When I was 17, I worked after school at an Esprit clothing store in
Montreal. It was a pleasant job, mostly involving folding cotton garments
into little squares so sharp that their corners could take out your eye.
But, for some reason, corporate headquarters didn’t consider our T-shirt
origami to be sufficiently profitable. One day, our calm world was turned
upside down by a regional supervisor who swooped in to indoctrinate us in
the culture of the Esprit brand — and increase our productivity in the
process. "Esprit," she told us, "is like a good friend."
was skeptical, and I let it be known. Skepticism, I quickly learned, is not
considered an asset in the low- wage service sector. Two weeks later, the
supervisor fired me for being in possession of that most loathed workplace
character trait: "bad attitude."
guess that was one of my first lessons in why large multinational
corporations are not "like a good friend," since good friends, while they
may do many horrible and hurtful things, rarely fire you.
So I was interested when, earlier this month, the TBWA/Chiat/Day advertising
agency rolled out the new "brand identity" for Shoppers Drug Mart. (Rebranding
launches are, in corporate terms, like being born again). It turns out that
the chain is no longer "Everything you want in a drugstore" — i.e., a place
where you can buy things you need — but is now a "caring friend" — a
caring friend that, remarkably, takes earthly form in a chain of 800
drugstores with a $22-million ad budget burning a hole in its pocket.
Shoppers’ new slogan is "Take care of yourself," selected, according to
campaign creator Pat Pirisi because it echoes "what a caring friend would
say." Get ready for it to be said thousands of times a day by young cashiers
as they hand you plastic bags filled with razors, dental floss and diet
pills. "We believe this is a position Shoppers can own," Mr. Pirisi says.
Leaving aside the somewhat unsettling idea of "owning" friendship, asking
clerks to adopt this particular phrase as their mantra seems a bit heartless
in this age of casual, insecure, underpaid McLabour. Service-sector workers
are so often told to take care of themselves — since no one, least of all
their mega-employers, is going to take care of them.
Yet it’s one of the ironies of our branded age that, as corporations become
more remote by cutting lasting ties with us as their employees, they are
increasingly sidling up to us as consumers, whispering sweet nothings in our
ear about friendship and community. It’s not just Shoppers: Wal-Mart ads
tell stories about clerks who, in a pinch, lend customers their own wedding
gowns, and Saturn ads are populated by car dealers who offer counselling
when customers lose their jobs. You see, according to the new marketing
book, Values Added,modern marketers have to "make your brand a cause and
your cause a brand."
Maybe I still have a bad attitude, but this collective corporate hug feels
about as empty today as it did when I was an about-to-be-unemployed sweater
folder. Particularly when you stop to consider the cause of all this
Explaining Shoppers’ new brand identity to the Financial Post, Mr. Pirisi
said, "In an age when people are becoming more and more distrustful of
corporations — the World Trade Organization protests will attest to that —
and at a time when the health-care system isn’t what it used to be, we
realized we had to send consumers a message about partnership."
Ever since large corporations such as Nike, Shell and Monsanto began facing
increased scrutiny from civil society — mostly for putting short-term
profits far ahead of environmental responsibility and job security — an
industry has ballooned to help these companies respond. It seems clear,
however, that many in the corporate world remain utterly convinced that all
they have is a "messaging problem," one that can be neatly solved by
settling on the right, socially minded brand identity.
It turns out that’s the last thing they need. British Petroleum found this
out the hard way when it was forced to distance itself from its own
outrageous rebranding campaign, "Beyond Petroleum." The oil company’s
European consumers told BP that it had better change its business practices
before its brand identity.
As evidence of the state of corporate confusion, I frequently find myself
asked to give presentations to individual corporations. Fearing that my
words will end up in some gooey ad campaign, I always refuse.
But I can offer this advice without reservation: Nothing will change until
corporations realize that they don’t have a communications problem. They
have a reality problem.
Naomi Klein’s website is