Against Leviathan: building rhizomatic brands

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 3, no. 1, 2009.

Nicholas Ind
Equilibrium Consulting

This paper was presented at the 25th EGOS Colloquium in Barcelona on July 2nd 2009.

‘Markets may change, but brands shouldn’t.’ Ries and Ries, (1998, 153)

‘..we can infer that having an identity means being your true self, driven by a personal goal that is both different from others’ and resistant to change.’
Kapferer, (1997, 91)

This paper challenges ideas about resistance to change and by implication, the traditional model of brand building which suggests the dominance of the organisation in controlling a brand. In its place we will stress the value of movement and difference – both of which are inherent in people’s relationships with brands. We will here argue for a fluid, dialogic approach to brand, based on a neutral view. In other words one that does not see branding as something organisations do to consumers, nor as something that simply exists in the consumer’s mind. This neutrality shifts the argument from control to influence and from hegemony to freedom.  To develop these ideas, the paper will draw primarily from philosophical sources.

Leviathan as a model for brand building
Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) is an apt representation of the idea of control in that it is based on a hierarchical structure where the individual gives up freedom while the sovereign power provides safety and security. Hobbes’s concept is built on a disdainful idea of man that implies a lack of trust. He argues that in nature, fear resides: ‘during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre is of every man, against every man.’ (Hobbes, 1991, 88). The way out of this fear is for each individual to unify their interests with that of the sovereign, such that a multiplicity of individuals can be shaped into a single body. This is given a specific pictorial reference in the frontispiece of Leviathan where the body of the sovereign is formed out of a multitude of individual bodies under the inscription: ‘non est potestas Super Terram qua Comparetur ei.’ (there is no power on earth which can be compared to him). Hobbes’s covenant between the individual and the sovereign power does imply stability, but it requires conformity to be achieved. Like Rousseau, in The Social Contract (1762),  there is a requirement for ‘harmony’ and no allowance for individual dissent. It is a ‘great fault to speak evil of the Soveraign or to argue and dispute his Power’ (Hobbes, 1991, 234).

The sovereign view can be found if we look inside organisations and to the idea of employee identification. There is a core assumption that individuals should identify with organisational values and internalise them: ‘today’s organizations demand that we incorporate part of the organization’s identity into our own.’ (Barker, 1998, 265). There is a Rousseau like requirement for system and harmony, which must be confronted when we consider such questions as ‘What right does any organization have to ask us to identify with it?’ and ‘To what extent is resistance or tolerance allowed?’ (ibid) (i).  Generally we might argue that the psychological contract beween the individual and the organisation, is a Hobbesian exchange. The organisation promises to provide safety, security and reward and in return, the individual must give up some freedom and commit to the ideology of the organisation.  Sometimes the contractual arrangement and rewards systems makes explicit the requirement for conformity, whereas in others the influence is more subtle, in that programmes are designed to encourage individuals to identify. The former equates to what Foucault defined as disciplinary societies which enforced a certain way of behaving and also limited variation from norms (Lazzarato 2006). The latter equates to societies of control, where opinion and collective perceptions limit people’s imagination (Deleuze 1992). Even if we are willing participants in an organisational ideology, we are still instrumental in achieving a purpose that is not entirely our own by subsuming our own identities in a totality (Hardt and Negri, 2000).

When we consider Leviathan as a model for brand building with external audiences, we should recognise further limitations. It suggests an organisational perspective where, even if actions are based on consumer insight, branding is seen as something that is done to people. This is reflected in branding models that are based on a linear approach, where the organisational identity is transmitted outwards by actions, communications, products and services to create an image. This linearity encourages a belief in the effectiveness of planning and the possibility of control. Marketing managers want to capture the essence of the brand through the articulation of a brand mission, vision and values and then use that to plan and execute externally oriented communications. However, this is a doomed attempt to control the uncontrollable, for to contradict Ries and Ries, brands do change all the time. Where we seek repetition, all we find is difference. This challenges the desire to pin down the idea of the brand, but it does suggest that we can think about organisational brands in a different way, where freedom, spontaneity, creativity and diversity are encouraged rather than repressed (Bauman 2001, Czarniawska 2003). As Mill argues in On Liberty, ‘unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil.’ (Mill 2002, 58). And as DeLanda suggests ‘we are starting to think of heterogeneity as something valuable, not as an obstacle to unification.’ (DeLanda, 2003, 274).

