What is The Matrix? Mostly, an advert. The vehicle of communication, transport and ultimate liberation in this modern-and-knows-it film isn’t the dowdy, sinister computer but the telephone, specifically the Nokia mobile phone. Almost every scene is a gorgeous ballet of FX and product placement, the two often merging in luscious freeze-frames and slo-mo close-ups on the sleek black clad Nokia casings; moments of branded calm before further explosions and expositions rack the celluloid. Is this deplorable? Hardly: the sheer, callous open-ness of the in-movie ads is part and parcel of the deliciously knowing fun we’re meant to be having. How gauche it would be to feel offended.

You’d think Jean Baudrillard would agree, given that The Matrix advertises him, too (Keanu keeps some unspecified drug/disc thing in a hollowed-out hardback of Simulacra And Simulation. I chuckled, anyway.). Actually, nowadays he probably would, who knows, but in front of me I have a cutely designed and impractically oblong copy of his 1968 The System Of Objects, reissued by Verso, which includes a stern meditation on the inadequacies of advertising, and specifically branding, as a language. Branding is a “language of mere signals”, without syntax and reliant on “infinite repetition”, and brand loyalty is forever “a conditioned reflex of manipulated emotions”. So much for Nokia.

I work with brands a lot, though, and the more I thought about it the more it struck me Baudrillard had a point. The marketing profession tends to think of brands as things the consumer has some kind of relationship with, a relationship which the people managing those brands would love to believe is as nuanced and intimate as interpersonal relationships. It’s become absolute anathema for marketers to admit that their products don’t actually possess ‘brand personalities’ or human characteristics when out on the supermarket shelves, so the poor consumer is forced to jump through ridiculous hoops until they admit that Persil is ‘sexy’ or Daz is ‘fun’ or that Ariel would, if it were a person, most certainly be a trapeze artist.

These learnings, which say a great deal more about the producer’s fetishistic relationship with their brand than they do about the consumer’s, are noted down and treated as sacred. The consumer goes home and generally buys the same product they always have. Brands aren’t people. But only the most pig-headed would claim that branding is meaningless, or blithely go along with Baudrillard’s youthful indignation that brand-loyal consumers are victims of emotional manipulation. (Name me an unmanipulated emotion. Exactly.)

His treatment of brands as a language is much nearer the mark. Baudrillard talks of brands “devour[ing] one another” and of “the basic lexicon that covers our walls”. The educated reader immediately thinks of one thing: graffiti culture. And Baudrillard’s evocations of syntactical war and magically resonant power-words are reminiscent of New York art-rapper Rammellzee’s visions of alphabetical battle, city streets turned into apocalyptic linguistic hot zones as the lexicon we know is infected and overrun by military-spawned secret letters. Graffiti, the reinvention of the self as a brand, is the key both to Rammellzee’s word-war and to the evolution of branding since Baudrillard first considered it.

Advertising in the 1950s and 1960s was basically exoteric: the barely-concealed connotative meanings that so delighted and repulsed a generation of cultural studies mavens were powerful because they were instantly comprehensible to all readers and because their meaning did not shift. The malign power of the brand for Roland Barthes, for example, lay in precisely its insinuations of the eternal: the Guide Bleu‘s evocations of a transparently false French golden age, or a pasta brand’s assumptions of a ‘natural’ Italian-ness. Everybody seeing a Rolls-Royce would have been instantly aware of the owner’s societal status, just as everybody would have been able to read the broad cultural implications of a taste for Coke, or a preference for the Beatles over the Stones.

Or would they? The Beatles and the Stones give us an early example of a shift in the meaning of branding away from this universality. Their rivalry introduces an initiatory element into pop branding: between a rock fan and a rock non-fan, both bands would have similiarly represented threat/noise/banality/rebellion/youth….whatever. But to the rock initiate, being a Beatles fan (black pop/Liverpool) was a very different thing to being a Stones fan (bluesy aggression/London). Branding becomes fluid, capable of fractal intricacies of meaning depending on the level to which the observer has penetrated the mysteries of the category. In this sense it runs considerably deeper than verbal language. The acceleration is rapid: the Stones themselves pave the way for Mod, whose urban peacocks embody these infinite refractions of meaning.

Cut forward to graffiti, and you find a language gone completely underground – tags interpretable only to a select minority, and fully comprehensible only to a tiny few within that: a language-system organised on a cellular basis, understanding strictly need-to-know. No wonder hip-hop culture caught on so quickly among the postmodern intelligentsia, no wonder so much blather was talked about the sampler aesthetic and its inbuilt irreverence (as a matter of fact hip-hop sampling tends to be Catholically reverent, and it’s mainstream rave culture which has really detonated the fixed-meaning ethos of the brand, as a generation of metropolitan mums grow up associating Johnson’s Baby Powder with cocaine, but that’s another story entirely). No wonder, also, hip-hop has been so ignored and disdained since it went absolutely overground sometime around the turn of the decade. But it’s in mainstream hip-hop and R & B that we see the fullest flowering of branding as surrogate language, and pointers towards the way brands and culture will continue to evolve.

Pick up an issue of The Source or Vibe and you’re pitched into an ocean of consumer sophistication. The debates on the surface address issues of consumption and reality directly, the images and adverts, soaked with labels and name brands, that swirl around them tell the real story, presenting a code which yells nothing but ‘class’ and more importantly ‘cash’ to the outsider, i.e. me, but also contains layers of micro-meaning that the regular reader can interpret (and crucially, can aspire to interpret further). Incidentally, ‘sophistication’ is still represented by many market researchers with pictures of ballerinas and the like, which will be less than useful to a generation growing up on Ma$e and Foxy Brown.

Understanding branding as a language is understanding it as a way in which people communicate with each other and with themselves, not with the things they buy. The purchase of a Ford rather than a Volkswagen is in itself meaningless until it’s observed by somebody (maybe just the buyer) with a level of understanding able to assign the brand its social meaning. With a lot of consumables, things stop there, but as graffiti culture showed, the potential levels of understanding, of brand initiation, are without limit. This is true in part because the linguistic value of brands derives from the play of meaning between the items in a consumer’s ‘repertoire’ – you could make a broad generalisation about what Rolls-Royce ‘means’, but it’s completely useless since the individual experiences Rolls-Royce not in a vacuum, but as part of a network of choices. The meaning of RR to an individual is completely defined by everything else they consume: coca-cola, Smirnoff, protestantism, high opera, sado-masochistic sex, Danish bacon.

(Language is still very much a sledgehammer metaphor for branding, of course: a better one might well be memetics – the meanings of brands to the individual knotting together with all their other beliefs, ideas and received wisdoms, forming a skein of mental RNA one might as well call ‘personality’.)

So branding, like language and like music taste, is a flux we present to the world. Nothing is fixed – companies throw brands out into the market and at best hope we get the right idea (being a fairly unimaginative species, we generally do). The sharpest brands nowadays have that flux built into them: the very malleability of Boyzone allows it to both sell itself on a sweet dream of teenage desire and adapt instantly and successfully to the coming out of a key component: the Stones would not have been so lucky. Boyzone, like consumerist hip-hop, ain’t nuthin’ but hype (i.e. they have better marketing people than, say, Pavement). But most popular culture that gets critically raved about lacks such sensitivity: it’s still reliant on fixed-meaning, top-down imagery of the authentic, the real, the honest. Even The Matrix relies on that stuff in the end (Keanu is guided by wholesome wisdom learned in a homely tenement kitchen, in a possibly intentional homage to Monkey Island). One hopes Nokia know what they’re doing.