Sunday, July 30, 2006

School 2.0 - Public School Kids Should be Branded

This week's New York Times Magazine explains a new cultural phenomenon that public schools need to understand and assimilate. That is that being a public school attendee is a cultural thing and kids should understand that they're being used as pawns in George Bush's political gambits. As such, our kids and our schools would be wise in making a statement about their public school pride, their values, and their style.

As you read this teaser, imagine school logos that emphasize the "public schoolness" as much as the School mascots and whatnot. School gear can get much more creative and it should.

Of course, companies don’t go into business in order to express a particular worldview and then gin up a product to make their point. Corporate branding is a function of the profit motive: companies have stuff to sell and hire experts to create the most compelling set of meanings to achieve that goal. A keen awareness of and cynicism toward this core fact of commercial persuasion — and the absurd lengths that corporations will go to in the effort to infuse their goods with, say, rebelliousness or youthful cool — is precisely the thing that is supposed to define the modern consumer. We all know that corporate branding is fundamentally a hustle. And guys like A-Ron are supposed to know that better than anybody.

Which is why the supposed counterculture nature of his brand might arouse some suspicion. Manufactured commodities are an artistic medium? Branding is a form of personal expression? Indie businesses are a means of dropping out? Turning your lifestyle into a business is rebellious?

And yet thousands and thousands of young people who are turned off by the world of shopping malls and Wal-Marts and who can’t bear the thought of a 9-to-5 job are pursuing a path similar to A-Ron’s. Some design furniture and housewares or leverage do-it-yourself-craft skills into businesses or simply convert their consumer taste into blog-enabled trend-spotting careers. Some make toys, paint sneakers or open gallerylike boutiques that specialize in the offerings of product-artists. Many of them clearly see what they are doing as not only noncorporate but also somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materialistic mainstream — but doing it with different forms of materialism. In other words, they see products and brands as viable forms of creative expression.

Through aNYthing, A-Ron sees himself as part of a “movement,” a brand underground. And maybe there is something going on here that can’t simply be dismissed just because of the apparent disconnect between the idea of a “brand” and the idea of an “underground.” After all, subcultures aren’t defined by outsiders passing judgment; they are defined by participants.

To try to understand this phenomenon and how it might play out, I sought a test-case category in which I could compare the experiences of several upstarts over time. The T-shirt, a simple commodity, seemed an ideal vessel. While some indie products are handmade, many more are, like T-shirts, manufactured goods that attract consumers largely through branding. Even with this single product as a framework, the variety is dizzying. Some T-shirt branders target high-end consumers, some are attached to the curious world of sneaker collecting and some are harder to categorize. Like A-Ron’s brand.

Tags: School 2.0, culture, education

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