Sunday, November 9, 2008

The American Brand (TM)

Screen shot: trademarking shipping containers as building units.

I'm recovering from several days of live blogging and conference presentations by drinking too much coffee and watching the first of Obama's transition team make their rounds on the Sunday morning news shows. Chris Matthews just asked: "Can Barack Obama restore the American Brand?"

We've been hearing this a lot lately, the idea of America as a brand (google the phrase and see what pops up). Ellen McGirt wrote a piece recently for Fast Company titled "The Brand Called Obama."

It's a telling word, one that I would argue got us into this mess in the first place. We've somehow conflated capitalism with democracy in this country, but as the recent economic meltdown shows, unmitigated consumption fails.

We were founded on the idea of the social contract, the belief that we give up some rights as a people to afford our broader rights. Rousseau wrote in the late 1700's: "The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole."

It is a belief that an investment in public education, for example, is a worthy endeavor because it supports the greater whole.

I had a conversation with a group of journalists at the Re-imagining Cities conference this weekend and the topic of branding and ownership came up. Now that the green movement has become prevalent in the marketplace, there is a desire to brand and commoditize it. You are suddenly seeing the trademark symbol pop up. I was told that a company in Europe is actually trying to TM the phrase "Sustainable City" (good luck).

This presents a crises of conscience in the sustainability movement. How do you take an altruistic endeavor—building a more just, equitable, and safe world—and make a living off of it as well? It's the same challenge we've faced since the founding of this country: how do you espouse a nation structured on both private ownership and the social contract? How do you encourage individuality—the fend-for-yourself, Darwinist ideal of the American Dream—while also encouraging a commitment to community?

I'm hopeful that this week's election is a step in the right direction.