Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are

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9780812974096: Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are

Brands are dead. Advertising no longer works. Consumers are in control. Or so we're told. In Buying In, Rob Walker argues that this accepted wisdom misses a much more important cultural shift, including a practice he calls murketing, in which people create brands of their own and participate, in unprecedented ways, in marketing campaigns for their favorites. Yes, rather than becoming immune to them, we are rapidly embracing brands. Profiling Timberland, American Apparel, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Red Bull, iPod, and Livestrong, among others, Walker demonstrates the ways in which buyers adopt products not just as consumer choices but as conscious expressions of their identities. Part marketing primer, part work of cultural anthropology, Buying In reveals why now, more than ever, we are what we buy—and vice versa. 

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About the Author:

Rob Walker writes the weekly column “Consumed,” a blend of business journalism and cultural anthropology, for The New York Times Magazine. Previously, he created and wrote the popular “Ad Report Card” column for Slate, and he has contributed to a wide range of publications, from Fast Company and Fortune to The New Republic and AdBusters. Walker continues to write about the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are at his own website, Murketing.com. He lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife, photographer Ellen Susan.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One


The Pretty Good Problem

Rational Thinking . . . Fifty-three Pretty Good Kitchen Ranges . . .The Commodity T . . . Ecko Unltd.'s cul-de-sac cred . . .The "projectability" of Hello Kitty . . . The Hundreds

Rational Thinking

Imagine that you're naked.

Or maybe it's better to put it this way: Imagine that you need some sort of clothing. This may not be a biological imperative like thirst, but wearing something is still pretty much a baseline acceptable social behavior. How, then, do you choose to meet this authentic consumer need?

Cram as many responses to that question as will fit into the two million square feet of exhibition space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and you have Magic. Magic is a twice yearly trade show for the apparel industry, a place where makers of clothes gather to display their wares for the benefit of retail buyers-the people who decide what boutiques and department stores all over the world will make available to consumers. Most every brand that you could think of is here (from Polo to True Religion Jeans, from Jhane Barnes to Timberland), along with many brands you probably could not think of.

The geography of Magic is the geography of consumer demographics: Sections are labeled Young Men's, Magic Kids, Active Lifestyle, Casual Lifestyle, Women's Sportswear, Dresses and Outerwear, and Streetwear. The mode of Magic is mercenary tribalism: buyers and sellers roaming the floor in their signifying outfits (there's a couture guy, here's a hip-hop girl, there goes a Japanese hipster kid), cutting their deals, while the trend prospectors and fashion editors study the action, looking for the smallest flicker of a pattern change in the garment zeitgeist. The language of Magic is an endless babel of logos and brands.

Part of the reason for my first trip to Magic, in early 2005, was to connect with Bobby Kim, otherwise known as Bobby Hundreds. I had met him in Los Angeles some months earlier, and he seemed likely to be a great help to me as I worked to understand what was changing in the consumer marketplace. He was twenty-five years old, a Korean American who grew up in multicultural Los Angeles and was into hip-hop, punk, and skateboarding. He was the kind of person the youth-obsessed marketing industry chases relentlessly, and he knew it. But he scorned mainstream efforts to speak to his generation. I'd been struck, for example, by an essay on his Web zine blasting the "commercialized" version of skateboarding culture that he saw in the X Games or on MTV as a "big-industry ruse."

So that's Bobby Hundreds: He is hard to impress. I'm making him sound like a cynic, but that's not the case. He's a smart guy with a lot of hustle; he has the highest standards, the greatest expectations, the biggest dreams. He's the new consumer, the nightmare of the brand managers and retail buyers who make Magic hum. We'll spend more time with him later; but for now, all you need to know is that when Bobby Hundreds looked around Magic, it was with a knowing smirk. He saw through the whole charade-just as the experts said he should. All these brands have no meaning; each one was, he said, "just another clothing line."

If brands and logos are mere symbols, empty of meaning, then choosing among clothing lines-or anything-becomes a largely rational affair. There are probably four, or maybe four and a half, factors to consider. One, of course, is price. Another is convenience. A third is quality. The fourth rational factor, I think it's fair to say, is pleasure. The half factor is ethics, which I'll leave aside for now but return to later, in this book's final section.

Needless to say, these ideas not only collide, but bleed into one another: You can derive pleasure from the simple fact of a bargain's low price, for example. To borrow a term from economics, the goal of the rational consumer is to "maximize utility"-the usefulness, or satisfaction, a consumer derives from a given purchase. A vacuum cleaner that does a nice job on your carpets is both useful and satisfying (assuming you want your carpets clean); a vacuum cleaner that leaves the carpet looking just as filthy as it did before you bought the thing probably isn't.

It's a simple enough framework for decision making, one that marginalizes squishier ideas like brand image. It's also consistent with what twenty-first-century consumers tell surveyors about how we make decisions: We regularly claim that logos mean little or nothing to us. Those polled by GfK Roper Consulting on the subject of why they buy what they buy named "past experience" with a given brand, followed by quality, price, and "personal recommendations of others." Only about a fifth were willing to cite branding as a factor at all. Another survey, focused specifically on apparel, suggested that most consumers had wised up to all the hype about new styles and trends and that a majority agreed that "fashion is less important to me than value and comfort." Who could disagree? Of course you and I are more interested in rational concerns like "value and comfort" than on frivolous trends. "Buying a $5,000 handbag just because it's a status symbol is a sign of weakness," as one keen observer of branded culture put it. Who was that keen observer? Miuccia Prada, overseer of the famous luxury brand. (Presumably, buying a $5,000 Prada bag is okay, if you're doing it for the right reasons-quality and value, for instance.)

