Posted by: nickgerlich | October 7, 2007

Brand Y (Why Not?)

I remember sitting in the Narita airport in Japan back in December of 1995. I was on my way to Taipei, to spend one month teaching an MBA course amd otherwise soak up the local culture. I had four hours to kill before my next flight, so I did what any sensible person would do.

I watched people.

Not that there was much of anything else I could do. I didn’t want to have to clear Customs just so I could wander the rest of the airport, so I was pretty much confined to one terminal. And given that I didn’t see very many English-speaking people nearby, I really did’t have many choices.

I nearly laughed out loud when I saw a passenger who had just come from the Philippines. He was wearing a denim jacket with a huge embroidery on the back that read “GEUSS.”

That’s right. Misspelled. As in counterfeit. Ripoff. Fake.

But this person clearly thought the Guess brand name held a certain cachet, and he identified with it. Guess and all it stands for was apparently a reflection of who this person was (or wanted to be).

BlackSpotWhich has me fuming (still) about the Blackspot sneakers campaign hosted by Adbusters. Sure, it is their very right to be anti-capitalist (in spite of the fact they use many capitalist techniques to draw attention to their organization, ideology, and products). It is their right in the relatively free nation of Canada to issue a dissenting voice. And there is no law against being inconsistent.

As they endure the winter of their discontent, I wonder what they think we should be so happy about if we were to embrace their non-brand brand of living. While I will be the first to admit that our brand loyalties and dependencies display a weaker side of humanity, I will also be the first to say with utmost candor, “So what?”

If wearing a polo player on your shirt makes you feel good, casts the right image, etc., then rock on, buddy. If you are willing to pay a little more for a Mac or an iPod so you can join the Apple cult, so be it. And if sipping pricey mocha latte-whatevers or exalted micro brews feed your ego (and admirably good taste), then please accept my inviation to join me sometime for quality potables.

And that is my point. Brands are indeed a symbol of us. In fact, they all work together to create the brand we call Me. Sure, we all have skills and toolchests full of things we know how to do, but they are enhanced and defined further by the brandset we use on a regular basis. Those brand names and their related symbols are silent yet deafening voices that proclaim the inner workings of our personality, preferences, and profitability.

There. How’s that for alliteration?

Now please do’t take me wrong. I am not saying that as you age and make more money, that your brand choices in all things should gravitate toward only the finer things. No, my Dad the 86-year-old-with-the-2008-Cadillac CTS is also a tightwad in many other regards. But at least the neighbors know he drives a nice car.

Which is why I am so amused by Adbusters and their holier-than-thou doctrine. Or to state it more simply, they are killjoys. Brands make us happy; they can be fun. Why do they have a problem with this?

Brand names have been a part of the capitalist landscape for many decades. Sure, they can sometimes be frivolous, but they serve a useful purpose. And in these days of outsourcing and contract manufacturing, many of our nation’s leading firms are really only marketers and not makers (e.g., did you know that Pabst Brewing Company has no breweries? All of its many beers are made by Miller.).

I have heard it said that to not make a decision is in effect to decide not to decide. Similarly, the non-brand worldview held by Adbusters and its legions of ne’erdowells is to opt for the unbrand…which really is a brand. It’s the I’m-better-than-you-and-more-socially-concerned brand. It sells well among the disenchanted, and elevates them to a level of snobbery that makes the rest of us more pedestrian consumers seem pretty innocent after all.

But what do I know? I just like to watch people.

Dr “Guess Again” Gerlich



  1. Hi Nick. First off, I don’t have an opinion on Adbusters, I haven’t even looked at their site yet. I was Tag Surfing on WordPress and your entry came just before this one: . I thought the juxtaposition was interesting. The Dove ad referenced in the Graceful Flavor blog says something like, “Hey, your identity, beauty and essential goodness don’t come from outside you.” This idea is essentially in opposition to what much of consumer branding is about where what I wear, eat or drive is meant to define something that I am about.

    There is no doubt room for both ideas in this world, there has been as long as I can remember. I am reminded of that great Dr. Seuss story about the Sneetches.

    Also, thanks for the Pabst meme, fun things to know and tell.

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