Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Towards a brand-less existence

As this visual representation of a typical day illustrates, brands rule our lives. When I wake up in the morning and step into my bathroom, I can count no less than 20 brands. Colgate, Oral B, Gillette, Old Spice, Parryware, and so on. The assault continues relentlessly through the day.

In defense of brands, they ensure consistency . I know that when I buy a tube of Colgate dental cream in Mumbai, it would taste and feel the same as the one that I use in Chennai. The brand provides me that comfort and obviates the need to do any further "due diligence" or tests of quality. Higher-end brands also confer status, and enhance the experience of consumption.

But, that belief is precisely what brand managers exploit, to lull unsuspecting consumers into a state of dependence or even addiction. Brands make you cross the line between functionality and luxury, and then guide you past the next line between luxury and ostentatious and even vulgar indulgence.

That’s what Neil Boorman thought too. Completely obsessed with labels, he decided to de-addict himself, by burning all the branded goods in his possession, in a well-publicised bonfire. In fact, he blogged about it, starting 180 days before the event and invited a fair share of appreciation as well as criticism. He shared his emotions, his withdrawal symptons, his feelings while letting go prized possessions and even underwent therapy sessions.

Note that Neil is not advocating a comfort-free life nor calling for a return to the hunter-gatherer days. He is seeking liberation from the tyranny of branded products. Start with downshifting yourself on the hierarchy of brands, he says. Instead of Nike shoes, you can seek out and purchase lesser brands or unbranded shoes that are comfortable to wear. Rather than the Apple computer, you can settle for an assembled one from a local shop. And so on. He admits that in a world dominated by brands, it is an uphill task finding such stuff, that too of desirable quality, but he feels that it is incumbent on us to put in the extra effort so as to get out of the tight grip of the brands.

Also, we must guard ourselves from elements that exploit this group of consumers who want to shun brands, by introducing a premium category of unbranded products. Case in point is organic food. Organic, hand-pounded rice used to be part of a poor-man’s diet till a few years back. Today, it sells at three times the price of regular, branded rice.

Do you believe that displaying the brand makes you feel good, or do you hold the view that brands genuinely enhance the quality of a product? Look at two scenarios below and try to find answers:

1) You love the Omega brand and what it stands for. Displaying the Omega brand on your wrist gives you enhanced status. So, during my next trip to China, I buy one of those 10-dollar “Omega” watches that look, feel and perform like the real one. It has the Omega name stamped clearly. Even the strap and the packaging are identical to the real one. I gift it to you without telling you where I bought it from. When you wear it, do you still get that aura that emanates from a genuine Omega?

2) You love the Polo T-shirts of Ralph Lauren. You believe that these shirts are of the highest quality and provide value for money. Now, I happen to know the place in Tiruppur where these shirts are made, and later passed on to the merchandisers and others for branding and logistics. It is the same shirt that Ralph Lauren sells to you at Rs 1200/- but I am getting it for you at Rs 400/- without the label or any other sign of the famous brand. Would you experience the same quality that you associate with the Ralph Lauren brand?

Brand managers will tell you that the tirade against brands is without basis as there are many other value additions that a brand brings to the table. But then, what else do you expect them to say?

Update 21/08/08: Gave this subject some more thought, after I had posted it. The extreme form of brand addiction, though endemic in western countries, may have affected only a minuscule portion of the population in India. But, we are moving in that direction as is evidenced by the shopping bags that Indians carry back from their foreign jaunts, and the mushrooming of malls whose sole purpose is to showcase the leading brands.

In the Indian context, brands used to signify, among other things, durability. A pair of slippers bought in a Bata showroom was expected to last longer than the one picked up from a platform vendor. But, brands of the Nike variety while claiming to promote durable products, also negate the principle by introducing upgrades and new styles rapidly, teasing you to buy a new pair when the old pair is good enough for a few more years.

But, as Neil Boorman points out, it is not as if somebody is compelling us to buy the aspirational brands. There is no evil empire shadowing us. The manipulation is subtle and subliminal. We are all part of the culture of extreme consumerism, and cannot point an accusing finger at anyone else, without three of the other fingers pointing back at us.

How about picking up branded goods at a sale? You get all that a brand promises, but at a price that is 40% cheaper. Good for the buyer, but bad for the brand, says Harish Bijoor, a branding consultant, in The Businessline today. Why is it bad for the brand? He explains:

"First, it exposes the profit numbers that retailers make to consumers. Consumers suddenly start wondering why retailers keep such huge margins. At times, this imagination of margin goes berserk in consumer minds and they do believe brands don’t necessarily make sense on the price side.

Second, ‘sales’ devalue brands. It brings into brand consumption sets of consumers who would have otherwise not come of their own volition. Such customers are really not positive influences for the brand in question.

Third, it habituates customers to the sale syndrome. Particularly in items such as shoes, fashion garments and durables, it makes customers wait for the annual sale to buy. This is bad for the brand, as the brand is not a brand at all in many ways. It is a brand for most part of the year, but assumes the avatar of a cheap commodity once a year, when it is bought during a sale.

There are several other downsides to a sale, but let me leave them aside for the moment for want of space. "

That's why brands, in a face-saving effort, tell you that the sale is meant to dispose off export surplus or 'seconds' with minor defects. So, don't assume that this is the full value of the brand, you naive suckers.


Anonymous said...

aren't brands inherent to most cultures? I agree the 'western' brands are now entering a typical indian mind but what about our own brands that we have cherished from several centuries?
Examples: Agra petha, Mysore silk; Bismilla Khan's shenai, MS's singing; Kashi, Rameshwar piligrimages etc etc.

I was reading 'Phantoms in the Brain' recently and in one of the passage I saw Ramachandran alluding to the fact that tagging, taxonomy and classification are inherent to human brain.
I think has some relation to the fact that brands are so important in our lives.

I blog at

Raj said...

sahs3n, maybe so. But, they were not aspirational brands that led to ostentatious spending.