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Marketing the Immaterial World


Market researchers and advertising agencies often ask clients the following question: Where does your brand live? It is, of course, a metaphorical inquiry, referring to, among other things, the conceptual space a brand occupies in the consciousness of consumers. The question, however, betrays a simple, if often overlooked, notion about brands: that they are predicated on the conquest of space. This has been true since their earliest incarnation, when the promise that one could have a bowl of oatmeal that tasted the same on either coast was perhaps the most tangible result of the closing of the American frontier.

The Internet now heralds a new frontier, with its own uncharted territories and pathways to colonization, and it is no surprise that branding has again emerged as a vehicle for conquering space. Like its predecessor last century, the emergence of this new, virtual national marketplace is rife with rumor, misinformation, snake oil peddlers, and the threat of counterfeiting; amid this great clamor of the unknown, brands offer some promise of minimal quality. But much has changed in the intervening years. For one, brands have acquired a significantly greater meaning, as consumerism itself has evolved to take on the qualities of interpersonal relationships. For another, where brands once evolved out of consumer products, the branding occurring on the Internet is the product: it is pure branding. And, significantly, it is not only the conquest of space but the creation of space. eBay, for example, is not a branded product but a branded marketplace, a demarcated space—an electronic agora where trust, in the absence of face-to-face contact, is transferred to the managers of a “consensual hallucination,” as William Gibson said in another context.

The creation of space and the idea that one can now interact with a brand are conjoined in what have been termed “branded environments.” While there are physical examples of branded environments, such as Nike Town—a store that exists to sell a brand rather than a product—the phrase takes on its full meaning in the realm of electronic commerce. The “branded environment” is essentially the projection of a brand into space, a sort of virtual-reality commercial in which one walks around, performing some activity that may or may not have an immediate mercantile outcome. In any case, the space’s parameters—as arbitrary and artificial as they are—are defined by the brand. An example is the numerous branded environments that children’s cereal makers have created. Filled with puzzles and games, and often featuring the cartoon characters who help sell the product, the idea is that further interaction with the brand—apart from simply eating the food—will help cement loyalty at an all-important age; often, the “interactive” segment consists of supplying demographic information.

Despite the seemingly infinite real estate available on the Internet, the branded environment is not about actual space but about the space of perception. There are potentially a thousand Internet booksellers within one’s reach, each occupying the same “space,” but the one that looms the largest is Amazon.com, primarily because it was the first colonizer—it branded the experience of Internet book shopping. E-commerce is rapidly becoming what economists Robert Frank and Thomas Cook dubbed a “winner-take-all market,” where compensation in a market flows disproportionately to the top one or two participants, while a host of similarly capable competitors contend for small slices of the remainder. The rise of the celebrity is another famous instance of a winner-take-all market: the economists note that the state of Iowa, at the turn of the century, had hundreds of local opera houses. The emergence of mass media has replaced those with a handful of top international opera singers, who are paid the equivalent of what hundreds or even thousands of lesser-known opera singers might have once been paid.

It should not be surprising that celebrities have become brands of sorts, turning their presumed attributes and carefully cultivated images into salable quantities, if not actual products. In turn, brands, the celebrities of the material world, give products and services an almost human face. They are the creation of a new economic space in which we face, simultaneously, both proximity and distance—proximity, because the Starbucks is right around the corner or the new Julia Roberts film (about celebrity) is playing down the block, and distance, because just as we will probably never see Julia Roberts (unless we are Hugh Grant, as Notting Hill supposes), we will never know the owner of that “local” Starbucks. We live with myths that take on the air of reality.

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