Dan Sweet

Chuck D of Public Enemy on branding…a book review

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

Rob Walker’s book, Buying In, attempts to understand the interplay between our personal identity and our consumer culture. Walker’s background as a columnist for the New York Times Magazine and Slate has allowed him to get close to the consumer and many of the most popular brands of our times. He leverages his experiences as a journalist to take the reader to places as far ranging as behind the scenes at Apple HQ for a chat with an annoyed Steve Jobs, a bicycle messenger polo match sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon in a field outside of Portland, and to a Miami beach for a Red Bull-fueled kite-boarding trip to Cuba. Walker effectively debunks many of the popular stories that are used to explain consumer behavior and dives deeper. He challenges the reader to understand their own behavior and the forces that create our attitudes and actions. Walker concludes his book by contrasting mainstream “terminal materialism” with his vision for a consumption that flows from an individual’s true identity. I didn’t expect that a book about marketing could delve so deep into the individual’s psyche and still be so fascinating—but Walker pulls it off.

The first third of Buying In addresses what Walker calls the Desire Code. This code is the “complex of factors, rational and otherwise, that spark us to make particular purchase decisions.” Walker describes what he calls the “Pretty Good Problem” that exists when consumers face a plethora of pretty good solutions to any given problem. Referencing Seth Godin’s Purple Cow concept, he touches on the challenge of being remarkable. Walker says that the goal of branding is to create a “different kind of value” that transcends the material. Interesting back-stories of the founders of Ecko and Ralph Lauren debunk the idea that authenticity is all important to consumers. Hello Kitty is then used to counter the suggestion that a brand must “stand for something.” Walker argues that Hello Kitty has become so successful precisely because she lacks any meaning. Consumers can instead project whatever they want onto Hello Kitty and make her stand for anything.

Once the author’s street cred has been established by talking hip hop and Hello Kitty has been trotted out as the ultimate blank canvas, Walker gets down to what he calls “the fundamental tension of modern life.” Essentially, people want to feel unique, but also want to feel a part of something bigger. Our attempts to resolve the tension between these two diametrically opposed states play out visibly in our purchase behavior and hold the key to understanding the Desire Code. Walker uses the archetype of the skater as outlaw to illustrate how the desire to be unique plays itself out for some. In an ironic twist, the skater is also the example that disproves the argument that young people are opposed to “joining.” Walker uses the explosion of the skateboarding category as evidenced by skyrocketing revenues for skateboarding apparel and shoes, relative to the more modest growth of actual skateboarding equipment, to demonstrate that people who don’t skate still want to associate themselves with skateboarding and that by extension, youth have nothing at all against joining. In fact, in many cases, people are longing to join and belong.

Walker takes his examination of the individual’s psyche one step further when he introduces the concept of “the interpreter.” Citing Keech’s seminal work on cognitive dissonance, he argues that consumers are actually attempting to tell themselves a consistent story of who they are. Consumers don’t buy to keep up with the Joneses as has previously been thought. Instead we buy things in an attempt to construct ourselves a consistent story about who we are. The “interpreter” is an important concept to keep in mind and adds a new layer to our thinking about basic branding concepts like salience and relevance. The interpreter is a mechanism that consumers use to create a rationale as to why a particular brand or product has relevance for their personal identity. Previously it was considered the responsibility of brander to communicate the relevance of a product or service offering to consumers. Walker uses the examples of the yellow Livestrong bracelets and the iPod as illustrations of the power of a diverse group of consumers’ “interpreters” to determine personal relevance without regard for an officially sanctioned value proposition. Walker doesn’t buy “badge theory” and argues that Method, a household cleaner our neighbors will never know we own, demonstrates that we are consuming as we are in an attempt to tell a story to ourselves—not to others.

The majority of the book explores the emerging world of “murketing.” Walker invented this term as a joke to attempt to explain an emerging form of marketing that oversteps our traditional construct of marketing. He argues against the idea that the “click culture” created by Tivo has hurt the industry and provides numerous fascinating examples of ways that companies are transcending traditional advertising and are becoming a part of pop culture itself. He uses the stories of Timberland boots and Chuck Taylor sneakers to poke fun at brand managers who offer consumers the opportunity to co-create meaning for a brand. Walker argues that, in many cases, consumers have owned brand meaning for decades.

In an unexpected twist, Walker next brings up the topic of religion. Walker cites Rick Warren’s popular book The Purpose-Driven Life and argues that its thesis, “its not about you,” is a direct and compelling attack on our commercial culture. While academics, university professors, European philosophers, simple-living fanatics and fringe culture jammers have essentially been saying that our commercial culture can’t satisfy the soul for years, they have traditionally been dismissed as “out-of-touch elites.” Warren believes that life is about “serving God and serving others” and not “about having more and getting more.” In Christianity, Walker sees the “fundamental tension of modern life” resolved for believers. This was not a conclusion I was expecting to see drawn in a book about marketing and consumption.

Walker concludes by discussing the psychological study of “adaptation” and proposing a new way to view our role as consumers. He sees that the choices that “spark that anticipation of pleasure” are constantly unfolding in front of us. However, “we’re not good at judging the ‘intensity and duration’ of our feelings of events that haven’t happened yet.” “’Thus when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move onto the next thing or event, almost certainly making another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.’” This is the definition of “terminal materialism” and something I expect many of us can relate to.

Walker closes with a quote by Chuck D of Public Enemy and his vision for meaningful consumption:

Chuck D: “It wasn’t like a brand defined you, you defined the brand.”

Rob Walker: “Maybe then, the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are should go like this. You are only what you surround yourself with? No. You surround yourself only with who you are.” Imagine that.

All in all, a fascinating read that I would highly recommend to all.