My Reading Notes for
"Why Do Brands Cause Trouble?"
by Douglas Holt
n an essay entitled, "Why Brands Cause Trouble," Douglas B. Holt explains how the process of branding allows "extraordinary alliance between potentially antagonistic positions."  On the one hand, branding fosters identifications that satisfy (or at least deflect) consumers' demands for greater participation in the economic and social policies structuring their lives. On the other, they allow profits as usual. Cultural critics Horkheimer and Adorno argue that branding, like all "culture industry" strategies, works to "defang political opposition by restructuring it as taste."  Holt terms this the "cultural authority" model.  Antonio Gramsci offers a slightly more optimistic version of this model: he concedes that although most consumers succumb to market forces, there are always some who resist by making their own meanings from commodities.  Michel de Certeau and John Fiske are commonly cited as theorists in the Gramscian vein. 
Holt argues that strategies of resistance through consumerism are appealing; so much so that they have now been incorporated in consumer culture itself. To buttress his argument, Holt refers to his own ethnographic research on two consumers, Paul and Don. Taken at face value, Paul would appear to be the very model of what Jeff Murray and Julie Ozanne call a "resistant" consumer.  Holt notes that Paul routinely "metes out criticism to those, "the ignorant," who succumb to the seduction of market-created desires.  Yet Paul spends a significant portion of his income on consumer goods, despite the fact that he lives near the poverty line. Holt describes how Paul sees himself as a "shopping engineer, evaluating consumer goods using a precise and comprehensive calculus similar to those advanced by economic decision-making models."  Paul's behavior signifies a paradox to Holt: in order to demonstrate that he is no "marketing puppet," Paul must engage in battles with the market that are hugely time-consuming and disproportionate to his income.
Where Paul challenges the "reflexive" model of consumer resistance, Holt's second subject, Don, troubles notion of "creatively resistant consumer" imagined by theorists like Firat and Venkatesh.  Holt relates that Don has "avoided the dominant work-and-spend ethos all of his adult life, choosing leisure over income since he graduated from college over twenty-five years ago."  Like Paul, Don lives below the poverty line. Yet Don too is "an exemplary consumer," argues Holt, using commodities to self-fashion his relationship to the various subcultures in which he moves: biking groups, dancing groups, and so forth.
Using Don and Paul as touchstones, Holt argues that any theory advocating emancipation from brands though consumerism (whether reflexive or creative) must contend with the fact that consumer culture and branding share a dialectical history. Perhaps, Holt concedes, consumerism as resistance might have worked in the 1950's, when the cultural authority narrative aptly described the branding scene. Today, however, "it is antithetic to the dominant postmodern [branding] paradigm," argues Holt. According to Holt, the shift from modern to postmodern branding occurred as a result of consumer/citizens' dissatisfaction with culturally engineered depictions of the "good life," which were hallmarks of the modern brand, circa 1950. Today, postmodern branding now uses one or all of the following mechanisms to celebrate the so-called "authentic life":
- ironic, reflective brand persona;
- coat-tailing on culture epicenters (e.g., association with subcultures);
- life world emplacement (e.g., verite and other "reality"techniques); and
- stealth branding (e.g., word-of-mouth and other "virusing" campaigns). 
Given his argument that all branding shares a dialectic history with consumers, it should be no surprise that Holt predicts that the postmodern brand is now "running into intrinsic contradictions that threaten its efficacy."  Holt, who is a faculty member of the Harvard Business School, counsels companies that they must think beyond the postmodern notion of an all-encompassing brand identity. "Whatƒbrand architects fail to understand," he writes, "is that consumer cynicism with this purely promotional logic will quickly poke holes in these seemingly encapsulated identities."  Holt does not arguing that companies shouldn't brand. Rather, he draws attention to what he sees as the following problems with postmodern branding as it exists today:
- ironic distance compressed ("ironic distance has moved from a credible anti-commercial cue to a clich³d adworld convention in the space of less than a decade");
- the sponsored society ("increasingly, the brand agents who are sent into bars and clubs and schools to diffuse a brand virus will be unveiled and scorned with the same venom now devoted to telemarketers");
- authenticity extinction ("postmodern branding is now running a fine-toothed comb throughƒcountercultural dead ends to mine the last vestiges of unsponsored expressive culture");
- peeling away the brand veneer ("now brands whose politics are less overt are starting to receive the same once-over [as Benettton, Ben &Jerry's and the Body Shop]); and
- sovereignty inflation ("The dependence today upon cultural ïinfomediaries' [such as]Martha Stewart, Entertainment Tonightƒand collaborative filtering devices [such as] Amazon.com ƒand TiVoƒ[means] consumers want to author their lives, but they are increasingly are looking for ghostwriters to help them out.") 
It is Holt's contention that companies wishing to survive branding's next dialectical move are going to have to re-learn a fact that was ironically enough common knowledge before globalization: when companies and their consumers exist in the same local geographic community, the two are necessarily linked. Additionally, he points out, consumers will need to understand that they are not revolutionary through their isolated purchasing decisions (however reflexive or creative those may be) but "only insofar as they assist entrepreneurial firms to tear down the old branding paradigm and create opportunities for companies that understand new principles." 
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh. "Libertatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption." Journal of Consumer Research, no. 22 (1995): 239-67.
Fiske, John. Media Matters : Everyday Culture and Political Change. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minneota Press, 1994.
Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
Fiske, John, and John Hartley. Reading Television. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge, 2003.
Gramsci, Antonio, and David Forgacs. The Gramsci Reader : Selected Writings, 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Holt, Douglas. "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding." Journal of Consumer Research 29 (2002): 70-88.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1999.
Ozanne, Julie and Jeff Murray. "The Critical Imagination: Emancipatory Interests in Consumer Research." Journal of Consumer Research, no. 18 (1995): 129-44.
"Who's Wearing the Trousers." The Economist, 8 September 2001, 50-64.
 Douglas Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," Journal of Consumer Research 29 (2002): 71.
 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1999). Cited in Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," 71.
 Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding."
 See Antonio Gramsci and David Forgacs, The Gramsci Reader : Selected Writings, 1916-1935 (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
 For de Certeau, see especially Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). For Fiske, see John Fiske, Media Matters : Everyday Culture and Political Change (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minneota Press, 1994), John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television, 2nd ed. (London ; New York: Routledge, 2003).
 Julie and Jeff Murray Ozanne, "The Critical Imagination: Emancipatory Interests in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, no. 18 (1995). As cited in Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," 72.
 Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," 75.
 A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh Firat, "Libertatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,"Journal of Consumer Research, no. 22 (1995). As cited in Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," 72.
 Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," 76.
 Ibid.: 87.
 Ibid.: 84.
 Ibid.: 85.
 Ibid.: 88.
 Ibid.: 86-87.
 Ibid.: 88.
 "Who's Wearing the Trousers," The Economist, 8 September 2001.
 Holt, "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," 88.
 Ibid.: 89.