Corporate Logo Tattoos: The wrong way to wear the brand

by cv harquail on March 31, 2010

In the domain of “things I just don’t understand about people’s relationship(s) to organizations” is this nagging question:

Why would anyone want to brand themselves with a corporate logo?

Way back when I began studying organizational identification and employee branding (branding in the metaphorical sense), I heard about an April Fool’s Joke on NPR where the fake story was that teenagers were getting tattooed with corporate logos for a lifetime discount.

I thought it was kindof funny.

Then, a few days later in the Cincinnati Airport, I saw a guy with a Harley-Davidson tattoo all the way across his neck (and this was more than 10 years ago before tattoos became ‘normal’) and I realized it wasn’t a joke. Even if you recognize that Harley enthusiasts have always been a little on the extreme end of brand loyalty and wearing the brand (in their clothing), this guy was an early adopter of the Corporate Logo Tattoo trend. walmart tattoo.jpg

So what’s going on with people who tattoo themselves with a swoosh, an apple, or the Golden Arches?

To flesh out the question a little bit, let me quote a favorite sociologist, Angela Orend-Cunningham of University of Louisville, who asks:

Are corporate logo tattoo consumers

— duped into the hegemonic discourse,
— showing resistance to it,
— internalizing it, or
— just reacting to the fragmentation of postmodern times by commodifying the body and aesthetic art forms?

Angela Orend-Cunningham posted these questions several years ago, as she launched an empirical research project on Corporate Logo Tattoos And the Commodification of the Body. She and her colleague Patricia Gagne have recently published their findings, and so now we’ve got some real ink to talk about.

Here are some of their conclusions about the practice and meaning of corporate logo tattooing.

1. The logo-ed have internalized the meanings created by the corporations to the point of believing that they really have the attributes suggested by the brand. They believe that they life the lifestyle signified by the brand. The logo tattoo is both a way of ‘taking on’ the qualities of the brand as well as a way of displaying that you have the same qualities as the brand.

2. The majority of their research participants are motivated by self-identification with a brand philosophy or lifestyle, rather than a sense of connection to the organization. So these tattoos are more about shared attributes than they are about connection to the organization itself.

3. The logos were as much about being part of an in-group as they were about being individually distinctive. “Among our respondents, corporate logo tattoos signified membership in groups that, according to Maffesoli (1996, 9) were “organized around the catchwords, brand names and sound bites of consumer culture.”

4. Respondents were remarkably contradictory in the way that they saw their own behavior versus the way they interpreted others’ behavior.golden arches tat.jpg

Respondents “collectively expressed the opinion that most tattoo consumers had been duped by “coolness,” using them as a symbol of their faux rebellion against mainstream culture. In theoretical terms, they perceived the bodies of most other tattoo consumers as “prisoners of culture” (Foucault 1995, 136). By contrast, our respondents saw their own tattoos and those of people who were heavily tattooed or with body art on the face or neck as an expression of agency.”

In other words, I’m powerful, but the other guy‘s been duped.

5. A finding that was particularly sad to me was what happened with folks who got these tattoos to signify some kind of resistance. First, their tattoos just weren’t ‘read’ by others the way that the logo-ed thought they’d be. Instead of being seen as a form of resistance or self-distinction, these tattoos seem to show that you’re a tool.

Thus, instead of looking cooler than your average brand fan, your corporate logo tattoo just makes you look more-than-averagely brainwashed.

Reflecting on this myself, and on what I know about the problems of sustaining authenticity as your niche shifts from the edge to the center

In most cases, corporate logo tattoos are a testament to inauthenticity.

Instead of actually “being” the qualities of the brand or lifestyle, these tattoos are about “claiming” the qualities of the lifestyles. You’re saying that your “think different” even though you aren’t actually thinking differently. Instead of just doing it, you’re just wearing it. That feels very empty.

It does hold out the possibility though, that once you have branded yourself with this public claiming of qualities, you might try to perform them in your behavior to be affirmed, verified, and treated as having these qualities. Social psychology would suggest this dynamic.

However, publicly claiming the cool and distinctive brand qualities is now harder to do. Your logo tattoo has already told people you’re a brand tool, so you have to dig your way out of that bad interpretation before you can start to impress others with how cool you are. And it’s very difficult to go from ‘tool’ to ‘cool’.

201003311203.jpgNow, it may be that folks who get these corporate logo tattoos haven’t read Foucault, or Naomi Klein, and thus have missed out on the analyses that would have told them ahead of time that their attempts at distinctiveness and/or rebellion were doomed to fail, and fail big.

(Then again, isn’t a defining feature of most tattoos some kind of time-lagged regret?)

Dear reader, you have no such excuse.

Consider yourself warned about the inauthenticity that you’ll communicate with a corporate logo tattoo. Instead of claiming to be something, simply surround yourself with the products themselves, and then actually use them.

Use your iPhone to think different. Put on those Nikes and go run around in the park. And, if you really want to be cool as well as look cool, read The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography while sipping a nice hot latte. I’m doing that right now, and boy does it feel authentic.

Or, simply experiment with a more temporary alternative to an actual tattoo — as one commenter noted:

I personally think any corporate/logo tattoos are silly. That’s what t-shirts are for.

Wise man.


See also:
EmployER Branding vs. EmployEE Branding
Browsers, Brand Identity, and What You Value

Reference:  Angela Orend and Patricia Gagné (2009). Corporate Logo Tattoos and the Commodification of the Body. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 38, No. 4, 493-517 (2009)

Golden arches tattoo from
Wal-mart tramp stamp 
  by Thorne Draco, an artist at Freedom Tattoo in S. C. 
Tattoo Apple from Xlopes on Flickr


Christine Livingston April 1, 2010 at 8:13 am

What a fascinating article, CV.

I find it quite sad that people need corporations and their brand identity so much in order to give themselves a sense of identity. It says something I think both of the gullibility of the masses, and indeed of the brainwashing power of corporates.

It does make me wonder about all the stuff that’s talked and written about employee branding. On the one hand, it’s good for the company if people share values and align with the brand. On the other, if the company’s product and values just allow you to prop up your own limp sense of self, how useful is that really? I remember in my HRD days at American Express witnessing long termers who were made redundant have psychological breakdowns as they could no longer figure who they were without being able to say they worked for the Amex brand…
.-= Christine Livingston´s last blog ..Why Pushing Through Is Not Always The Way To Get Ahead =-.

cv harquail April 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Hi Christine-
I agree with you — it is a very sad phenomenon, esp. given that there are so many other communities that people could potentially identify with and define themselves within, that are not commercial.
I am more against employee branding & Living the brand than I am for them. It irks me that so many of these programs are conducted without any awareness of/concern about the lack of balance between what’s good for the person(s) and what’s good for the business.
The ‘quick answer’ (not) to this problem is to develop organizations with values that don’t empty us out if we connect our selves to them, and that have processes where we can also put who we are into the organization without being exploited. Which is what we’re both working on! cv

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