The Battle of Thermopylae took place over 2,500 years ago, yet still captivates the heads and hearts of Westerners everywhere. When the blockbuster video game Halo needed a name for the bravest, most heroic, and utterly indefatigable super solider, SPARTAN was the name. Although set in the future, it shouldn’t seem out of place that the Spartan brand would still resonate 30 centuries after Thermopylae.
Xerxes sent a mounted spy to observe the Greeks, and note how many they were, and see what they were doing. He had heard, before he came out of Thessaly, that a few men were assembled at this place, and that at their head were certain Lacedaemonians, under Leonidas, a descendant of Hercules. The horseman rode up to the camp, and looked about him, but did not see the whole army; for such as were on the further side of the wall (which had been rebuilt and was now carefully guarded) it was not possible for him to behold; but he observed those on the outside, who were encamped in front of the rampart. It chanced that at this time the Lacedaemonians held the outer guard, and were seen by the spy, some of them engaged in gymnastic exercises, others combing their long hair. At this the spy greatly marvelled, but he counted their number, and when he had taken accurate note of everything, he rode back quietly; for no one pursued after him, nor paid any heed to his visit. So he returned, and told Xerxes all that he had seen.
Upon this, Xerxes, who had no means of surmising the truth – namely, that the Spartans were preparing to do or die manfully – but thought it laughable that they should be engaged in such employments, sent and called to his presence Demaratus the son of Ariston, who still remained with the army. When he appeared, Xerxes told him all that he had heard, and questioned him concerning the news, since he was anxious to understand the meaning of such behaviour on the part of the Spartans. Then Demaratus said -
“I spake to thee, O king! concerning these men long since, when we had but just begun our march upon Greece; thou, however, didst only laugh at my words, when I told thee of all this, which I saw would come to pass. Earnestly do I struggle at all times to speak truth to thee, sire; and now listen to it once more. These men have come to dispute the pass with us; and it is for this that they are now making ready. ‘Tis their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care. Be assured, however, that if thou canst subdue the men who are here and the Lacedaemonians who remain in Sparta, there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defence. Thou hast now to deal with the first kingdom and town in Greece, and with the bravest men.”
Then Xerxes, to whom what Demaratus said seemed altogether to surpass belief, asked further, “how it was possible for so small an army to contend with his?”
“O king!” Demaratus answered, “let me be treated as a liar, if matters fall not out as I say.”
Watching the 24/7 coverage of Japan, it doesn’t seem real. More the stuff of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters: a 9.0 earthquake so powerful it knocked the entire planet off it’s axis, a wall of water washing away entire towns, and the spectre of a nuclear meltdown irradiating one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
If the real-time images look like fiction, it’s certainly not the familiar fiction of Japan as the quintessential vision of the hypermodern future.
In so many ways, at the end of the 20th century, the future looked Japanese. No longer a purveyor of cheap occupation-era ceramics, Japan dominated the automotive and technology sectors with brands such as Toyota and Sony. Nintendo ruled the video game world, replacing Atari and releasing enduring fanchises such as Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear.
Then Japan went on a real estate spending spree, buying much of Hawaii as well as American icons like 30 Rock and Pebble Beach. Not just our cars, electronics, and sundry stuff were Japanese, but Americans were having to learn to actually “be” more Japanese—as seen humorously in the movie Gung Ho and in real life at the General Motors and Toyota joint venture, NUMMI, in California.
While all that was actually happening, writers and moviemakers were creating an even more powerful vision. Authors like William Gibson created the narrative of Japan-as-the-future. Moviemakers like Ridley Scott designed the optics of the 21st century—multi-colored neon reflecting from rain-slicked Tokyo streets. In telling the sci-fi stories of the future, it was impossible not to have a Japanese accent.
In the opening line of Neuromancer, Gibson wrote: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Describing the ancient and natural with a comparison to the artificial and technological perfectly underscores a key Western perception of Japan as the land of technologically fueled modernity.
It’s not just smaller, faster, cooler electronics—it’s also exporting new ways of thinking. Essentially, new technology + new cultural pattern = a piece of tomorrow.
