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 is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

22 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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    • I think Cedar’s comment is very wise and correct.

      With over 20 consecutive years immersed in BRC I can’t imagine the point of its powerbrokers trying to distance BM from the legal ramifications of their brand protection work. Like most of us I can ignore most of the center camp bureaucratic machinations and proceed to enter BRC as a contributing citizen as expected.

      Ideally there would be no impetus for global awareness of the BM brand and no commercial benefit from it whatsoever. As Cedar says, there is BM intellectual property and that is of course a brand. And BTW that logo is very occasionally personally used as a real flesh burning brand too.

      Some entity I will call BMORG for lack of specific knowledge is protecting that IP for its sole use to sell a product – access through a gate. Ironically various references to BM aren’t de-commodified although BRC the gathering is.

      One may physically join with the no-member Rainbow Family of Living Light for an example of a best effort de-commodified gathering with no brand and a concerted effort to avoid anything that might attempt to claim ownership or control of such a brand were it to exist.

      That is serious activism in action far beyond words and worthy of respect.

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      • Pierrot Activatus says:

        I’m in love with the Rainbow Family, but it’s not without challenges. There are also unsolved things in Rainbow land, some of which BM solved one way or another.

        Now I don’t think BM is “better” than Rainbow. In many ways, I prefer the community support network of Rainbow, with the food circles, community effort, and the whole culture of drawing people into community work organically, as opposed to “radical self-reliance”, which to me sounds far too individualist and isolationist.. It reminds me of living in New York City alone, you can’t get more “radically self-reliant” than that. I could have died in my apartment, with nobody noticing before it’s time to evict me for unpaid rent…

        But well, BM wants to be part of the wider society, and for that, needs to play the game. Rainbow can get away without playing a game, as it’s literally a swarm of TAZ’s, with the emphasis on “temporary”. BM may have started out az a TAZ, but it stopped being one quite fast. Rainbow still is, and will be, the real thing. By the time it occurs to anyone to ask for rent for the land, the gathering is long gone. Finding out about a gathering requires connections. Finding it is an adventure. Its culture is driven by customs, not organizations. Now that results in challenges that BM has solved through organization.

        And well, organization, being out as a spectacle, playing the game (of society and capitalism) requires all these stuff we’re seeing here. So far I haven’t seen BMOrg abusing their ownership of the Burning Man symbol beyond doing their best to stop others from abusing it… Why fault them for it?

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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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    • Gawd! The desire to BELIEVE, and think someone or something somewhere has all the answers is soooooo strong! Listen up kids, and remember,

      “People will be ANY lie. Either because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it’s true.”

      ~Wizard’s First Rule

      We ALL know when we are lying to ourselves. It is just easier to let someone else to it so we can drop our responsibilities on someone else’s shoulders. We all do it to some degree, all day long. And this communities deals in ‘prestige pimping’. All that attention from people? More addictive than ANY drug, yeah? Have one successful art installation out in deep playa, get noticed, say the right things, do them in the right way. Please the right volunteers, you get another chance to display something, maybe some funding. Dream BIG right? Then maybe something on the ESPLANADE, yeah? Then, oh THEN, something BIGGER with art bribes, er, sorry, fundraising from community members who have means and desire only to “bestow” their gifts on some hard tacking gifted genius, who only wants to create and BUILD something BEAUTIFUL!

      Well. I’ve seen it. Been there, asked for the cool aid, and it looked and smelled funny. So when hard times came, you know who helped me, or any others I knew who needed help before doing drastic things? And I am nearly to a dozen dead burner peeps since my first event. Some bought into all this, some of them, their last community to try. They didn’t’t fit into any other groups. But they didn’t’t do it just right there either. Rejected even by the “misfit”. Gone.

      These concepts are not playthings. People who have, on their own, or through no fault of their own, have gone through seriously desperate times, grab onto these ideas. Thinking they are symbols. That maybe they have “found” their tribe or their answers at last. But no. Because at the heart of this community is prestige, money, and self preservation.

      Now one of my very best friends and mentors disagrees with me on some of the fundamentals, but he has been there for me. Him and his wife. The only 2 out of thousands I have met. Who knows where I would be without their ears, hearts, and hugs? But they are a SMALL percentage of the community/. Many have “jaded out” and left or moved on, leaving the unmonitored masses to sort it out themselves. Who doesnt’t want attention? Until this community gets down into the really, really, dirty heart of what is corrupting it and lays it out in the sunlight of honesty, then,..I don’t have to tell you what will happen. You already know. Down Deep In Your Hearts.

      So, Don’t f— yer burn. All of mine were hard, intense lessons I didn’t’t enjoy much, but I grew. Hopefully you will to. Who doesn’t want the party to end? I never do.

      Eventually everyone is gone to sleep, or to their routines. Leaving you lone with your thoughts. Exactly where you really are. And no event, burn, principles, or doctrine is going to change that. There is nothing to change

      . If I am not truthful with myself, however, that’s where the real danger lies. Hey Burners, are you being truthful about this “deep dive”? Articles like this, or the posts accusing each other of everything, and blaming everyone for whatever seems off, that sounds like dishonesty to me. Where are the mentors? Check out veterati.com. Free professional mentoring system for veterans. Quite ingenious actually. Where is the real, honest to goodness mentoring programs i this community? No magical answers here, just a suggestion. Good luck!!

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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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  • Erin Grubbs says:

    Thank you for the informative and thought-provoking article, Caveat! In my opinion, one might also consider the distinction between logo and icon is functionally made by it’s individual effect of the viewer. What emotions and/or behavior does it evoke. Intended effect does not always match the actual outcome. Our brains pair images and sensations with feelings and events that occur in temporal proximity, often on a subconscious level. One person’s logo may be an icon to a whole group of persons. In the end, squiggles only carry meaning if we attach one, individually. I am so grateful that the protected )'( has kept it’s power as a personally predictable trigger pf some sort of positive emotion, Way to art!! )'(

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  • logo says:

    1. your aware still conscious presence = primary
    2. an identity of who apparently are = secondary
    3. a brand of a conceptional identity = crafty

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  • Caveat, of course. Full stop.

    This is a rhetorical question, correct? The difference is, a symbol, like a cross, isn’t going to get you a paycheck by definition. A logo or brand will.

    A symbol endures and embodies deep societal meaning.
    A brand or logo conjures symbology to inspire participation and benefit from its invocation. A symbol has deeper teachings not related to any financial activity.

    Do you get a paycheck?


    Would “The Man” carry on teaching deep, thought provoking lessons sans the event or any events? If the all of the events died tomorrow?

    No. Burning Man is tied to its financial activity.

    Viola! Answered! Disappointed at the thin “exploration” of this article Caveat. It begs the question,”who do YOU serve?”

    It is always different when your Bill’s are paid by the Man and associated activity. Its disingenuous, wasteful of our time, and proves why Law was right, long ago, to stand against trademarking. It should ALL be handed over to the public domain, but then, people would have to give up control, illusory or not. I never made money from any burn activity. Spent a lot tho….

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