Book Club: Are We Defined by What We Buy?

"Buying In" author stops by for a chat.

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Readers sent in many great questions for Rob Walker, author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, the first selection of the Alpha Consumer Book Club. He answers them today and tomorrow:

From Meg Marco of the As you point out in your book, consumers often join their identities and even sense of self with brands (such as with Apple). When consumers reach out with complaints to companies whose brands they've incorporated into their sense of self, they're operating in a state of emotional pain. When a brand fails them, they seem to feel as if they've failed, too. What effect do you think this level of emotional participation has on a company's customer service responsibilities? If companies are adept at selling "ideas about products," do they need to work hard to maintain that special feeling once the honeymoon is over? Or has all the hard work been done?

This is a great question—and one I wish I would get more often from, say, marketers and business owners. There's a widespread tendency to think "branding" just means logos and slogans and ads. I see branding more broadly, as the process of attaching an idea to a product. That idea lives in consumers' heads and can come from an ad campaign—but it can also come from direct experiences. It doesn't matter if the advertising for a drugstore chain depicts kindly pharmacists going out of their way to help—and the actual experience you or I have at that chain in real life involves a dirty store and a rude pharmacist who makes you wait around for no reason and screws up your prescription—well, the idea that gets attached to that drugstore chain's brand is going to be the one that comes from real life.

Mostly in the book I'm speaking to consumers. But the one message I try to get across to companies is that maybe it's better sometimes to stop worrying so much about reshaping your image and start worrying about reshaping the reality of your business. In the book, I bring that up specifically in the context of "ethical" issues such as sustainability or labor practices. But the same point holds true for what you're talking about. Some companies spend absolutely astronomical sums on creating a customer-friendly or creative or "cool" (or whatever) image through brand campaigns—and then they pay the workers on the selling floor so badly that they couldn't care less, or outsource customer service, or whatever, and the net experience is bad. And customer loyalty evaporates—yes, precisely because the emotional reaction to a real experience can trump the emotional response to marketing. It's very shortsighted.

I've had a number of conversations with folks at companies about this subject, and too often they basically say, in so many words, "Well, we are doing a great job and providing a great experience; we just need to get the word out because people don't understand." But actually people do understand—they understand that they didn't have a great experience. Sometimes it's a good idea to stop worrying about image and start worrying about the business.

Also from Marco: When I was in high school, teachers would occasionally ask the class, "Do you think Joe Camel influences you to smoke or buy Camel cigarettes?" Invariably, we students would answer "No." In fact, we seemed a little insulted by the idea that we could be persuaded by advertising. Later on in the discussion, the teacher would always ask us how we would encourage people to stop smoking if we were in charge. The first answer out of our mouths was always the same: "Advertise against smoking!" Why do we as individuals think advertising influences everyone but us?

Various psychological studies have found that most of us think we're smarter and better looking and better drivers and better everything than average. Obviously, we can't all be better than average, but our attitudes about sophistication towards commercial persuasion are of a piece with these findings: We are, by and large, overconfident. Part of the issue in this context is that there's a big gap between how we think advertising works and how it actually works. Surely, it would be insulting to suggest that you, for instance, see an ad for Brand X, which says that Brand X is awesome, and your reaction is: "Brand X is awesome! Excuse me while I run to the story and buy as much as I can!" Clearly, you would be a fool to do that. Just as clearly, nobody has ever done that.

Branding is a far more complex process, much of it taking place on a nonconscious level. Really, my main goal in writing the book was to pull back the curtain on how this process works, particularly how it's changing in the 21st century as technology has evolved—and marketers have evolved, too. It's my belief that if you know more about the process—and how it interacts with the various biases in the way the human mind works—you'll be far better prepared to cope with it and to make the decisions you truly want to make. Too many people have reacted to changing technology by simply saying, "Aha, I am more brandproof than ever because I have TiVo," and overlook the ways the commercial persuasion business has already moved way past 30-second ads.

From Boomie at The Wastrel Show: I don't buy any brand names. I've been this way since I was a child. Designers, such as Ralph Lauren, wear the same clothes (have the same look, such as bluejeans), yet every six months the designer introduces a new line of clothes and expects people to buy them. Why should I buy this constant stream of changing styles and clothes, when the designers themselves wear their own same, cultivated look? Whether I am watching TV, reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, or surfing the Web, my eyes and ears see no advertisements. No one can sway me. Are there others out there like me?

Possibly you live on a farm, make your own clothes, and ride a horse. But if not, then I have a funny feeling you do buy brand names. This goes back to the point above that some people equate "brand" with "logo." Certainly, there are plenty of people, like you, who avoid certain brands because they see them (possibly correctly) as marked up precisely because of the logo they carry. I don't know what your primary criterion is for picking, say, a pair of jeans, but maybe it's price. That's fine, but there are perfectly rational reasons to have other criteria—such as how the jeans are made, what they're made of, and so on. I spoke to someone recently who buys a rather pricey brand of jeans because, he said, of the labor-and-materials back story. Also, however, he liked the fact that this brand happens to have no logo on it, or recognizable pocket stitching, etc. In other words, they were "unbranded," in a way. Even so: He always buys this brand.

The point isn't whether he's made a good or bad decision but rather that one of the basic functions of brands is perfectly logical: to help you find what you're looking for, what's important to you. This only gets problematic when what you're looking for is a way to be "cool" or to "stand out" or "be part of something"—a brand can't actually deliver on those things, I'm afraid. On the other hand, if one thinks that a certain brand of jeans is, intrinsically, the best, then that's a pretty good reason to shop for that brand, seems to me.

On the "no one can sway me" point, what I would say is: There certainly are others out there like you. Almost everyone sees him- or herself as being immune to advertising. Sadly, this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how advertising often works. (See prior answer.) That doesn't mean we're all simply being manipulated without knowing it. But it does mean that smart consumption requires acting upon reflection and knowledge and effort. Simply approaching the marketplace by thinking you're immune to advertising, and ergo all your decisions must be purely rational, is absolutely antithetical to those notions. Which is why your attitude is precisely the one that many marketers want you to have.

From Michael Rubin of Total Candor: You note Red Bull is an example of vague marketing (murketing) whose explicit sales strategies never revealed the target audience. Isn't that a sales strategy in itself? Looking back, it seems ingenious, but if it had been less effective, would we not criticize it for being too unfocused? How much of brand strategy development should stay fixed (core) vs. evolve as your customers slowly take your brand to new places under your stewardship? Seems like a balancing act.

It's absolutely a sales strategy, and a rather effective one, turns out. Bear in mind that my goal here wasn't to praise Red Bull. It was to figure out: Why did Red Bull catch on? What's in the book is the conclusion that I came to on that matter. So, I'm not so much trying to advocate some theory that other product makers should use. I'm not a guru—I'm a reporter. One of the things I wanted to do in the book is look at brands that went mass in the 21st century—during the new-media era. Red Bull was one such brand. In other words: This is what happened, and this is my best shot as to explaining why.

To me, what's interesting about the Red Bull story is that there's no way this stuff could have taken off without the—in effect—projected meanings from consumers. There is no particular scientific data to back the idea that taurine has any functional properties. The idea that it does rests largely in the consumer mind. To the extent that there's a "lesson" to Red Bull's story, that's it. And that's a lesson that I hope consumers will pay attention to, not just brand managers.

Check back tomorrow for the rest of Walker's responses to readers' questions.