Rebranding: Or, When’s A Union Not A Union?

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In the debate between critics and defenders of SUSU’s new rebrand, who is right? Is the rebrand a good use of money and energy, or is it ugly, meaningless, and undemocratic? What about the infamous full stop: is it ‘multipurpose’ or completely useless? The answer is, of course, that neither position is right, that both sides make the same error.

By focusing only on issues like aesthetics and cost, critics and apologists alike have failed to ask a series of critical questions about why the rebrand is happening in the first place. In particular, they have failed to ask what the rebrand is a symptom of, what it reveals about the general health of our students’ union.

I sympathise with criticisms of the rebrand, but what I would really like to emphasise is their ineffectiveness. Since the point of branding is to alter our perceptions of a company in lieu of real change, or to give the impression of change when none is forthcoming, most criticisms of the rebrand have acted as unwitting accomplices. They have drawn still more attention to the union’s appearance – the strategy of rebranding itself – when we should be focusing instead on its persistent failure to engage meaningfully with students. The problem with the new signs, banners, and logos is negligible in comparison with the deeper problems that the rebrand conceals: the union’s distance from the real concerns of students, its uncritical adoption of corporate behaviour and rationality, and its failure to provide a platform for genuine opposition and dissent.

We should also scrutinise the ideological content of the rebrand, at least as it has been unveiled so far. The sanguine (almost Orwellian) ‘Us’ plastered on signs around the union appeals to some increasingly abstract universal. It transforms a complex socio-political ideal into a buzzword, a catchphrase, a marketing ploy. It adopts the language of collectivism while emptying it of meaning and its radical content, completely at odds with an increasingly corporate union. The most unified response of Southampton University students to union elections is, of course, non-participation – a phenomenon that the union likes to describe as ‘apathy’, dismissing its own failure as its members’ psychological flaw. SUSU has claimed that its members have a “responsibility to vote”, that it is “up to [them] to be part of a collective decision to improve the union” (seen on their election voting booths). I am doubtful, however, that this paternalistic language has any role beyond disavowing the union’s own deficiencies, imputing them to some external cause.

Isn’t it strange that a students’ union’s ostentatious marketing ploy doesn’t seem unusual or out of place to most of us? The ease with which the union’s language slips into corporate jargon attests to its deep complicity with business society, a kinship that has come to seem almost natural. To undertake a ‘rebrand’ aimed at students is to figure those students as your consumers, endowed with potential ‘brand loyalty’. This is totally consistent with the marketisation of the union space itself, such that certain areas (notably the Bridge during the afternoons) are marked off-limits to students unless they become paying customers – here we are literally consumers first, participating members second. Meanwhile, in espousing the discourse of ‘employability’, in assigning itself the lofty task of ‘inspiring’ us, the union simply reinforces neoliberal logic; it shares the latter’s aspiration to hurl our ‘human capital’ onto the job market. One wonders how many more people would engage with the union if, instead of prostrating itself before neoliberalism (which incidentally is largely responsible for student debt), it took an explicit and principled stand against the treatment of students as consumers.

To answer the question I posed at the beginning, this rebrand is a symptom of the union’s ever-tightening integration into the fabric of neoliberalism, its blithe adoption of corporate rationality. To focus on this or that problem with the lettering, on particular aesthetic choices, is to overlook the increasing subsumption of a union under the market, the major issue at stake here and one that explains the decision to rebrand in the first place. From this position, with its critical distance eroded, the union has not (indeed, has not even been able to) articulate an effective oppositional politics. It is the union that is post-political, that has abandoned the terrain of politics, and as such, accusations of its members’ apathy should ring hollow.

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