that an advertisement for a particular product may barely feature that product. The implications of this shift are telling, in terms of both non-literal language and proprietary language as I am using them. In one way, it represents a shift to corporate language that is increasingly detached from the tangible properties of a property or service, an increasing movement towards non-literality. However, it also represents a simultaneous shift from attempting to own or brand a specific item or service, to branding specific social values and individual characteristics. When the non-literal and the proprietary develop simultaneously, it raises the issues I am attempting to trouble here: how can a corporation attempt to ‘own’ or direct connotations?
Generic Trademarks and Word Replacement:
One particularly interesting element of corporate speech is word replacement and the conversion of brand names into verbs. To consider this phenomenon, let us return for a moment to trademarks. A generic term is the common name for the products or services in conjunction with which it is used, for example “salt” for sodium chloride. A generic term is not capable of serving the essential trademark function of “distinguishing the products or services of a business from the products or services of other businesses” (“Harvard Cyber Law”). Interestingly, trademarks can become generic when they are so fully integrated into the public domain that they do not indicate a particular brand of a certain kind of product, but come to represent all brands of that product. This is where word replacement starts to occur. The Bayer Company’s Trademark “Aspirin” has been ruled generic in the United States (although not in Canada), and Xerox for copiers and Band-Aid for adhesive bandages are in danger of a similar fate (Wikipedia).
The Corporate Response:
To prevent their trademarks from becoming generic, companies will insist that the mark be used as an adjective, not a noun or verb (which are interpreted as generic forms). Adobe has sent messages to web designers cautioning them not to use the verb “photoshopped” but to describe “modifying a photograph with Adobe Photoshop software”. Xerox has issued print advertisements that declare “you can not xerox a document but you can copy it on a Xerox brand copying machine”. Starbucks has exercised similar restrictions on the use of Frappuccino to describe any cold blended cofee, instructing employees to call said drinks “Frappuccino blended coffee” (Wikipedia). Interestingly, my spell check hasn’t underlined Frappuccino so perhaps it is in danger of becoming generic after all!
I find the corporate resistance to this kind of generic usage intriguing. It seems ironic that corporations spend a lot of money getting people to associate a general concept with a specific trademark in their minds, and then spend a lot of money to ensure that the trademark does not get generalized in practice. Of course, when a Frappuccino can be purchased at any café, there is less motivation to go to Starbucks to get one. It is interesting that the attachments between general practices and specific products are only desirable to a point. The language of trademarking seems to walk a fine line between the desirable association of certain characteristics and products, and the complete dissolution of the trademark as distinct from the other products that may possess the same characteristics.
Codification and Legitimacy:
Another interesting component of the adoption of brand names as generic terms is the way that they are accepted and codified into “official” language sources. Websters-Miriam dictionary defines Google as a transitive verb, and lists “googling” and “googled” as legitimate inflected forms. Wikipedia seems to be going in the same direction, and the verb form of YouTube was voted the word most likely to succeed in 2006 by the American Dialect Society (www.americandialect.org). Words that are associated with a specific company, for example the infamous Tim Hortons “double double” are similarly legitimized. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary added the expression in 2004, after deciding that the expression was used beyond the Tim Hortons context. This inclusion highlights anxiety about the debasing of written language, as pointed to by the principal philologist of the Oxford English Dictionary, Edmund Weiner. Weiner notes: “One hundred years ago it wasn’t respectable to put a lot of colloquial language and slang words into print. . .it’s only in the last century that the gap between written and spoken language has narrowed.” (quoted in Savan 41). Certainly the kind of “corporate speak” that I’ve been outlining above participate in this increasingly codification of spoken language, as a form of language that is predominantly oral but becomes so widespread that it is eligible for inclusion in written language.
Possible Implications of Corporate Speech:
In Beyond Branding Thomas Moore argues that marketing slogans and the pervasiveness of branding contribute to a degrading of language, and a “culture of falseness and disengagement” (Moore 107). Leslie Savan echoes him, suggesting that corporate speech, as a particularly potent branch of what she terms “pop speech”, functions as “thought replacement.” I find this notion of replacement particularly provocative in light of the fact that the corporatization of speech often involves literal word replacement. Perhaps these seemingly innocuous replacements do create disengagement from “real thought” by allowing us to substitute a product name for an articulated concept, action, or object: if we can only conceive victory in the context of a Nike advertisement, for example.
Globalization and Standardization:
Certainly corporate language is closely bound up in issues of standardization, both interpersonally and globally. Savan points out that Coca-Cola is so ubiquitous that students that several ESL classes identified it as the American word they use most frequently (Savan 34). This points to the dangers of proprietary language, that is branded language as a form of global communication. Corporate speech also potentially disrupts more varied and genuine forms of expression. As Savan argues, the snappy, non-literal language of advertising and media have created “a verbal kudzu, overlaying regional differences with a national (even international) pop accent that tells us more about how we think than we think” (Savan 9). Moore echoes this anxiety about the way that branding affects patterns of thought: “To engage with organizations that adopt absurdities as mantras would require anyone to suspend their normal ways of thinking” (Moore 108). This points to concerns about the non-literal elements of corporate speech. In Moore’s opinion “absurdities” in corporate language alienate us from the ‘true’ or literal meanings and implications of words. Both Moore and Savan attend to the idea of corporate speech creating an increasingly disengaged, disingenuous and formulaic climate of communication, both between people and between cultures.
