I Am Not a Brand, Am I?

So, after my post about the Fyre Festival, my friend Robin Lehto — who is very active in San Francisco’s underground art scenes but not a Burner — responded this way on Facebook:

“Image uber alles.” Slow clap. But a MILLION eyerolls at people with personal brands being restricted at Burning Man. My dear, sweet friend, with THE MOST respect I present to you this metaphorical mirror … Burners had personal brands before Instagram was a thing.”

That’s a worthwhile challenge to go deeper on. Doesn’t Burning Man have a logo? And big, artistic, personalities who are their own brands?

It’s a subject that I had an ongoing conversation about with Larry. And, for me, his thoughts on the issue take it to a different level.

Back in 2014, I published a video on the Burning Man Journal exploring questions of Decommodification — not just of things and currency, but of the self.  The video starts by recalling a discussion I had with a Burner — and not a “turn key camper” or “billionaire” or “Instagram celebrity”, but a volunteering, contributing, loved-by-his-campmates, high-quality Burner, who was actively in the process of volunteering to save my life at the time of this conversation — who talked about the way “Burning Man” is itself a brand, and even I, “Caveat, of Burning Man,” am a wonderful brand, too.

And there I was, being nursed back to health by him, hating him with a deep and abiding passion as he gave me water to drink and hung around to make sure I didn’t die and told me I was a wonderful brand. It was an emotionally fraught moment.

Larry would later tell me that this video had influenced his own thinking about Decommodification, which I think is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten, and it also was the beginning of our own series of conversations about this challenge that my friend has just made — what differentiates the “Burning Man” symbol from a corporate logo? What differentiates “Caveat Magister,” and for that matter “Larry Harvey, Man in the Hat” from being the exact same kind of “personal brands” that Instagram influencers are trying to establish? Can we even say they’re different?

The Possible of the Art

Larry said yes: the Burning Man icon is a symbol but not a logo. But what’s the difference?

Well, logos actually have a much more limited range of things they represent. Take the Nike “swoosh” — a logo — and the American flag — a symbol. What do they represent? Well, the flag … geez … how long have you got? It represents America, it represents freedom, it represents American history … because of that, some see it as a symbol of oppression … some see it as synonymous with military power … some people with politics … it simultaneously represents political authority in America AND the right to challenge political authority in America …

… this just goes on and on.

The Nike “swoosh?”  It represents … Nike.

And there are a limited range of things that sorta-kinda go along with that: I guarantee you Nike has a giant “brand book” with at least a page of all the attributes they want their logo to be associated with. You know: playing hard, just doing it, athletic excellence. But … it’s not that big a list, many of these attributes are vague to the point of ludicrousness, and even more of them aren’t really even evoked by the logo, that’s just their aspiration.

And it’s not an accident that the list of things the “swoosh” represents is so comparatively small: that’s the point. The point of a logo is to represent only the things that the “brand manager” wants people to think about when they look at it, which is generally a very, very, small number of things, and generally innocuous, and bears no particular correspondence with reality. If a logo (or a brand) end up representing something that is not in the brand book, it’s a catastrophe. Even if it’s accurate.

Nike doesn’t actually want its swoosh to represent how good or bad the next pair of shoes are and whether or not teams it has merchandizing deals with win or lose anything: they always want the brand to represent the same limited number of things, no matter what actually happens in the world. The brand is as locked down as it can be.

Symbols, on the other hand, have “possibility,” Larry said. They not only can be more, they invite you to make them more. The reason why the list of things the American flag can represent is so damn long is precisely that symbols are open where logos are closed. There is no brand book — your experience of a symbol, what it actually means to you, and the way you choose to use it in turn, has an impact on what it becomes.

As a result, symbols have to carry the reality of the thing they represent with them. When the American flag is attached to supplies sent for humanitarian disasters, that becomes a part of what it represents. When American flags were flown over Japanese internment camps, the symbol added that to the list of things it represents, and it changed the way many people relate to it. The way a symbol is used will not always tell the truth, but a symbol’s meaning can be contested precisely because symbols are responsive to the truth. The fact that they carry possibility with them, that they can always mean more, means that they are responsive to reality. Far from being cut off from additional meanings and interpretations, the way logos are, symbols accumulate more and deeper meanings.