Loosening up the brand
‘Freedom involves breaking rules.’ (Berlin 2003, 229). The Hobbes’ model provides for control, but it also closes down the space of freedom for the individual. We can argue against the abstraction that Hobbes’s approach suggests, simply because it denies freedom (although Hobbes in the preface to Leviathan does suggest we need a balance between Liberty and Authority). However, we can also challenge the control model on other grounds. The move to dominantly service based economies, particularly in OECD countries, has elevated the importance of the people element in brand building. Even when organisations are primarily concerned with selling products, there is a growing emphasis on the service aspect of the process (Vargo and Lusch, 2004, Iglesias, Singh, Batista-Foguet, 2009). The challenge this creates is that in relationship building between individuals it is impossible to prescribe exactly how people should behave. Even when it seems control and efficiency should be paramount, such as in the military or in an automotive plant, there are cases that suggest the importance of freedom (Bungay 2003, Liker 2004). Second, as intangibile assets grow in relative importance, so does the requirement to use the full intellectual resources of the organisation. In a panopticon like environment it is harder to generate the creativity that organisations require (Burns and Stalker 1994). Third, control becomes a more distant possibility, the more networked people become. Once brands could be opaque – able to hide behind an organisational façade. What the customer saw largely was what the organisation decided to show. However, with the emergence of the online world, brands have little choice but to become more transparent. Individuals can now see inside organisations, form communities to discuss brand performance, take part in brand development and challenge brand owners to act responsibly. Collectively, these imperatives are undermining what Deleuze and Guattari describe as arboresence – hierarchical and self contained structures that inhibit movement and discourage creative thinking, because they tend ‘to close one’s mind to the dynamism, particularity and change that is evident in lived experience.’ (Deleuze and Guattari 2004).

To encourage initiative and creativity, there needs to be a greater emphasis given to positive freedom. Berlin’s argument is that authority is imperfect and the individual should be free to follow their own interests: ‘more spontaneous, individual variation (for which the individual must in the end assume full responsibility) will always be worth more than the neatest and most delicately fashioned imposed pattern’ (Berlin 2005, 92-93). Berlin makes the distinction between negative freedom – the degree to which individuals are free from man-made barriers – and positive freedom – the degree to which individuals are free to determine how they do things and their ability to self organise. For the organisation to have some degree of homogeneity and to distinguish it from the unstructured world outside, there must be some limit to freedom from. Berlin believes that Hobbes errs here because he wishes to increase the area of centralised control and to diminish that of the individual (Berlin 2005, 173). Freedom to comes from the desire of the individual to be master of their own life and not dependent on the will of others; to be free to achieve self-realisation. The organisational issue is how freedom from and freedom to are dynamically determined, for organisations all to some degree try to coerce, manipulate or encourage the individual to adhere to certain goals and a way of doing things (Ind 2009). ‘Nobody may compel me to be happy in his own way,’ said Kant, while Berlin writes paternalism is ‘the greatest despotism imaginable.’ (ii) (Berlin 2005, 183).

We can use a metaphor here to describe this balancing between freedom from and freedom to. If we take a framed picture, in this instance by the artist Howard Hodgkin, we can emphasise certain aspects. Hodgkin’s paintings are emotional, colourful works that are painted over several years. He revisits canvases as his ideas and perspective changes. He also challenges the boundaries of the painting, in that in many he paints not only on the canvas but on the frame as well. If we were to draw out the metaphor we might say that the framework is the area of negative freedom that is defined by the brand mission, vision and values, while the canvas is the positive freedom – the space in which individuals are free to express their creativity. The point about this metaphor, is that individuals should also be encouraged to challenge the boundaries of freedom (by painting on the frame) and to keep alive the space of freedom as ideas and perspectives change. This argues that managers should eschew their control based approach and their attempts to fix brand meaning and work instead to nurture what can be called rhizomatic brands where there is a fluid, always emerging meaning.

