In defense of brands

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald yesterday ran an article, “Twelve steps to a brand-free life,” by an individual who a short time ago beat his obsession with consumer labels and shopping. The author had been an avid fan of brands like Adidas and Apple, “to the point that I could not contemplate buying products made by their rivals.” He relied on brands “to increase my confidence at meetings (BlackBerry) or my status at the bar (Ralph Lauren).” He used to “escape the office to shop.”

This person, on deciding to “destroy my previously branded life,” set up “a public bonfire in central London, fuelled by my possessions. Twenty years of designer shopping went up in smoke.” The author says that “I have struggled to live my life brand-free ever since.” However, this is difficult because brands and their messages are everywhere.

The author states that “The message behind every brand is we will feel better for consuming more” but “consumer culture has transformed our lives for the worse. We work more and we imprison ourselves in debt.” He even goes so far as to blame materialism for inhibiting efforts at “tackling climate change.”

The author says “the symbol of a sports shoe manufacturer should not embody freedom. Nor should the symbol of a bag manufacturer embody aspiration.”

What is a brand-avid consumer to think when reading this article? First, obviously, compulsive shopping is different from compulsive brand identification. Compulsive shopping is no doubt an unhealthy thing, but needing to identify with brands can be a positive one—brands fill a human need to identify with something larger in life than just oneself. When you use a particular brand you are making a statement about yourself and your beliefs. There is no reason to give up such a powerful message.

Second, consumer culture is great, not terrible. People exist and interact in the marketplace, where they find they have a choice about which things they buy—brands provide that choice. And people don’t just shop because they want to, they shop because they need to.

Third, what a dull world when people resort to shopping army surplus for clothes, as the author does, and live without TV and the like. Brands don’t just bring meaning to life, they give it excitement. It is fun to look for the next big brand and to purchase items from the brand maker. Why should life be boring?

Undoubtedly a lot of people will identify with the author of this story, who decided that brands were too overwhelming a presence in his life and to minimize that. But I think that people who miss out on brands are missing out on life. There is so much out there to enjoy and consume, and brands make that possible.