Today I am resuming this blog after a three week break for a family holiday in France.
In today’s news I’ve been reading a remarkable account of the creativity of capitalism, affecting, in this case, the food industry.
The Two Sisters Food Group, owned by Mr. And Mrs. Boparan, has swallowed up such well-known brands as Bernard Matthews and Harry Ramsden, so that it can provide a significant proportion of the chicken market in this country. A recent undercover investigation at one of its production units has shown employees faking the kill-dates of chicken corpses and restoring to the production line some that had been dropped on the floor. All more or less in accordance with the best traditions of the British chicken industry, you may say. But there was one particular matter which caught my attention: some chicken bits pacakaged for Lidl, which had been returned as surplus, were repacked as Tesco’s Willow Farm Chicken, which claims that its chickens are reared “exclusively for Tesco.” A lawyer for the Two Sisters explained the apparent contradiction thus: “The Willow Farms brand is exclusive to Tesco, but the raw material is not.”
I had never before seen it stated quite so clearly that a brand is a name without material content. Willow Farm Chicken exists independently of all actual dead chickens, while its immaterial content refers elegantly to supposedly idyllic English farms of the past. When I buy A pack of Willow Farm chicken I should be content that although the material content may have been bred anywhere in the world for any supermarket, the brand has been bred exclusively for Tesco. Alleluia.
Surely this invention of the immaterial brand – like The Volkswagen which is utterly removed from the filthy air- polluting vehicle people actually drive, or the Conservative Party which has nothing at all to do with the public school anarchism which is destroying our traditional way of life, or the Sports Drink which cannot be identified with the liquid that gives you a week’s sugar in one suck – is a triumph of economic imagination. The materials may be guilty but the brands are pure and innocent. This invention is reminiscent of Allah the merciful, the compassionate, who is not responsible for the history of the violent califates, or of the God of Love who has no part in the crusades, the Inquisition, the wars of religion, the ethnic cleansing of the Americas, or the persecution of Jews. The brand separates itself from from its (very) raw materials.
Philosophically I guess this kind of branding is similar to the Platonic notion of the forms of things. Every actual dog in the world, whether prize-winning at Crufts or stinking of the excrement it’s rolled in, derives from the pure form of dog, the innocent archetype in the world of truth. No disgraceful behaviour by any material dog can spoil the eternal form of dogness.
In his simplicity, Jesus of Nazareth found it impossible to make this kind of separation. While others were impressed by the Pharisaic or High- Priestly brands of religion, he said that the brands would be known by their fruits, that is, by the material lives amd actions of their adherents. He explained that a sound tree could not produce bad fruits, nor an unsound tree good fruits. He could see no merit in a religion whose brand was beautiful but whose material content was ugly, comparing it to a whitewashed grave or a cup washed clean on the outside only. Not content with this unsophisticated down-to-earthness, he went so far as to call the sophisticated supporters of high-end religion, “hypocrites” meaning “play actors” whose words had nothing to do with their own material lives.
Play actors of many times and places, including popes and imams and ministers as well as successful capitalists, have regretted the awkward simplicity of Jesus, but I find it a helpful antidote to all kinds of smart branding.