Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Brand X

I have a crude X in black duct tape on my laptop, and no other stickers. Almost everybody asks what it means because… it looks like it means something.

It originally didn’t mean very much; I bought this laptop & went directly to a conference, and just wanted it to look slightly distinctive, and the duct tape was all I had.

To my surprise, this was a guaranteed conversation starter. Even baristas remember me as the guy with the X.

I guess it is weird – most people go out of their way to let everyone know they have Apple hardware. iPhone bumpers even have a cutout just for the logo. It’s true that I don’t care much at all about that, so perhaps that was accidentally very evocative or disturbing for others.

But the concept of ‘branding’ is disturbing to me, especially when supposedly progressive organizations throw around that word. As the pros will tell you, branding is more than just a logo; everything that communicates your organization’s presence is branding. Which is why they struggle to control it. But as I see it, branding exploits some bugs in how humans work. The end goal of branding is that people start thinking of an organization as kind of person, with a face, that evokes a consistent personality and values.

Whereas most organizations are in reality a confused snarl of competing interests. It may not be a lie that leaders of the organization hope that their organization reflects certain values. But there’s a deeper lie, that organizations have some kind of consistent nature that you can trust, even though the individuals all have their own agendas, and the people running the place might change, and even the business model might change. Internet businesses are particularly volatile - overnight it might flip from a simple fee-for-service to spying on you for advertisers.

I say, if you want to carve your logo into a big stone sculpture in the lobby, it’s a lie unless you make your values similarly durable. Your relationship to the world shouldn’t be changed fundamentally by whoever’s in charge, or who owns it. Perhaps organizations like Wikipedia, for-benefit corporations, and member organizations with constitutions can have a kind of honest branding, but Google or IBM cannot.

Maybe other people can dimly perceive that oppositional stance in my accidental ‘brand X’ laptop. It rudely jerks people back into the human scale, where association matters less than action.