A brand that stands for everything stands for nothing

July 27, 2023


Remember ‘brand x’? 

One of the oldest devices in the advertising playbook, it used to be the perennial stand-in for ‘other leading brands’. It was a way of elevating your brand above the messy middle of competitors by isolating some presumably unique selling proposition that none of them could replicate. 

Rather than backing up your claims by identifying all those pesky competitors – impossible to do, say, in a 30-second spot – it was just more convenient to bundle them up under the generic ‘brand x’ heading and leave it at that. The message was, our brand is better than all the rest because . . . whatever.

So ‘brand x’ became what semiotics professors like to call an ‘empty signifier’. According to the Oxford Reference Dictionary, an empty signifier is “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable, or non-existent signified. Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many – or even any – signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.”

Not sure if Elon Musk ever studied semiotics, but even if he didn’t, it seems like he’s instinctively nailed a slippery empty signifier to the brand wall. In this case, ‘brand x’ is going to be whatever he wants it to be, from banking to e-bikes, or as he calls it, ‘the everything app’. As designer Michael Rock said in a recent New York Times article, “it’s a non-choice, the suspension of a narrative to be supplied later.” 

Anyone who makes a living from branding will deride this decision as a flagrant waste of brand equity. Brand building is a notoriously difficult thing to do, a day-to-day battle that requires discipline, persistence, strategic insight and tactical adroitness. What infuriates brand practitioners most is how cavalierly Musk has tossed all that into the dustbin. As Derwyn Goodall quipped on Linkedin a day or two after the news, “What CMO wouldn’t want to replace their easily recognizable, completely ownable logo with the universal symbol for ‘wrong’?”

The little blue bird is not just a logo; it’s an emotional cue. Who doesn’t love birds? And it is one of the rare visual identities that not only presses your limbic buttons, but also perfectly symbolizes what the app does: a quick little chirp of information, a tasty little morsel of news that may or may not inspire a deeper dive into whatever is defining the moment.

The letter ‘x’ pushes no emotional buttons. Again, Michael Rock: “It’s meaningful as a negation or a cancellation. A crossing out.” By standing for everything, its stands for nothing. It exposes Musk as a man who refuses to be pigeonholed. It’s classic control freak behaviour. He wants to leave his options open, committing to none while teasing us with all. 

It’s the business model of the future being forged in the present. The great Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis calls it ‘techno-feudalism’. Citing Facebook and Amazon as examples of this new mutation, he points out that once you have entered the worlds of Musk or Zuckerberg or Bezos, you have left capitalism behind. You have entered a fiefdom where one person owns the algorithm that determines what you see, what you experience, and what you buy. 

This is no longer the world imagined by Adam Smith, who described capitalism as a healthy competition among the butcher, the baker and the brewer. It’s a my-dick-is-bigger-than-your-dick contest of mega-narcissists to see who can control the biggest piece of the global economic pie. And since all three want to be all things to all people, it’s a feudal battlefield where whoever owns the biggest algorithm wins.

Will Novosedlik is a designer, writer, long-time contributor and editor of Applied Arts magazine. He is known for a critical perspective on the cultural and socio-economic impact of design, brand, business and innovation.