One area Japanese technology and culture combined to create the future we’re living in right now is the pursuit of “mobile privatization.” Radios and TV sets were the norm in America, and this brought everything from FDR’s fireside chats to JFK’s assassination to living rooms across the nation. Japan not only liberated us from the tyranny of being tied to TV sets thanks to time-shifting VCRs, they made media completely personal with the Sony Walkman.
The cultural impact of the Walkman can’t be overstated. Not just because it let individuals bring private music politely into public spaces, but because it was the genie being let out of the bottle—the beginning of individual obsession with handheld gadgets. This emergence of electronic individualism has blossomed into iPods, iPhones, and iPads along with a supported ecosystem of competitive music devices, smart phones, and tablets. And don’t forget Sony PSP and Nintendo DS for gaming on the go.
The point is that while technology is great, and technological driven change is a key part of Japanese history and culture, it surely isn’t the most important thing.
Dr. Koichi Iwabuchi is a Professor at Waseda University and author of several books dealing with Japanese cultural interaction with the West and Asia. He used the word “mukokuseki” (むこくせき) in a description initially involving anime, but which has been extended across other cultural frontiers. Mukokuseki can mean “odorless,” but in this context it means a person who is “stateless” or “without country of origin.” It refers to the way Japanese cultural products can be seen to erase national history and identity in an attempt to more fully integrate with a global audience.
It worked. From manga and anime to video games and pop culture in general, Japan is a leading purveyor of not just technology, but a Japanese brand. After World War II, the island’s economy went from ruin to riches, first with cheap commodity goods, then advanced manufacturing, and eventually to cultural products. This transition from “hardware” to “software” in cultural exports is a global tendency, not exclusive to Japan. But, Japan displayed unheard of urgency and rapidity in its ascendance.
So, what is the Japanese brand? And can history help to reveal what kind of post-earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima Japan will emerge?
The singular constant in Japan over the last century and a half has been change. Explosive, rockets-strapped-to-a-skateboard kind of change. In 1854, Commodore Perry’s Black Ship, forced opening of the feudal, isolationist island ended with all the tools of the Industrial Revolution being dropped off, batteries included. Overnight an agrarian society had steam power for railroads and ships, factories to produce firearms, and instant communication with the telegraph. The Steampunk age had arrived, and it wasn’t a sci-fi novel—it was Imperial Japan.
That age, as we know, ended badly for Japan. America, introduced as Prometheus, now becomes Shiva. The wondrous technology of the West that remade Japan was directed, in all its fury, to devastate it.
This second massive societal disruption, coming just 90 years after the first, was even bigger—and far more profound. The Americans came ashore this time not to offer nifty new toys, but to splice their DNA into a critically wounded foe. Coming to, after this radical infusion, Japan wiggled its toes and flexed its fingers. Everything worked, but it was weird—mutant. The nation did what it does so well, adapt and overcome the weirdness the West loved to force upon it while forging a unique Japanese cultural brand.
The 9.0 earthquake and all the damage it created is traumatic. But not nearly as traumatic as what the people of Japan have already been through. If there’s one nation, and one people, that know how to deal with futureshock, tragedy, adversity, and weirdness, it’s Japan.
So, in addition to tropes and memes such as Pokemon, Toyota, Sushi, Robots, Godzilla, Wii, and many more, I think the Japanese brand will also conjure words such as indefatigable, resilient, and always moving forward. Who knows, after the rebuild Japan may look a lot closer that Bladerunner vision than anyone would have guessed. Good luck—I can’t wait to see it.
Branding is not a modern invention. Its origins can be traced back 40 centuries to the Harappa civilization in the Indus river valley in modern Pakistan and Northeast India. The Harappans were great traders who branded their high quality products with ‘Indus seals’—small square tags made of terra-cotta, brass or copper that signified the product came from the Indus valley.
The reason back then was same as it today: to differentiate commodities with added value external to the features of the product. Perhaps goods from the Indus river valley had a money back guarantee that made buying them a safer bet for the consumer. Whatever it was, it was the beginning of something big in human history.
The modern marketing definition of ‘branding’ can be traced to early American distillers, who burned their marks on the barrels they shipped. By the 19th century, American consumers who had previously purchased goods like sugar, soap, rice, and molasses from large bulk containers had been introduced to branded packaging.