Throughout the semester we have considered language in many socioeconomic contexts: as an indication of class/education, as a product of nationalism, regionalism, or colonialism, and as an acceptance of or resistance to particular modes or bodies of power. While I do attend to Savant and Moore’s anxiety about how these functions mutate and are potentially subverted when language is subject to corporate influence, I think they perhaps overestimate the ability of corporations to successfully and completely control the connotations of their brands and slogans. Firstly, consumer reception of brand identity simply cannot be universal and transparent. Their status as non-literal language open up imaginative and interpretive spaces which are impossible to regulate completely. Secondly, there has been an increased backlash against pervasive corporate presence (including branding) in the dominant culture, particularly in past ten years or so with the publication of books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which blatantly disrupt and reject the imposition of meaning through corporate language.
Potential for Resistance:
Ashforth and Mael note that within a corporation, it is essential for managers to “foster and maintain a system of more or less shared meanings so that coordinated behaviour can occur” (Christenson and Cheney 259). I would take this further to suggest that for a corporate brand to have any attraction or influence to the public, it must also create shared meanings amongst consumers. This of course is a central challenge to marketers, and the interpretive moment when consumers can either react to the brand in a way that accommodates its intended meaning, or extrapolate or impose an entirely different meaning on it. Antonio Gramsci identifies a similar potential for resistance in the interpretation of meaning: “Against marketing’s coercive cultural authority individuals and groups fight back by investing commodities with more particularized meanings and using them in idiosyncratic ways” (quoted in Holt 2).
“Adbusting” and Anti-Corporate Backlash:
This is of course the central ethos behind the adbusting phenomenon, in which corporate slogans are re-interpreted or ironized to convey an entirely different meaning. These efforts are largely an attempt to dismantle the figurative and return to what these citizens see as the literal: the connection between corporate branding efforts and the consequences of unchecked globalization like environmental issues, human rights, and cultural degradation (Holt 1). One “busted” Nike print advertisement features formatting, fonts and iconography similar to legitimate Nike advertisements, and uses the popular individual first person narrative often featured in the advertisement. The content however, reads as follows: “You’re running because you want that raise to be all you can be. But it’s not easy when you work sixty hours a week making sneakers in an Indonesian factory and your friends disappear when they ask for a raise. So think before you decide it’s so cool to wear Nike” (adbusters.org). Language in thus reclaimed in some capacity, the symbolic is dismantled and so is the proprietary: a corporation’s own slogan, logo, and particular language can be manipulated and used against them. Of course the corporate response to countercultural activity has been to integrate it into their own marketing strategies.
Sometimes misrecognition of a company’s messages isn’t deliberate, but merely an oppositional interpretation. One example of this is The United Colours of Benetton’s “Campaign on Harmony.” One of the advertisements, featured in Rolling Stone, GQ and other magazines and billboards, depicted a black man and a white man handcuffed together. The advertisement was meant to suggest racial equality, however many people interpreted the advertisement as depicting a black man who has been arrested by a white man. Another advertisement, which featured a bare breasted black woman nursing a white infant, conjured “historical images of slavery and of black people being subservient” (“Campaign on Harmony Backfires” The New York Times). This is an example of when the transmission from corporation to consumer is not transparent and controlled. As I have suggested, it is an example of the corporate inability to entirely possess the connotations of particular language and imagery. It is in moments like these that the tension between the non-literal and the proprietary is most obviously conveyed. As much as certain language can be appropriated and manipulated in corporate speech, a definitive element of non-literal speech is that it requires interpretation. And interpretation, although it can be controlled to an extent, can never be fully controlled.
Corporate language is constantly negotiating the unique linguistic and ideological tension between the proprietary (meaning which can be owned and controlled) and the non-literal (the figurative, the imaginative, the open). Corporate language, in the form of trademarks, brands, slogans and generic word replacement, employs rhetoric that is deliberately open to interpretation, but interpretations that are guided (or controlled) in the interests of the corporation and its products. As I have suggested, this represents a mode of communication that it is relatively new to and increasingly pervasive in industrialized, contemporary society. In 2006, the total spent on corporate advertising in the United States media was 263.77 billion dollars (medialiteracy.com). Clearly, this is a dominant mode of communication. Although many critics and scholars are apprehensive about the pervasiveness of forms of speech that are economically motivated, I argue that the fact that this language is figurative and dependent on public reception and interpretation allows for resistance. The very nature of figurative language requires it to be “decoded” and translated. This means that despite the sophistication and control of corporate media and advertising, there is always a potential gap between the intended meaning and the intepreted meaning which can be negotiated in innumerable ways.
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