"All that is solid melts into air"
The line comes from the Communist Manifesto, and it is often quoted as evidence that Marx was keenly aware of the changes that industrialism was creating in the world even in his time.
Marx was referring to the fact that industrialism, by demanding a constant evolution in processes and technologies, was challenging everything that had gone before it and rendering it pretty much irrelevant. The old institutions of the pre-industrial world had to adapt or be swept away. But the passage also predicted a much more radical change that has occured in business: the relentless drift to greater levels of abstraction.
Currency, which was itself originally an abstraction for the gold reserves that a national treasury held, lost its grip on reality with the abandonment of the gold standard. These days, most transactions are electronic, and money has been reduced to an exchange of bits and bytes. Currency speculation, mortgages, lines of credit, all take that abstraction even further by trading in money that is not even being held.
Very few western economies now rely on manufacturing; we have become a service society, where "dirty" jobs that actually rely on making things are farmed out to far flung corners of the world. Futures markets even trade in the promise of goods that don’t exist yet.
In the wake of all this, whole new industries have arisen to create intangible, ethereal representations of actual goods, and branding is one of those new industries.
Branding is the ultimate abstraction, selling the idea of the product rather than the product itself. But that’s what people buy. We don’t look at a lump of metal, plastic and hide and say ‘I think I need 1.6 tonnes of that", we look at an Aston martin V8 Vantage, and we think of the lifestyle it represents, the feel of the leather as we sit back in the drivers’ seat, the looks other drivers and pedestrians will give us, and – yes – we think of James Bond. We’re buying the idea of what an Aston Martin can do for us, rather than the car itself, an idea that was created by a branding team in a marketing department. It was brainstormed, researched, designed, prototyped, developed and given physical form (through advertising and promotions) in much the same way that the product itself was. In a world where the abstract sells, branding has become the new manufacturing.