Before this, consumers just bought what the shopkeeper had in stock. But once the branding genie had been let out, consumer demands wouldn’t allow it back in the bottle.
Soapmakers were early advertisers of packaged and branded products. Brands such as Ivory, Pears and Colgate date from around 1880. Just after the turn of the century, Americans began to be aware of brands such as Bon Ami, Wrigley, and Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola can thank the Harappans for inventing brand identity, but modern corporations have taken the concept to an incredible new level. When a Harappan ship pulled into a foreign port, their branded pottery, jewelry and agricultural products were perceived as high quality. But nobody assigned a value to the seal itself. That too has changed.
In the modern economy, more than a trillion dollars in corporate wealth is allocated to swooshes, globes, golden arches, mouse ears and hundreds of other brands.
In 2001, Coca-Cola’s market capitalization was about $110 billion with 61% of that value coming from its number one ranked brand. Xerox’s brand accounted for an astonishing 93% of the company’s value. 82% of Kodak and 76% of Polo Ralph Lauren’s corporate value was derived from the strength of brand identity.
Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, suggests “the astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980’s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, not products.”
Brands have a powerful impact on our world. They affect individuals in a profound and often emotional way. They help channel the flow of trillions of dollars. They are a huge component in the success of massive multinational corporations. And entire industries have blossomed to help inject these brands into our collective thoughts.
If the purpose of advertising is to shape the public mind, then institutional religions are among the world’s most effective and well-established advertisers. Architects, painters and sculptors were commissioned to create great cathedrals that imparted the majesty and eternal nature of God to the masses. Cathedrals featured stained-glass windows to draw people in for the sermons. Art was intended to grab the attention of consumers—just like today.
Frescoes were like primitive televisions showing the mostly illiterate masses stories from the bible. If frescoes were one-hour dramas, then the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was a major nine-part mini-series. “Now we look at it as great art,” says David Schwartz, president of Praxis advertising and design, “but in its day it was propaganda, which is essentially advertising.”
Of course the Catholic Church has a goal somewhat loftier than selling Star Wars action figures. It’s in the business of saving souls and doing the work of God. But the art and culture that became intertwined with the Church’s mission can stand on its own—indeed the works of Botticelli, DiVinci and Michelangelo, to name a few, have become anchor tenants in the Pantheon of Western aesthetics
The famous Renaissance artists were indeed that—famous. While they were sponsored by the Church and publicly credited, modern artists anonymously create commercials and advertising for corporate patrons. Does that mean the work of Ogilvy and Bernbach is less important than the work of Bellini and Titan? Many people would argue that modern advertising is not art at all—instead just banal and crass attempts to persuade the masses to buy a product.
But wasn’t that exactly the reason for Michelangelo’s commission?
The patrons have changed. Corporate capitalism has usurped Roman Catholicism as the major underwriter of art du jour. But, nonetheless, it is art. It pervades our culture and invades our thoughts. It is the velvet glove that sometimes cloaks the iron fist of propaganda. We, as consumers of both products and information, have learned to filter out the blatant misstatements and flat-out lies.
And the creators of modern corporate art know this as well. That’s why so much of the advertising we love doesn’t even mention the product specs. Advertisers build brands for us to worship—replacement icons of our secular consumerist society.
This map shows the results of more than 120,000 people surveyed about the word they use to describe a Coke…or soda, or pop. We all know that in the South, a Coke is a Coke—as well as a Pepsi or Dr. Pepper. But in New York it’s soda and in Wisconsin it’s pop.
Click to get a larger view…
Some really interesting things stand out when looking at the data displayed geographically. For one, the greater St. Louis area stands out as an island of “soda” drinkers sandwiched between the North/South divide between “Coke” and “pop.” This is probably due to the city’s history as the gateway to the West and its commercial and transportation links to the Northeast.
Something I wished I’d looked at before the election is what citizens of Virginia and North Carolina call their fizzy fountain drinks. No longer a “Solid South” of Coke drinkers, the survey shows that Virginia and North Carolina are a bricolage that represents a demographic shift that has been taking place for years.
Not just Northern Virginia, but the whole state, is more and more integrated with the Northeast Corridor. And in North Carolina, the changing economy influenced by the tech sector and a shift from rural to urban living has decreased the percentage of “Coke” drinkers to less than half.