This summarizes the thinking of those who point to the emerging superdemanding new consumer. Like Homo economicus-"Economic Man," the strictly rational cost/benefit maximizer of economic

models-the new Consumer Economicus sorts through the explosion of available information and makes his or her best choice. Consumer Economicus is not swayed by branding, "status symbols," or anything else that smacks of phony image making.

Yet it's hard to square this with the endless choices on view at Magic. There must be a million products here, ten million. Clearly there are differences in quality, materials, cut, form. But how many differences can there be? Shirts, pants, dresses, shoes. These are the essential tropes. Are there really so many quality and style variations?

The answer is in the Desire Code, my name for the complex of factors, rational and otherwise, that spark us to make particular purchase decisions. The backdrop for cracking that code-and the reason it's getting more complicated to crack-is the most interesting thing on display at Magic, a thing that absolutely nobody talked about, even though it was obvious everywhere you looked: the Pretty Good Problem.

fifty-three pretty good kitchen ranges

A couple of years ago, Consumer Reports tested and ranked fifty-three different kitchen ranges, priced from $400 to $5,200. Of these, it found that forty-seven were, over all, "very good." Four were "excellent." The lowest composite rating, given to a $1,100 Frigidaire dual-fuel model and a $750 GE gas range, was "good." None were rated "poor" or even "fair."

Barry Schwartz is a psychology professor at Swarthmore College with a particular interest in the incredible (and at times paralyzing) abundance of options available to the contemporary consumer. He wrote a book about it, The Paradox of Choice. Once upon a time, the challenge for the consumer was navigating a world of faulty, shoddy, or unsafe products. But really, Schwartz argues, that's not much of an issue anymore. The fifty-three pretty good kitchen ranges are a routine example of something that he sees happening in practically every consumer category. So when Consumer Reports, or whatever other authority is doing the testing, studies some group of products, the conclusion is invariably that most of the choices are, you know, pretty good. All that's left is to sift among increasingly minor differences to decide which one is the very best value of all, by however

absurdly narrow a margin. And while we may feel otherwise sometimes, the simple fact is that there are probably more pretty good products being sold in America now than at any time in history. This is a tribute to progress, but it both complicates our decision-making as consumers and makes it increasingly difficult for one of those fifty- three ranges to stand out.

While Schwartz approaches this problem from the point of view of the befuddled and overwhelmed consumer, Seth Godin is among those who look at it from the marketer's perspective. Godin is the author of many marketing- and business-advice books, including one called Purple Cow. The title is explained in an anecdote about

driving through France with his family; at first they were "enchanted" by the "storybook cows" they saw, but within twenty minutes, the sight of these animals had become familiar, and "boring." If a purple cow were to come into view, however-"that would be interesting," Godin wrote.

His point was that "most products are invisible," as is most marketing, and this means things must be made "remarkable" if they are to have a chance to succeed. There has to be something there for people to talk about. The first edition of Purple Cow, for example, included a limited number distributed in milk carton-like containers.

It's important to parse the metaphor closely: The cow is not remarkable because it produces more milk or requires less feed or also functions as an MP3 player and digital camera. Its purpleness is not an innovation, it's a novelty. The cow-or the kitchen appliance or the garment-still functions much like all its marketplace rivals. Except that it's purple. Which is "remarkable."

the commodity t

The Pretty Good Problem is even more acute at Magic than it is in the pages of Consumer Reports or, possibly, the picturesque pastures of France. The more narrow the range of actual differences in commodity attributes, the more important it becomes to create a different kind of value-one that transcends the merely material. This is the goal of branding.

It's easy to think of branding as a transparent and almost pointless process...

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Descrizione libro Random House USA Inc, United States, 2010. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Brands are dead. Advertising no longer works. Consumers are in control. Or so we re told. In Buying In, Rob Walker argues that this accepted wisdom misses a much more important cultural shift, including a practice he calls murketing, in which people create brands of their own and participate, in unprecedented ways, in marketing campaigns for their favorites. Yes, rather than becoming immune to them, we are rapidly embracing brands. Profiling Timberland, American Apparel, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Red Bull, iPod, and Livestrong, among others, Walker demonstrates the ways in which buyers adopt products not just as consumer choices but as conscious expressions of their identities. Part marketing primer, part work of cultural anthropology, Buying In reveals why now, more than ever, we are what we buy--and vice versa. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780812974096

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Descrizione libro Random House USA Inc, United States, 2010. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Brands are dead. Advertising no longer works. Consumers are in control. Or so we re told. In Buying In, Rob Walker argues that this accepted wisdom misses a much more important cultural shift, including a practice he calls murketing, in which people create brands of their own and participate, in unprecedented ways, in marketing campaigns for their favorites. Yes, rather than becoming immune to them, we are rapidly embracing brands. Profiling Timberland, American Apparel, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Red Bull, iPod, and Livestrong, among others, Walker demonstrates the ways in which buyers adopt products not just as consumer choices but as conscious expressions of their identities. Part marketing primer, part work of cultural anthropology, Buying In reveals why now, more than ever, we are what we buy--and vice versa. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780812974096

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