Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Running With The Rhinos

Nature is a funny place. One often needs a sense of humor to parse through the many anomalies. Take the white rhinoceros, for instance. You don’t want to mess with one of these creatures, lest you be gored and stampeded. Running with the bulls in Pamplona seems kind of lame in comparison.

But riding on the back of the rhinocoeros one will likely find the tiny oxpecker, a bird that eats ticks and other ectoparasites also hitching a ride. The rhino benefits from the oxpecker, and the oxpecker gets a free ride and a meal. What a deal.

We have a name for this. It’s called symbiosis. And in a strange kind of way, the marketer/customer relationship is not much different.

BrandsYou see, we savor the brands that marketers create and sell. And marketers savor our money. The brands we buy become reflections of who we are, our incomes, our good tastes, our lifestyle. We have hopped on the rhino, hoping he takes us on a mind-blowing symbiotic ego trip.

New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker, author of Buying In and host of, has also noticed this symbiotic relationship. Walker argues that, contrary to what the media say about consumers being in control and totally immune to marketing, quite the opposite is occurring. Marketers rely ever more on stealth tactics to lure us into their web, while at the same time we have become brand slaves (some might even say whores) as we seek to build our own brand by consuming certain brands and even helping create those brands at the same time.

“Excuse me, is this rhino taken?”

Had Churchill lived to see this play out, he would quickly see it for what it is: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Except that marketers aren’t quite as nefarious as the Soviets.

Consumers, in their quest to individualize themselves through brand consumption and expression, paradoxically become a pack animal. Maybe not the mainstream pack they loathe and seek to dissociate from, but part of those in the breakaway group.

The result of this never-ending spiral is more and more new products, more and more brands, and an insatiable appetite to consume.

So right now I am riding the Apple rhino. I drank the Kool-Aid (but should have bought stock instead). The computers. The iPods. The phone. The sticker on my car says it all, and with nary a word. Can the tattoo be far off?

Walker has astutely noted that what we buy really is a statement about who we are. Perhaps we are all followers to some extent (you’re either in the lead group, the middle, or the laggards who never quite get it), but at the same time we love to build up our own brand, a form of social cap[ital we think has value far greater than any paper currency.

And we also love to gloat over being in-the-know long before the huddled masses. See if you can guess which of the following are true about me:

  1. I was a vegetarian long before they figured out how to make better-tasting veggie burgers.
  2. I was a bike commuter back when gas was only a $1 a gallon.
  3. I have always thought that Twitter was the coolest thing to ever happen.
  4. I discovered that Fredericksburg TX is a great place to bike, moved my Spring Break camp there in 1994, and now the city is filled with cyclists.
  5. I have been sending text messages for several years, and have never scoffed at it as a viable means of communication.

If you guessed that (a), (b), and (d) are true, then you really know me. So maybe that rhino I am riding is actually a rather complex beast, the embodiment of several brands and activities and lifestyle elements that make me Me. That’s right. With a capital M.

And by extension, your brands and activities and lifestyle elements make you You. But let’s all be careful to not fall off our rhinos. This ego trip doesn’t have a road assistance program.

Dr “Enjoying The Ride” Gerlich


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