Wednesday 17 August 2011

Brand cathedrals

An interesting question popped up in a pub quiz this evening: which brand overtook Coca-Cola in 1996 to become the world's most recognised brand?

We worried over this particular bone ages, long after the answer papers had been collected. Clearly it would have to be a brand that was accessible across cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, which would rule out all luxury goods, probably including consumer electronics (so Sony, all the rage at the time with the CD Walkman and Playstation everywhere, were out). 1996 was pre-internet, so a few years too early for Yahoo! et al. We muttered about all the ubiquitous FMCG brands we could possibly think of, but in the end plumped for Nike. We were wrong (and kicked ourselves when we were told the answer*).

Talking of truly iconic brands, a couple of years ago, in full tour guide mode, I showed a Thai teenager around town along with her mother. I tried to pick a mixture of the obvious sights and one or two things off the beaten track, but there was only one thing she wanted to see above all else: that temple to the consumerist gods - the Apple store. Only in the last few months did I finally get around to going to there myself, along with another cathedral just a stone's throw away: Niketown.

Personally I found the Apple store oppressive, but then traditionally I've had slight Luddite tendencies. The store perfectly mirrors the brand's ideal: achingly trendy, lots of clinical-white space, enthusiastic staff showing the products off in all their glory. Yet I found the place wholly inadequate: I was there to buy a phone cover as a present, and received no help at all despite armies of blue-t-shirt clad staff. On going up to the counter to pay, I was expecting to have to be the subject of a battle between the half-a-dozen staff members there to process my purchase, but no: the sales counter upstairs doesn't sell anything, it's just yet another bench for them to show things off. The sales process takes place on the ground floor, hidden away at the back. For me the Apple store was just too sterile, and trying too hard for its own good, but the throngs of tourists flocking in would evidently disagree.

Niketown is another matter: it's basically a museum devoted to the brand. It's brilliantly done. Like Apple, they must be paying millions for the premium site, right on Piccadilly Circus, but it's the kind of place that raises brand equity just by being there. This one truly is a temple: come and worship decades of trainer history, along with a lot of neon lighting and various tempting "bespoke" offers. The biggest praise that I can pay the place is that I wandered around actually coveting their goods, nay lusting after them, which I didn't find with the Apple store. Nike has only been around since 1978 but they managed to create a sense of history dating back further than that; although to the teenagers who flood the place, 1978 probably feels prehistoric anyhow.

But can someone please explain to me what the M&Ms World in Leicester Square is about? I haven't managed to drag myself in, but surely four floors devoted to little glorified Smarties (in fact is there any difference?) doesn't sound inspiring. There has to be a reason to go there, and for the casual Leicester Square visitor, I would have thought a trip to the Ben & Jerry's cafe would make more sense. Or am I out of touch?

*The answer was McDonald's.

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