Brands and movement

In contrast with the idea of the arborescent, Deleuze and Guattari put forward an alternative structure that builds on their interest in the nomadic. This is the rhizome which is a type of plant that can extend itself through its underground root system to establish new plants. In other words a rhizome creates connections, removes blockages and is susceptible to constant modification through interaction (Deleuze & Guattari 2004, 13): ‘it creates and recreates the world through connections.’ (Parr 2005, 236). The rhizome is an open, fluid system that is composed of ‘directions in motion.’ This is a perspective that challenges the very idea of organisation and presents a view based on process and movement: ‘Deleuze’s ontology is meant to revitalise and re-energise being, to endow it with a primary and irreducible dynamism’ (Hallward 2006, 13). This dynamic view is appropriate to the world of brands, because brands are subject to constant change that is driven both by internal actors and external forces. Rather than accepting a specific categorisation of the ontology of the organisation at a point in time, Deleuze emphasises process and the movement of individual singularities in a topological folding and unfolding. This represents the movement of the virtual into the actual. This is the force of creativity, because this movement breaks repetition and habit and stimulates deterritorialisation – the discovery of new ways of being and doing as a result of opening one’s mind; when individuals recognise that ‘difference inhabits repetition’ (Deleuze 2004: 97). This receptivity to the world and the process of self creation is also referred to by Bergson in terms of ‘creating oneself endlessly’ and Shotter who calls it “relational-responsive understanding” – a dialogue that explores meanings based on a receptiveness to things rather than an a priori sense of fixed meaning. We can use an artwork by Matias Faldbakken to illustrate this point. One of his installations, Away from Sound (2005) consists of 20 stacked Marshall guitar amplifiers. The immediate association is of course with the banks of loudspeakers one sees at rock concerts. However, Faldbakken challenges this meaning. The installation may look like something we have seen before, but these boxes are dummies. They have no capability for sound and they are situated in an art gallery so that they lose their original function and setting. By changing the context, the meaning shifts. With loss of purpose, we lose the logic of speakers and sound, but in a dialogue with the work we can begin to think of other associations – if we are open to them. By moving ‘away from sound’, we might think of Marshall as a symbol of rock and roll rebellion, but also as a brand given its rock star endorsement and the use of the signature logo centrally located on every speaker. When we are receptive to this change in meaning, we can also think about the irony of rebelliousness linked to commercialism.

While Deleuze emphasises difference, we should note that we easily become inured to seeing the difference in repetition. Yet, whether we are aware of it or not, our being-in-the-world, does change us constantly. If we interact with a brand over time, the experience is never exactly the same. We change by just living and the process of buying and consuming is never identical. We buy in different places, we talk to different brand representatives and we consume in different ways. Difference is there if we care to look – as Nancy says (2002,12) ‘everything is in the absolute restlessness of becoming.’ By extension, the brand itself also changes, because, as we will argue, the organisation that delivers the brand is in a constant state of flux and the brand itself is created in a moving dialogic space. As Borges shows in ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, repetition is impossible. In the short story, the narrator comments on the work of Pierre Menard who has re-written Cervantes’ Quixote: ‘Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote.’ Menard writes down Cervantes’ text word for word – but while Cervantes wrote in the 17th century, Menard is writing in the 20th century. The commentator draws out the difference, ‘the contrast in styles is equally striking. The archaic style of Menard – who is, in addition, not a native speaker of the language in which he writes – is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.’

To counter the movement of difference and to help define some sense of unity, organisations try to pin down the meaning of the brand. The argument is that, if the organisation can impose some degree of consistency on brand delivery, this will help to create a clearer image in the mind of the customer. This is the rationale behind brand mission, vision and value statements and the techniques of persuasion (or control) used to engage employees with them. However, organisations seem tempted to think of these statements in an essentialist way, by extending a chosen value word into a seemingly precise immutable definition (Ind 2007). The definition, if it is widely understood and used, can encourage a more cohesive presentation, but it will still have movement. To challenge Platonic essentialism, we might argue there is no true self that resists change. Nor can movement be resisted through articulating a set of value words, for language itself moves. Eco (1999) makes this point when he refers to the difference between a dictionary definition of a word and an encyclopaedic one. He argues that a dictionary definition is an agreed imperial ideal in the sense that an expert defines what a word means. In contrast encyclopaedic knowledge is how a community through exploration and action comes to understand a meaning that is never quite fixed, but always subject to change as new contexts cause the word to adapt. If we took a value word such as ‘integrity’, we can see that it will mean different things in different organisations – for example Greenpeace will see it differently to Coca Cola. Even in the same organisation it will be subject to different interpretations and those interpretations will change as people apply the idea of ‘integrity’ and share its evolving meaning with each other. This does not suggest that ‘integrity’ starts to mean something entirely different, because there tend to be boundaries to the movement. There is a degree of stability in language. As Deleuze and Guattari write, ‘All that the association of ideas has ever meant is providing us with these protective rules – resemblance, contiguity, causality – which enable us to put some order into ideas, preventing our “fantasy” (delirium, madness) from crossing the universe in an instant, producing winged horses and dragons breathing fire.’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 2003, 201)