Burning Man’s icon is a “symbol”, not a logo, precisely because for all that we work to make it represent the 10 Principles and the amazing things people in Burning Man culture do, the fact is that the only thing we actually keep the symbol from being used for is selling shit. ‘Ya can’t put it on crap and sell it. ‘Ya can’t use it to promote events that we have nothing to do with.  But outside of that? People can, and do, use the Burning Man symbol for everything else they can think of … and thus are co-creating its meaning. And what it ends up meaning in the bigger picture is what the people who use it do. That reality is what the Burning Man icon means, not what “we” try to tell you it means. It carries possibility: so long as we are a living culture, it will be tied to reality, and always be able to mean more than we can proscribe.

Performing vs. Being

Larry’s second distinction was the difference between a “brand” and an “identity” — and the same dynamic applies. Both, to be sure, are a list of traits that we apply to someone or something when we think about them. But an “identity” is meant to be a starting point, not an ending point: it is who we are now, but it doesn’t foreclose the possibility of further development. In fact, any healthy identity will almost always be in the process of learning and developing and changing.

The point of a brand is to be “on brand” — to only do those things that reinforce a specific image in the eyes of others, regardless of how true they are or how true they feel. The point of an identity is to know yourself, and use that as a starting point from which to honestly engage the world … and through that process, inevitably change and further develop.

Brands are what you get when you are performing an identity, rather than living it.

Whether Burning Man has a “brand” or an “identity” depends on us — on whether we are honest, on what we actually do in the world, on how we treat people, and the experiences people have through us. But Larry always tried to make sure we had an “identity” rather than a brand, because identities are honest, and can treat other people honestly. Because brands may be more flashy but identities are more interesting.

We may fail, but we are trying — very hard — to have a symbol rather than a logo, and an identity rather than a brand. And the very act of trying, I think, makes a significant difference. The effort to learn and discover and become more than they are, even if it is uncomfortable, is after all exactly what brands can never do.

Photo by Robert Bruce Anderson


About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man, and the novel The Deeds of Pounce, which is about goblins. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

14 Comments on “I Am Not a Brand, Am I?

  • The Hustler says:

    I would argue that to be a brand that you need to have an identity first, and that identity is a temporary moment in a developmental process. Maybe a brand is a symbol that is sewn on your clothes in a factory; it’s the word we use to denotate an identity.

    Maybe another way to approach that is brands that have no identity – or, an identity that is forced instead of developing organically – probably only resonate with people who are attracted to whatever is trendy or as something akin to a starting point in discovering an entity.

    I like to think Burning Man uses the legal tools of intellectual property and various elements of public relations to defend and explain the 3 MCs/Muskateers of logos, pathos, and ethos of the Burning Man culture. But, it’s not really intellectual property and public relations, per se … to use technical terminology, it’s a bit squishy.

    And, by public relations, I mean the actual definition of it, not the bad pop culture stereotype – establishing lines of communication between an entity and its publics.

    Some days I think I do OK in maintaining lines of communication to explain that Burning Man isn’t a festival, to explain that it’s not a for-profit corporation, to give some insight on what we’re all about (at least from the limited scope of my pseudo-reality). Failing is OK, it’s good. It shows us how to do something better, I love that Burning Man is willing to try something batshit crazy with a willingness to fail.

    I think if I’m doing it right – my comm thing, my burner thing, – then I’ll start the conversation by listening and considering the other person’s point of view and go from there. If I were staying on message, on brand, I wouldn’t really do that. If I’m a burner and a student and practitioner of communication (or “Communication with a big C”) I’d listen first then try to figure out how to invite the other person into the community to be part of the identity.

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  • Julia Brown says:

    Caveat, you have really captured the distinction you were aiming at, and illuminated the reasons for our repugnance at logos and branding in BRC. Keep up the good work! You are making a difference!

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  • $teven Ra$pa says:

    Thank you, Caveat, for furthering this conversation. I had a similar conversation with Larry and recall that he expressed an inherent mistrust of logos. He referred to them as shorthand tools of commodification. We also discussed that it is one thing to thank a person by name who has done something exceptional you sincerely wish to express gratitude for and quite another to slap that person’s business logo on your website/materials. If someone is doing something helpful and asking you to thank them by including a logo on your website/materials, is it really a gift? No. Is there really even an authentic human experience there?

