Arianna Huffington: The non liquid version of Red Bull

Images1My feature on Arianna Huffington is published today in Prospect -- a Images_3 3,500 word jaunt around Ariannaland which hopefully bring a little topographical clarity to this genius.

It's not just me who thinks that Arianna is a genius. A few months ago, I was chatting with Eric Alterman, the normally hard-headed media critic of the Nation magazine and an occasional contributor to the Huffington Post. When our conversation turned to Huffington, he grew unusually pensive. "A genius," he said, quietly. "Arianna is a genius." What he meant is that she can't be measured by the conventional metrics with which we rate normal intelligence. She's not just smart or intellectual or perceptive. Her genius extends beyond all that.

So what, exactly, is Arianna's genius?

Images2 She is what all of us -- at least those of us who make our livings writing books and blogs, appearing on the radio and tv and speaking around the world at conferences -- aspire to be. She's turned herself into a brand.

That's the obvious bit. To understand Brand Arianna,  I turned to Rob Walker's brilliant new book about brand building in the digital age: Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are." Walker, who writes the  "Consumed" column for the New York Times Magazine, acknowledges that the traditional rules of branding -- of running huge tv advertising campaigns around glossy products -- is no longer the most effective way to create successful products. Instead, success contemporary brands, are created by what Walker calls "murketing" (ie: murky marketing). Overt, self-promotion from above is out; undercover, dialogue-rich products, branding-from-the-underground is the new fashion. Murketing, then, is marketing 2.0 -- it's making products seem authentic by radically inauthentic means. This is the post-modern version of marketing in which we all are fully conscious of the new rules of the game -- and yet continue to play as if all the old rules still apply.

Images_2 The one thing missing from Buying In is a section on successful individual brands like Arianna, Oprah or Obama. But Walker gives us enough material to write our own chapter (let's call it "reader-generated-content") on what it takes to become a successful brand in the post-ideological murketing age. One of his case-studies is the Red Bull energy drink, another is Toyota's Scion motorcar. Both Red Bull and Scion have been meticulously engineered by their marketing teams to enrich the dialogue between the consumer and the consumed. They are textbook examples of inauthentically authentic products.

That's the secret of the Arianna Brand, of course. This Hollywood socialite and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post is the most brilliantly inauthentic example of authenticity. She's manufactured Walker's concept of murketing into a personal brand. She is the non liquid version of Red Bull.

So what's my role in this as a consumer of Arianna? What Walker tells us is none of us, however clever we might think we are, we can never escape from the complex interaction between what we buy and who we are. I'm part of this secret dialogue then. I've bought into Arianna's genius (and so have you).