A further attribute of a rhizome is that it is open, but what does this mean when thinking about brands? Openness suggests receptivity, a willingness to listen and to participate, honesty and humility. This suggests organisations should engage and involve their own people as much as possible in developing and delivering the brand experience and that the boundary between the organisation and the outside world should be opened up to allow a free-flow involvement with the brand. This is the principle of democratisation – and is different to the idea of organisational democracy and citizenship (although linked to it) as advocated by some writers (Manville & Ober 2003, Gratton 2004).

The idea of democratisation as suggested here derives from Spinoza, who in the Tractatus Politicus, emphasises the importance of the circulation of information. He argues that people can only truly participate if they are aware of the issues, rather than what normally happens, which is the ‘supreme folly to wish to transact everything behind the backs of citizens.’ (Spinoza 1998, VII, 27). Being secretive is normally presented in terms of utility, but it demonstrates a lack of confidence in others and limits the opportunity for effective participation: ‘But the perpetual refrain of those who lust after absolute dominion is, that it is to the essential interest of the commonwealth that its business be secretly transacted, and other like pretences, which end in the more hateful a slavery, the more they are clothed with a show of utility.’ (Spinoza 1998, VII, 29). Organisations should take the opportunity to involve their people in decision-making, to communicate the decisions made as widely as possible and educate their organisational citizens. The implication is that organisations should spend less time on trying to persuade members of a point of view and more on absorbing and working with diverse views and shaping them into an always evolving idea: ‘the organization is a territory continuously in construction by the becoming of the heterogeneity of components in action.’ (Viterriti 2004, 170). Whatever the practical difficulties inherent in the principle, widespread participation in decision-making, does have the important virtue of involving the intellectual capabilities of organisational members, of democratising the organisation and in encouraging individual identification.

The virtue of democratisation is twofold. If employees are trusted and involved they have a greater opportunity to make an active contribution to building the brand. They can better casino pa natet engage with each other and get closer to customers. Rather than relying on market research as the sole means of informing insight, open organisations encourage a direct involvement with customers, which creates the opportunity for entrainment. Similarly, once the organisation is open, customers and other stakeholders have the opportunity to participate in the brand and to contribute their ideas through brand communities and direct dialogue. This approach is the opposite of the controlled Leviathan which Foucault describes as an automaton (Foucault 2003). With democratisation, brand managers might still plan and try to structure how the brand will work, but it will be subject to the spontaneous and unstructured participation of individuals. As Foucault futher argues, we should not concentrate on the abstract power of the organisation, but rather on how the power circulates and passes through individuals. There are obvious examples from the online world of brands that practice democratisation, such as Wikipedia and Craig’s List as well as the Open Source movement, but there are also powerful offline brands that practice openness and customer participation – most notably Quiksilver and IDEO (Ind and Watt, 2004), Lego (Hatch and Schultz 2008 177-202) and Team Obama, which achieved high levels of engagement by a powerful combination of a cultural willingness to engage and tools (especially online) that facilitated the opportunity for involvement.

Towards a rhizomatic view
Part of the critique of the Leviathan model is that it focuses on the organisational entity that delivers the brand. This is not surprising, given that much of the branding literature is aimed at prospective or existing managers. However, if we take a bird’s eye view, we would see something different. We would see an organisation that constructs products and services and augments them through advertising, packaging and other forms of marketing activity and we would see an individual who is linked to other individuals and overlaps with the organisation. The view would also show that the boundaries of the organisation and the individual are permeable and constantly moving – not leaping around as such, but moving in the way a jelly might wobble. The important points about this image are several.