    It is wise to always look at underlying intentions and lead with authentic human relationships and interactions. Now, I think it gets complicated with logos for nonprofits that are doing truly great work in the world. But even in that case, when groups stack their logos up on webpages it is as if the corporate forms of communication are mating with one another. It’s odd… a shorthand for some deeper connection–perhaps the work itself–that should be the real point.

    One of the many wonderful questions our culture poses is, “how can we strip away and get beyond commodified shorthand bullshit to something real and authentic?”

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    • Crissa Kentavr says:

      I think it’s where the intent lies. Was the transaction intended to be for exposure – or is the exposure merely part of recording the history? Because without history, how do we learn?

      It’s something that is not outcome based (that logos are listed) so much as it is intentions (to intend for it to be commodified).

      Commodities are not something freely given. I don’t think our language has a word for something which is freely given from one to another. We end up using the word ‘gift’ over and over.

      Is a potlatch token a commodity?

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  • Megan Miller says:

    “Burning Man’s icon is a ‘symbol,’ not a logo, precisely because for all that we work to make it represent the 10 Principles and the amazing things people in Burning Man culture do, the fact is that the only thing we actually keep the symbol from being used for is selling shit.” Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. Thank you for this post, Caveat. You’ve nailed it again!

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  • Sondra says:

    Many things came to mind while reading this – my own struggle with creating a logo for my small business and how I kept relying on deeper complex meaning and even embedded sigils in my business cards because the needed to mean more. You’ve put into words the unspoken struggle I had internally.

    And then it also made me think of the struggle most artists face when encountering the gatekeeping institutions like galleries or granting organizations and how they aren’t necessarily looking for quality or interesting concepts, but rather what’s referred to as a “unified body of work”.

    I’ve long stated that this is marketing, not art. The gallerist is trying to make sure they can sell and repetition feels good to the viewer and the granter is trying to make sure they can attach their dollars to a success story.

    But this is actually at the heart of what branding is – it’s limiting in order to sell because limited sells – logos are purposefully limited, bodies of work as well. The message is that if you or your product/ creation are too complex, people won’t buy or accept.

    I have a lot of mixed feelings about it all.

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  • Cedar says:

    I love your thoughtful writing Caveat but I have to respectfully disagree with this particular differentiation between symbol and logo. Despite Larry’s lofty ideas, the difference is ownership not possibility. You can’t trademark a public symbol. Why would someone want to own a symbol anyway? For money, of course. For commodification. OF COURSE BM is a brand. There are trademarked logos, images, and terms that others can’t use without risking legal attack. The BM brand has been aggressively protected over the years to ensure that BM is the only entity to commodify BM. As one example, there has been legal action taken on the part of BM to prevent the BM image being used by other companies for marketing. That wouldn’t happen with a symbol like the American flag because it’s generic or part of the public domain. Thus, the regional networks are essentially franchises with the gold standard being an “officially sanctioned” regional event… Now, don’t get me wrong. I love BM. I readily admit I’ve lived and breathed the BM brand for 20 years both on-playa and regionally. I believe in the product. But that doesn’t make me blind to all its hypocrisy and flaws. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and walks like a duck… why try to call it a swan?

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  • Gerflash says:

    Dear Caveat, Often, you really grab your topic so well that it’s crystal clear what you’re getting at. This piece was one of many such pieces that expresses your clarity of perception extremely well. So well, in fact, that I need to wish you good health, and a long life. Please do what you should so that we can keep you for decades to come.

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  • Rob Blakemore says:

    Love this. Thank you Caveat! I’ll be sharing this understanding.

    Huge thanks for sharing yours and Larry’s thinking on the subject.

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  • German says:

    Burning man icon isn’t a logo it is a higo a really high one

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  • Crissa Kentavr says:

    Brand is production, identity is being. Brands want to be identity, but are; identity can be brands, but aren’t.

    Saying ‘this is mine’ is the original use of a brand – but today that’s grown to be more about the selling of the ‘this’ than the ‘mine & me’.

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  • Yeah.. about that says:

    Author blurb contains links to buy books the author has written in an article about personal brands and identity.

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  • TayTay-Boyray says:

    I have a Burning Man tattoo on my neck. I’m totally into the whole culture thing and the ten commandments. I live by them. But living the in the Mission, I thought my tattoo would get me laid more often. The DPW chicks here are easy, but I want to bang IG Models. Is there a better part of the City to live in to get these girls?

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