Fashionistas will tell you monogrammed accessories - think Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior - are one of this season's strongest looks. And, of course, streetwear fans perennially debate the relative merits of Adidas and Nike trainers. But analysing the impact of brands is another matter - something best left to earnest media studies geeks. Which is odd, given that we're bombarded by an estimated 3,000 marketing messages every day.
That statistic was provided by Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, a publication featuring hard-hitting "subvertising" - ads parodying and viciously debunking those of brands like Camel and Calvin Klein - in its fight against globalisation. A topical venture in the light of the recent demonstrations in Prague, it's one of many aspects of branding examined by a new exhibition, Brand.new, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
This includes an exploration of the history of both local and global brands; a look at the promises they make (from value for money to status); films in which consumers are interviewed about their taste in brands, and examples of brand subversion, from counterfeiting to protests in the form of T-shirts and leaflets against the biggest corporate players.
Like the museum's recent controversial installation of furniture by Ron Arad, this is no typical, well-behaved V&A show. To begin with, it's designed by Thomas Heatherwick, whizzkid architect, famous for his gazebo, the Hairy Sitooterie, whose eccentric exterior bristles with over 5,000 ash staves. On entering Brand.new, you're faced with an arty installation: 4,000 photos showing logos, balancing on wire "stalks" stuck into a huge undulating wooden structure, the entire display bears a strong resemblance to a sculpture by David Mach (the one in which hundreds of magazines are stacked into gigantic wave shapes springs to mind). Because the photos are of equal size, there's no hierarchy of brands. The inspiration, explains Gareth Williams, co-curator and Assistant Curator at the V&A's Department of Furniture and Woodwork, was a quote from brand consultancy Interbrand - "Everything and everyone is capable of becoming a brand."
"We didn't want to put on a conventional V&A-ish show," he says. "We wanted a concept-led show." By which he means a metaphorical rather than a ploddingly literal one. His reason? "Our audience is already familiar with today's branding, in the sense that everybody shops." It's a sign of Williams' enthusiasm for the show's experimental format that he describes the second room - packed with conventional historical information - almost apologetically, as "the most didactic part of the show."
However familiar he might think we are with such archetypal brands as Kellogg's, Coca-Cola, Muji or Typhoo, he hasn't made the mistake of assuming we know too much detail about their history.
There's a lot to learn from the second room, entitled "The Power of the Brand". Coca-Cola (first marketed as a medicinal drink) gets a major look- in. By 1917, we're told, there were 300 rivals to Coca- Cola in the US alone. Hard information aside, there's retro fun to be had from seeing the Seventies "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coke television ad sung by an ethnically diverse gaggle of hippies, inspired no doubt by Marshall McLuhan's notion of the "global village" (the world homogenised by the electronic media), and Hollywood's Sixties bid to woo the young, hip and multiracial, typified by blaxploitation flicks and films like Easy Rider. …