by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I know many communicators will claim that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but check out the logo on the medic's sweatshirt. 

Context matters, doesn't it?

emergency_SB.jpg

The branding racket tends to discount the idea, if it's recognized at all. Brands, and all of the artifacts commensurate with their expression -- logos, slogans, value statements -- have an inherent, absolute quality; the possess meaning that exists a priori to the immediacy of experience, and instead influence and change those moments. Lots of time and money are spent connecting those attributes to commercial products and services. Logos on sports stadiums. Slogans in ads. Value statements framed on office walls. The right colors and fonts.

Every imaginable tool can get used to propagate brands into the cosmos, because consumers not only value these associations, but should pay for them over the real functional attributes of a product or service. We all live in this imaginary world populated by Platonic ideals of brands and branding. Everything is a brand experience.

So what branding is the stretcher-bearer accomplishing for HP?

Granted, he wasn't photographed holding a gun, or was the subject of a news report that he'd done something bad or illegal. But you really can't avoid recognizing the HP logo on his sweatshirt. That means the HP brand was a part, however virtually, of that guy's entire day...the moment the pic was snapped, and every other moment during what must have been a horrendous experience. Dozens, if not hundreds of people were exposed to the logo and catchphrase. Even if he did nothing but acts of selfless goodness, the context of the HP brand engagement was lots of bloody bodies, screaming people, and general mayhem.

It's an egregious example of the same question we should ask of logos slapped on sports stadiums, airline napkins, or the multitude of corporate PR events that are presumed to say or attach immutable attributes to brands. 

Recognition is better than non-recognition, or so the canon goes, only it doesn't take into account context (staring at the corporate name on a stadium as I sit trapped in traffic is a harmless version of stretcher-guy's exposure). What gets attached to brands has far more to do with what's going on around them, whether immutably or transitory. And I'm not sure said attachment lasts far beyond the next contextual moment (flipping fMRI VU meters aside).

Our knowledge, opinions, and base recognition aren't static states, but rather ongoing, fluid products of experience. Brands don't have things attached to them as much as things attach to brands depending on the context. 

So maybe those HP sweatshirts seemed like a smart idea at the developer conference or employee event for which they were created. No problem. But it's foolish to consider them, or any other artifact of branding, as being consistent or absolute outside of the moments in which they're used.  

P.S. Mark Hurd, HP's CEO, earned $34 million last year, it was reported yesterday, as he's credited with tripling the company’s profits. Two thoughts for you:

  1. He is responsible for slashing 40,000 jobs at HP, and
  2. HP has spent millions on "The Computer is Personal Again" branding.

So...I wonder where the profits came from...and where they're getting spent?

P.S.S. The photo was by Suhaib Salem for Reuters

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/01/great-placement.html

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