So, if we use our empty Coke bottle as a lens through which to see the changing demographics of America, it is much easier to understand how Virginia and North Carolina went for Obama. They aren’t the same states they were twenty years ago.
This is a repost from 2001. Given the housing markets and economic instabilities, it seemed like we should give it another read.
Boom and bust. The words conjure black and white images of giddy 1929 flappers, flasks of bootleg booze, and horrified stock traders watching their speculative fortunes fall like yesterday’s tickertape. Our generation’s boom and bust sent scooter-riding, Starbucks-sipping Americans clicking to Monster.com seeking ever bigger paychecks then bemoaning the loss of their stock options and plans to retire at 29.
Like Icarus, high-flyers rose magnificently only to fatally fall back to the old economy’s terra firma. Companies such as MarchFirst, Napster, and Kozmo.com, stormtroopers of a seemingly inevitable economic and cultural blitzkrieg, crumbled under the weight of unattainable dreams—a modern tragedy worthy of the Greeks.
The sharp prick of reality that finally popped the inflated bubble of VC funded, speculative start-ups shouldn’t have surprised anyone with enough smarts to run a lemonade stand. In hindsight, it’s appallingly obvious that profitless companies worth billions on paper and nursed along by Pollyannaish investors are about as competitively viable as a three-legged gazelle. A new and sustainable business model needed to emerge for legitimate and innovative ideas to prosper in the marketplace.
But how could a boom have gone so wrong? Were the dot com dreams of Net-driven innovation and boundless optimism for the future just the folly of a pampered, technologically obsessed American generation out of touch with economic reality? Sure, a little bit. But booms and busts are a phenomenon that can happen to anyone in any industry.
Pipe dreams and tulip troubles
Culturally, telephone companies are as far from the dot com image as you can get—all geek, no chic. Yet they also succumbed to the boom and bust cycle.
Predicting an exponential growth in data traffic with the rise of the Internet, Qwest spent tens of billions of dollars to lay as much new fiber optics as the combined existing networks of AT&T, MCI and Sprint. Other billion dollar spenders like Winstar, e.spire, Teligent and Covad went bankrupt building fiber networks to compete with local phone giants like Verizon or Southwestern Bell.
All these new fiber networks required routers and switches. So equipment makers like Cisco and Lucent became Wall Street sweethearts with market caps to prove it.
The entire industry bought unabashedly into a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. The result was a staggering glut of fiber capacity that all the voice calls, spam, porn, warez and assorted silly multi-megabyte Quicktime movies that North Americans email to each other didn’t come anywhere close to fully utilizing.
Profits evaporated in a previously robust industry. Long Distance prices fell so precipitously that telecom icon AT&T was forced to break into pieces just to survive. Lucent is similarly plotting how to fashion a raft from its shipwrecked stock price.
But booms and busts aren’t confined to technological sectors or even this century. Another older and non-technological example of economic bubbles is what history has dubbed the Great Dutch Tulip Fiasco. Along with windmills, dykes and wooden shoes, 17’th century Holland produced top-notch tulips. In fact, Dutch tulips were so highly prized that the market went insane—for a while at least.
Speculative investors leveraged all they owned to buy into the tulip bulb market. If you thought dot com stocks were through the roof, wait till you hear that really, really nice tulip bulbs once went for the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. Finally the absurdity of all this occurred to merchants and a cascade of sensibility returned the tulip market to reality. But, in doing so, many were left penniless.
The cosmic connection
Economies, markets and individual companies actually behave with the comforting regularity of any ordered system. Corporations compete according to the same Darwinian rules that any living species must follow. Creatures or markets that expand too rapidly will overpopulate, consume too many scarce resources and suffer the consequences.
Like stars that transform their nuclear fuel into new elements then explode them across the galaxy to form new suns and planets, economic booms forge new business models, technologies, attitudes and workers that become the fuel for future growth.
Workers of failed dot coms are using their knowledge to start new ventures and invigorate older stable companies. Innovations like broadband access, online shopping, digital music and Net-enabled B2B transactions aren’t going away because a company that popularized it went belly up.
Booms and busts are inescapable cycles. Like good and evil or Yin and Yang, they must be accepted as a package deal. The bust times are the price we pay for the advances that come during the boom.