MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Brand is a form of Intellectual Property which emerged in the late nineteenth century in connection with advertising and by the end of the twentieth century had become the most important form of bourgeois property, more important than copyright and patent. The word ‘brand’ originated as an extension of the branding of cattle as proof of ownership.

Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO includes a complete history of the brand. Klein sees the beginning of brand, in anything like the form we know it today, in the factory production and packaging of basic staples such as flour, sugar, soap and so on, rather than the shopkeeper scooping it out of a barrel. Manufacturers had to package and brand their own product distinctively and then promote their brand to gain market share. Campbell’s Soups, Heinz and Quaker Oats date back to the 1880s.

The significance of brand arises wherever the merits or general characteristics of a given product are imperceptible to the senses, but can be vouched for by a recognisable brand or even enhanced and, by implication, price differences are either small or insignificant. Brand, in effect, makes the branded product distinctive just as if it were different kind of thing, just like when a quality assurance authority places its stamp on a product or an art expert verifies that the painting is indeed a Picasso. Brands have a way of “rubbing off” on those who buy their products however, and brand marks may be thereby commodities in themselves, independently of the products they brand. For example, the hotel that offers Veuve Clicquot on their wine list shares more than a nice grape with their clientel.

As a form of bourgeois property, brands are commodities and are bought and sold; building up a brand is a very expensive business and consequently they sell for large sums of money, commonly much more than the industrial plant and copyrights and patents that produce the branded products. The producer who puts a branded product on the market has a relative monopoly; that is, they have a total monopoly on their brand, but share the market with producers of the same commodity under different brands. To the extent that the investment in promotion of the brand succeeds in ensuring that no competing brand is seen as equivalent, then super-profits are available in respect of production of the commodity itself. Consequently, it is the labour invested in building the brand that more and more tends to become the significant labour adding value to the product.

The drive to promote brand begins in a struggle for market share in an environment of mechanised production; later, in the context of automated production, brand becomes an essential strategy for realisation of surplus value. How can workers be persuaded to work for long hours after they have done enough work to product the equivalent of food, clothing and shelter for the week? The workers must develop more, expensive needs. A worker that is happy to wear no-brand sneakers, live in an unfashionable suburb and eat fruit and vegetables can go home after morning tea break; the worker who wants to drive a BMW, wear Nike sneakers and live in a fashionable suburb will have to work long hours of overtime.

At the same time, the social division of labour inherent in fostering and satisfying these refined needs in its requires more and more of the social labour-time to be spent in image-building and more and more of its employees to be spin professionals.

Brand names are the appearance of company names but brand and company are by no mean identical. The company is the basic unit of organisation of the bourgeois class, but companies buy and sell brand names just as they do other forms of intellectual property.