‘Competitiveness’ has become a transnational policy buzzword in a globalized world and this invites us to examine critically ‘competitiveness’ discourses and their manifestations in the policy-consultancy circuit. This article adopts a ‘cultural political economy’ (CPE) approach to the rise to hegemonic ‘knowledge brand’ status since the mid-1990s of the influential account of Michael E. Porter and his Harvard Business School associates. This account of competitiveness has since been recontextualized from the national to the urban, regional and global scales. The article interweaves theoretical and empirical arguments in five steps. First, it outlines the bases of CPE as a discursive as well as material account of the remaking and reproduction of social relations. Second, it presents three stages in the development of ‘competitiveness’ discourses from theoretical paradigm to knowledge brand. Third, it explores how this knowledge brand has been recontextualized through knowledge apparatuses, such as indices and metaphors, as well as through related technologies of power at the global level and the regional-national scale of East Asia. Fourth, and conversely, it shows how this hegemonic logic of competitiveness is being challenged and negotiated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Fifth, it offers some concluding comments on knowledge brands and on how CPE can contribute to a critical understanding of policy-making.