Branded Corner

By Jean Grow

This post originally appeared on ‘Cultural Geography’ blog during Dr. Grow’s summer 2011 trip to Italy.

A corner in Reggio Emilia demonstrates the pervasiveness of American brands. It also illustrates how brands shift as they move across cultures. These shifts and changes are often subtle. However, no matter how small, they are always significant.

Via Emilia was originally built by the Romans as a military road. Then it connected the north, Milan, to the south, the sea. Today its logistical function remains similar. It connects north and south. However, its social function is vastly different.

Today it passes through flourishing cities, most of which originated as service stops for the ancient Roman military. As Via Emilia passes northward and southward it too shifts and changes. At times it passes through the old city centers and becomes a pedestrian, no-traffic zone. As it moves outward to the edges of the cities – as at this corner –  traffic flows freely. Regardless, as it passes through a city, Via Emilia, becomes a thriving retail hub. And no center of commerce in Italy would ever be without its coffee bars – always serving coffee and sometimes serving the Coke brand.

Outside the cities Via Emilia becomes a highway moving people and products north and south. This corner in Reggio Emilia illustrates the invasiveness of American brands. The image of the late actor Gary Coleman plastered to a train overpass, as an African immigrant walks by, demonstrates Italy’s growing multicultural dimensions. It also demonstrates that brands are much more than trademarked names. They are cultural monikers to which people across the globe aspire. It is not that one aspires to be Gary Coleman. Rather, it is the aspiration to climb out of oblivion, to be seen and heard, to be known in an identifiable way – to be remembered. In that sense brands do not sell us things, they sell us dreams.

Coke does not sell us sweet, carbonated, cola-flavored water – it sells us happiness and belonging. Blockbuster does not sell or rent us movies – it provides the ability to take home a dream and more often then not it’s an American dream. The image of Gary Coleman, just across the street from Blockbuster, is not an just happenstance. Nor is Blockbuster’s location on Via Emilia a random choice. For Via Emilia, as it runs through cities, is always a place with heavy foot and bicycle traffic. In essence Via Emilia is the artery within the heart of many Italian cities. It is the perfect place to sell dreams.

Yet, turning one more time we see the ever-present bicycle resting against an ancient church wall. A reminder, as any good brand manager knows, that for brands to flourish they must live side-by-side with local culture. In fact, a successful brand infuses itself into local culture. In one moment a successful global brand’s identity sparkles, in the next it – ever so subtly – reflects the culture in which it now lives.

Jean Grow is an Associate Professor of Advertising in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. All photographs copyright Jean Grow.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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