Discover more from The Pathos of Things
How Brands Entered the Spirit World
In the age of fluid branding, fashion labels can take unexpected forms
If you’d asked advertising execs twenty years ago who would be the face of luxury fashion today, I wonder how many would have imagined someone like Francis Bourgeois. This young trainspotting enthusiast, who calls to mind the British comedy character Alan Partridge, has accumulated almost 70 million likes on TikTok with his geeky passion for railways. And so last year Bourgeois was recruited for a campaign by Gucci and North Face. His most recent promotion for the ultra-luxury brand Loro Piana is a surreal slice of 21st century culture.
Brand partnerships, where companies collaborate with each other or with media personalities, have been booming for years now. Some of you may own an Apple watch with a Nike tick on it, or maybe you’ve tried Beyond Meat’s plant-based options at KFC. Bourgeois’ TikTok promotions represent a particular type of partnership, where advertising becomes a form of ventriloquism. This is not a marriage of brands, but one “partner” occupying the other’s identity. Social media influencers hire out their personas in this way, as do podcasters when they reappear in advertising segments to tell you how much they love a particular shaving kit or therapy service.
A few weeks ago, during London fashion week, another case of ventriloquism proved somewhat controversial. The London Underground station Bond Street was rebranded as “Burberry Street,” both on the front of the building and on the platform roundels that tell passengers which station they’ve arrived at. This led to a flurry of reports about confused tourists and stressed passengers missing their stop – welcome publicity for Burberry I suppose – but it wasn’t the first time this gimmick has appeared on the Tube. Canada Water became “Buxton Water” during the 2015 London marathon, and in 2020, Piccadilly Circus was renamed “Picardily Circus” for the launch of a new Star Trek feature on Amazon Prime. (No, me neither).
These days a TikTok train-spotter is a much more attractive brand partner than an actual train service, but you can see why advertisers might enjoy a short fling with London Underground. The network’s visual design has long been regarded as “iconic,” to use the preferred cliché. And this is what makes it a good case study for how our relationship to branding has changed.
The Tube’s design language also has commercial origins. In the early 20th century, a businessman called Albert Stanley set out to merge the numerous private companies that operated London’s transport services. He finally achieved this in 1929, when the government helped him create London Transport, a semi-public monopoly (it would be nationalised later, in 1948). Under the direction of Frank Pick, design was harmonised across the city. All the miscellaneous objects and elements in LT’s networks were unified into a sleek, modernist whole, from the layout of station foyers to the textiles that upholstered train seats, from ticket kiosks and machines to the panelled interiors of buses. Most famous are the graphic design elements: Edward Johnson’s crystal-clear typeface, the circle and bar logo, and the schematic Tube map which bears little relationship to actual geography but is highly legible.
As Adrian Forty notes in his classic book Objects of Desire, one purpose of all this was to encourage Londoners to travel more. Once people understood the transport system as a single entity with familiar features and uniform standards, they were more inclined to try journeys they had not made before. (The new map helped too, since it made the outskirts of the city appear much more accessible than they actually were).
It’s a testament to the success of Pick’s vision that, a century later, companies like Burberry and Amazon want to borrow some of its appeal. But such partnerships rely on a very different understanding of what a brand is. LT wanted a distinct visual identity that would attach positive connotations to a particular product in people’s minds. Today, by contrast, companies don’t like to limit themselves to a single product or area, reinvent themselves regularly, and are always on the lookout for new markets. At the same time, ways of reaching people through media have expanded massively. And so a brand has become an amorphous bundle of aesthetics, media strategies and “values” that exist almost independently from what the company actually sells.
Virgin, for instance, is a train operator too; except when you think of Virgin you probably don’t think about trains, because the company also does airlines, hotels, banking, space travel and broadband (it started out as a music retailer in the 1970s). Its brand is primarily its logo, its scarlet colour scheme, and the cheesy rock-star image embodied by Richard Branson and his scantily dressed female accomplices. These days brands sponsor social initiatives, engage in political activism and partner with awkward young men who like steam trains, regardless of whether this has anything to do with their products.
Those that do keep a narrow focus – like London Underground, or Francis Bourgeois for that matter – show the same development from the opposite angle. Their “authentic” and “trusted” status turns out to be another detachable asset, one that can be hired out as a channel for other brands to reach a new audience. Hence the ventriloquist model of partnership.
The fact that this does not seem jarring – that a familiar character or sign can become a medium for a different voice entirely – shows how brand fluidity has become part of the consumer psyche. Still, we should not overlook the element of weirdness here. The most dynamic brands are now almost like the shapeshifting spirits and deities that populate ancient mythology. They are otherworldly forces haunting the media landscape, associated with certain qualities and symbols, but known to manifest themselves to mortals in any number of forms. To buy their products is perhaps to gain access to some of this mysterious power, a matter of psychological comfort as much as social status.
The Pathos of Things is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.