Unbranding Our Identity

brand_name_page“Scrimping”–the daily preoccupation with saving money–has become an obsession.  Here in the U.S., it used to be that a 500 point drop in the stock market would be enough to make you choke on your triple vanilla caramel soy latte. Now it barely seems unusual – but the ripple effect is hitting home.

There’s a virtual dissertation full of brain-mind topics hanging from this dismal kapok tree of a recession – but one in particular grabbed my attention today.  And it comes from two sources, the first being this Wall Street Journal article about frugality trumping brand loyalty at the supermarket.  With consumer spending nearing the bottom of the well, brands are struggling with how to keep hold of consumer mindspace.

This identity defining project, once achieved with formulaic elegance, is now proving increasingly difficult.  It seems that a lack of disposable income acts as an antidote to brand mystification, leading to epiphanies like, “So Sauve at $2.99 really is just as good as Paul Mitchell at $15.99!”   Thems are fightin’ words for a lot of people when we’re flush with cash, but a readily recognizable reality when we’re raiding the quarter jar to buy a reasonably priced cup of coffee (forgoing the froo froo drink that just last month defined our morning identity). 

The second source is this post at Pop Matters, where the author, Rob Horning, penned a paragraph that I think smacks the proverbial mole right on the noggin:

It seems silly that people would need to discover that there’s little qualitative difference between branded and unbranded goods. But perhaps what makes this discovery so salient for consumers is the reassurance it provides that their changing spending behavior won’t lead inevitably to a decreased standard of living. You can kept the same sort of stuff, only cheaper, when you go generic. People generally choose to fail to recognize this discovery in flush times because it impedes the chief appeal of brands, which is to serve as a vector for the consumer to experience the lifestyle marketing for various products vicariously—brands allows us to turn the soap we use into an expression of our inner truth, to make buying a new shirt our momentary entrée into a world of glamor, to make a richer identity for ourselves through the myriad associations brands can be made to bear.

Yes. I don’t know that it could be said better or more succinctly. In difficult times, we all become skeptics inbear-shit-in-woods the marketplace – more challenging targets on the branding safari.  But I wonder if the jungle will return to shades of chocolate mousse mocha when the recession ends?  

I’ll let the bear answer that one…


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