Mandela and Madonna are brands. So is South Africa. So, too, is Joburg - a city in the process of transforming itself - not to mention Cape Town. And so are international charities like Oxfam and the Red Cross. Brands are everywhere.
And yet to some, the very word 'brand' is suspicious. Anti-globalisation protestors talk of 'brands as bullies' when they are attacking American multinationals. Are they right? We spend billions of rands on brands like Nike, Sony, and Nokia, yet the branding concept makes many of us somehow uncomfortable. Are we just taking for granted one of the great benefits of brands: that what we're buying is of guaranteed quality? Our relationships with brands are complex. Many lovers of Ben and Jerry's felt the 'soul' of the company was at risk when it was bought by Unilever. Is that fair?
Even in the business world, branding is an ambiguous concept. Commentators sneer when a firm like Diageo pays £1 million to brand consultants to handle the creation of its corporate brand (yet ignore the fact that the company paid a good deal more to lawyers and financiers involved in the same exercise). And when Nedcor attempted to take over Standard, the potential of the brands was never debated publicly. Many senior managers see branding as something essentially cosmetic - usually involving a change in logo, and usually the preserve of the marketing department. And yet it's been calculated that for well-known companies the brand can account for as much as 70% of the market value. Are these managers missing a trick?
Will brands save the world or are they the root of all evil? Are they simply a tool for American economic dominance or do they have important social advantages? And what is a brand anyway?
The Economist has pulled together a range of experts to produce Brands and Branding, a book that tackles these issues head on. In her introduction, lead contributor Rita Clifton, UK Chairman of Interbrand, argues that we're too ready to ignore the global advantages of brands. They have the ability, she says to protect consumers, create prosperity, to bind people together internationally, and have the potential to bring enormous benefits to the developing - and developed - worlds. They are central wealth creators to businesses and economies and, far from being treated with scepticism, should be used as the central organising principle for organisations of all kinds.
So what makes up a brand? How valuable are brands in economic and social terms? How do visual and verbal communications contribute? How do countries and NGOs brand themselves? How should brands be managed, and what is the future of brands? Brands and Branding includes articles by 17 experts on one of the most potent economic forces of modern life.
Rita Clifton is UK chairman of Interbrand, a global brand consultancy and the editor of The Future of Brands
John Simmons is a consultant and author , who specialises in the role of language in branding. He is the author of We, me, them & it and The invisible grail.
Sameena Ahmad is a business correspondent on The Economist. Formerly based in New York and London, she now operates out of Hong Kong
Tony Allen started his career with McCann-Erickson and is a former CEO of Interbrand in the UK
Simon Anholt specialises in the branding of nations and cities, and is the founding director of Placebrands, and international consulting firm.
Anne Bahr Thompson is a consultant and strategist in marketing, planning and research
Paddy Barwise is professor of management and marketing and the chairman of the Future Research Programme at the London Business School.
Tom Blackett is group deputy chairman of Interbrand. He is the author of trademarks and Co-branding: the science of alliance and the editor of Brand Medicine
Deborah Bowker is managing director of Burson-Marsteller, based in Washington, DC. Previously she was the director of PriceWaterhouseCooper's Centre of Excellence for Strategic Communications.
Chuck Brymer started his career with BBDO and is now group chief executive of the Interbrand Group, based in New York
Deborah Doane is director of the Transforming Markets programme at the New Economics Foundation. She lectures and writes internationally on corporate social responsibility issues.
Kim Faulkner has 20 years of experience in branding, marketing and design programmes. She sits on the board of directors for International Enterprise Singapore and is Chairman of Interbrand's office in Singapore.
Steve Hilton is the founder of Good Business, Britain's first social marketing company, and co-author of Good Business - Your World Needs You
Jan Lindemann is managing director of Interbrand's global brand valuation practice. Previously he was mergers and acquisitions adviser at Chase Manhattan Bank
Shaun Smith is a consultant who specialises in customer experience and service. He is the author of managing the Customer Experience and Uncommon Practice
Brands and Branding is published by Profile Books, price £20 hardback, ISBN 1 86197 664 X.