First, the individual is not necessarily a consumer. Life is not dependent on the act of consumption – although we perhaps sometimes think it is. An individual may come to consume, but he or she has a potential impact on the brand because of his or her existing connection to other individuals – I may never have owned a BMW or a Lexus car, but I am quite willing to express an opinion about the brands to others.

Second, most brand models treat the consumer/individual as a virgin – as if the person did not have life experience, but as Heidegger argues in his organic way, we are mitsein (being with) above all else (iii): ‘we are always already involved, and can never wholly extract ourselves from our living involvements with the others and the otherness around us.’ (Shotter, 2005, 118). For Heidegger a human being always exists in the world. Dasein does not live in a body, which reaches out. It is already involved and connected. Being already has preconceptions of the world: ‘when something within-the- world is encountered as such, the thing in question already has an involvement which is disclosed in our understanding of the world, and this involvement is one that gets laid out by the interpretation.’ (Heidegger 1962 190-191). In other words, even if we have never directly encountered a brand, we still engage with it based on our experience and expectations.

Third, the brand itself is created in the in-between – in the dialogic space where the individual and the organisation literally or metaphorically converse. Bakhtin argues this is where thought is born and shaped: ‘in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought’ (Morris 2003, 86). He sees the speaker and the listener as active participants in the dynamic development of a meaning through dialogue: ‘according to this view, the listener instead of being a powerless observer actively processed information and prepared a reply, further developing the meaning of the message.’ (Belova 2006).

The implication of this rhizomatic approach is that brand managers should recognise that the Leviathan model is no longer appropriate nor effective. It is not the abstract stucture itself that is important, but the interaction with others. Managers can only be receptive to the movement of discovery, if they have an openness to the world. If a manager tries to pin down language and to deny it movement or tries to close down the flow of thought by a lack of receptivity to the language of others, a brand is unlikely to realise its potential. If meaning is uncovered through openness – in ‘the ceaseless flow of living language-interwoven relations,’ (Shotter 2005, 130) – it will not do for organisational members to dictate an immoveable viewpoint. As Heidegger suggests in The Origin of the Work of Art, we should attend to the work by ‘standing within the openness of entities that happens in the work.’ This is also true of the work of organisation. When the work is closed it lacks the means to adapt and prevents the vitality of de-territorialisation. This does not deny the value of what McCloskey calls ‘sweet talk’ (McCloskey 1994) but persuasion must be seen as part of an open dialogue not one way communication. Inevitably, this suggests some loss of control for brand managers. They may still influence how the brand is seen, but they should remember the tendency to fulfil what AN Whitehead called the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness – mistaking an abstract plan or idea for reality. A rhizomatic approach recognises that it is the concrete world of untidy spontaneity and creativity that is valuable. Indeed, the ability to adapt well to ever changing circumstances may be the most important aspect of competitive advantage. At the extreme, a rhizomatic brand, might be problemmatic, because it tends towards non-organisation, but if organisations want to maximise their fluidity and connectivity to indidivuals, they should set the minimum of constraints and keep pushing towards the opposite of Leviathan: a space where people create value through an ever evolving shared interest.

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Zizek argues that freedom with reponsibility is a variation on forced choice. You have freedom as long as you make the right choice. He also argues that in the West ‘oppression itsef is obliterated and masked as free choice.’

Berlin argues later that Kant’s remark on paternalism as despotism is because it is an insult to an individual’s view of themselves as a human being. Echoing Heidegger’s view of the importance of being-in-the-world, Berlin writes, ‘what I am, is in large part, determined by what I feel and think, and what I feel and think is determined by the feeling and thought prevailing in the society to which I belong, of which, in Burke’s sense, I form not an isolable atom, but an ingredient…in a social pattern.’ Berlin 2005, 203

‘If there is indeed something which constitutes this ‘being’ or this ‘existence’ in which, or according to which, we are…it is that we are with one another. We are with (someone, others and the rest of the world) just as much and exactly as we are tout court.’ Jean-Luc Nancy ‘The Insufficiency of ‘Values’ and the Necessity of ‘Sense’, Journal for Cultural Research, Vol 9, Number 4, October 2005, p440

Nicholas IndAgainst Leviathan: building rhizomatic brands

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