Apple, the rise and fall of “aura,” and the social brand image

Bruce Nussbaum has an interesting post in FastCompany this morning on the decline of Apple’s brand aura. You don’t hear this term used much, and it’s an interesting choice. It refers to Walter Benjamin’s invocation of the aura of a work of art apprehended individually — an aura and authenticity he saw threatened by the age of media. Mass manufactured commodities were not only generically identical, and so not authentic, but the mechanism of their production lacked any kind of personal or artistic intent.

How then could a mass manufactured and indeed incredibly popular product be said to have aura? And yet the term captures something. Brand image is no longer good enough. Image is not only in the eyes of the beholder (read: customer), its production is out of the brand’s control. Social media create too much talk — talk that’s literally (verbally?) the consumer’s word of mouth.

In Nussbaum’s use, aura is a good thing. So it’s already got a quality — an aspirational, desirable, and visible quality. (Which begs the question, what is its opposite?) For Benjamin, aura was not necessarily good or bad, it was art — an ineffable but recognizable quality belonging to an original work of art.

But the reference to Benjamin is compelling. Aura as a brand halo effect, then is still some kind of sublime. I might add, a kind of peak brand achievement at once an attribute of the brand and at the same time legitimated in the eyes of beholder. So, a perception. But not of an image. Of an idea.

Which works for me, because in the age of social media, all branding is multi-faceted. Surfaces, not images, are the reflections of brand. Surfaces, too, on which we project our desires and values. Surfaces on which we write our commentaries and share our interests.

Aura reminds me then of the semiotic concept of the floating signifier: a sign that can take any meaning. And like “beauty,” aura is a quality impossible to locate precisely. In Apple’s case, it is part Steve, part stock price, part iPhone, iPad, and so on. It’s also part Microsoft, Samsung, Silicon Valley, nerd, iTunes, and Apple store. All references to Apple, be they in Samsung ads or Apple’s own, contribute to the “meaning” of the company’s aura.

The fact that for many of us, signs of demise were a historical inevitability after Steve, is proof that Aura is also part story, part cult of personality, and part biography.

Few brands reach the peak of their potential, That kind of sublime is achieved only rarely. It represents a kind of collective desire and faith, a consensual and widely distributed, and much reflected and echoed belief that this thing, this brand, is indeed akin to an original. In the age of mass mediation, we seek re-enchantment. Aura is that — the illusion of magic, the quality that defies analysis and continually slides out of reach.

Which brings us back to Benjamin, for whom the idea of a mass-mediated, manufactured, and produced aura would have violated the very gist of the concept.

It could be argued, then, that it is precisely those qualities that are erased, displaced, substituted for, and replaced by massively distributable productions — things, images, people, stories — precisely those qualities that form the sublime. That halo of untouchable that is a Bolt, a Steve Jobs, an Obama. That this intangible peak and supremacy is indeed an item of faith we, each of us, still hope to find in the world. A hope, a desire, sprung of whatever personal reasons we hold on which we ground our interest, ready to be projected and invested in the right idea, whether brand, person, story, or whatever.

Aura, then, that accrues to a brand like Apple only as it is drawn from consumers, an earned investment, thus leaving Apple in debt to its believers. Aura, then, that is not an attribute of a thing but a relation. Indeed something magical — but the effect of magic. Never the real thing, for that would be a singular work of art. Always only an effect, a special effect produced by media and its shiny surfaces. Achievable, but equally fragile.

Branding in the age of social media is the art of special effects. Illusion, talk, impressions, perceptions. Brand can never be art, can never have that authenticity. But it can have the appearance of it. And just on occasion, it may approach the sublime, when, for a while, it’s as good as the real thing.

 

 

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