When I was at school I remember learning all about ‘the scramble for Africa’, a period when imperialist contenders such as the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Spain raced each other for ownership and control of large swathes of territory.
Today, corporate imperialism is much more fashionable, as corporations fight each other for ownership and control of lucrative markets.
The business press loves such ‘brand wars’. But as with the imperialist expeditions of the days of yore, it’s easy to forget they are simply battles for access to, and control over, commercial territory. In brand wars, ‘the customer’ is a just another asset – a revenue stream – to be fought over. Just like a piece of real estate. Brand wars have nothing to do with what marketing and brands are supposed to be about: identifying and meeting needs, serving customers etc. What the customer thinks or needs has precious little to do with it.
The latest farcical spectacle of a brand war is now unfolding in the UK, with Virgin/NTL and Sky squabbling over who provides who with what programmes at what price. The real issue at stake: ‘market share’ – or who gets most in a frantic territorial carve up.
Yesterday’s imperial armies had their flags: symbols of power, a way of asserting control. Today’s corporations have their brands. Military armies planted their flag in physical territories to signal dominance and control; corporations try to plant their brand flags in markets for the same purpose. We like to think we’ve made enormous progress. But have we, really?