Buying In

KateBingamanAbove: some of Kate Bingaman-Burt's “Daily Purchase Drawings.” Kate was profiled by Rob Walker in a 2006 Consumed column, and (like most of us) she has purchased some of the brands discussed in Walker’s book.

Journalist, Rob Walker writes the weekly “Consumed” column for the NY Times Magazine. Equally adept at addressing both the business and cultural aspects of his subject, Walker’s well-reasoned column has emerged as an unusually clear window on the murky world of branding.

His book, “Buying In, The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” came out this past Summer. 

MethodPicturesVarious Method product packages via Method Home site and the dieline

box vox: One of the companies you write about in your book is Method. You make the case that buying one of their cleaning products is not a strictly rational decision, since so much of their product appeal is based on how cool the packaging looks, rather than how well the product works. Because of their packaging, Method seems to have inspired one of those impromptu brand communities that you discuss elsewhere in your book. Their products are regularly celebrated in package design blogs like The Dieline and I know of at least one designer’s blog (Nathan Aaron’s “Method Lust” site) that is devoted to nothing else. Of course, package designers may have their own self-serving reasons for loving Method, but they don’t seem to be the only ones who are buying Method because of its decorator packaging. Is it possible that Method has built a business entirely on a demographic of aesthetes who want every detail of their lives to reflect their own overarching good taste?

Rob Walker: It was actually one of the founders of Method who told me that their customer feedback indicated that people who bought Method products were often surprised that they worked—that is, they were attracted to the packaging for whatever reason, but had some kind of suspicion that there would be some kind of tradeoff of function for form. I thought that was pretty interesting, that people would buy a household cleaner, of all things, on that basis. It’s not like dish liquid is a good candidate for the “conspicuous consumption” theory of consumer behavior.

So I think it’s pretty clear that design was a major part of what has built Method’s business. BUT … I’m not sure that I’d go quite so far as to say they’d built their business totally on the aesthete demo. That that demo was not crucial.

Here’s what I mean. One of the things that most interests me about Method is that they have an eco-friendly or “green” story to tell—their products are (they say) made without many of the toxic ingredients common to household cleaning products. But they chose not to make that their main selling point, their main way of differentiating themselves at the shelf level. They went with the “good design” strategy instead. They don’t hide the other, eco-ish story, they just skipped the traditional strategy of, you know, putting a tree on the bottle or whatever.

And I think this strategy worked well at a time when the broad idea of “good design” was much in the air. I think there were plenty of consumers who had been in essence conditioned by a variety of cultural forces (many of them commercial) to pay attention to the idea of “good design.” And Method offered both a kind of novelty at the shelf, and an easy way into that broad idea.

I’m generalizing wildly. But still. I think it was both a clever strategy and, on some level, an admirable one. I think it’s clever because the truth is the eco/green thing is really easy to knock off—especially in symbolic/design terms. (Just add a tree to your package and you’re … green … ish.) Many consumers don’t want to “do their homework” about such issues, so devious design/packaging strategies can work. And Method, as far as I can tell, had the right facts to back up their eco claims for anybody who did do their homework.

So I think that’s clever because really striking visual design is actually harder to knock off, if it’s done right. Copycats look like copycats, and it can actually strengthen the position of “the original.”

And I think it’s admirable in the sense that there was something going on behind the “good design.” (I am not particularly impressed by the argument that buying “good design” is its own reward, which is in effect what many observers seem to believe.) There was something ethical (for lack of a better term) about the product—but they aimed for an audience larger than the one that is overtly tuned in to such issues. And it would appear that they have attained such an audience. For now!

(more about our “secret dialog” after the jump…)

TimberlandPictureTimberland box photo from RayStudio’s Flickr Photostream; Timberlands in natural and pink with matching hang tags; on right: Timberland puts an “environmental impact statement” on each box, alluding to the nutritional labeling required on food packaging.

box vox: If a product’s “ethical” features are such a poor selling point, it kind of makes you wonder just how unethical a product must be to provoke some consumer backlash. (Lead paint on toys? Melamine in baby formula?) I sometimes get the feeling that, rather than being an “incomprehensible ogre” today’s consumer is pretty guileless and accepting of product claims—particularly those ethical product claims that give consumers an opportunity to be virtuous simply by making a purchase. Although, your chapter on American Apparel makes a convincing case that ethical claims aren’t worth much in any case, since they don’t appear to help products sell. You write, “the simple act of not buying something has always been—and remains—the form of consumer power that brand managers fear most.” With that in mind, what do you think of Reverend Billy & The Church of Stop Shopping?

Rob Walker: I can’t say I’m an expert on Reverend Billy—I’ve never interviewed him, or attended an event, etc. But I’ve always found his stuff pretty interesting when I’ve read about it. There’s a sense of humor involved in making the argument, and I think that’s a good thing. I suppose the obvious question is whether he’s preaching to the converted—whether his work mostly has an impact on people already sympathetic to his views. But I would imagine his approach gets a new convert every now and then. And I always have a lot of respect for people who have an actual point of view and don’t make a bunch of compromises, who stick with it despite daunting odds.

On the broader subject of not buying—I’m not exactly a “simple living” advocate or whatever, but I do think there’s been an unfortunate drift in the broad idea of “consumer power” to mean, basically, complaining online so that the company gives you a discount, or whatever. I’m not convinced that that strategy leads to lasting and meaningful change—either in the way companies behave, or in the way we as consumers behave. In a lot of ways it’s in what we choose NOT to buy that reflects values and thinking. And many of the more lasting consumer movements of the past have involved the threat of not-buying as a way to spark changes that benefited everyone (not just individual complainers). So that’s what I’m trying to get at there. I’m not sure if that puts me anywhere near the sort of critique that somebody like Rev. Billy is offering; I really made an effort to write the book in a way that might cause people to think, but wasn’t telling them what to think. But I certainly think it’s a good thing to have voices like his out there.

box vox: You’ve coined the term “murketing” to describe today’s “murkier” marketing techniques. Is murketing just the logical next step in a continuous evolution running from the “step-right-up” hucksterism of 19th century medicine shows to the increasingly subtle forms of story telling in the ads from the 1950s and 1960s—to the more oblique marketing messages we get today, where we can supply whatever meaning suits us best? Or is this something new and underhanded?

Rob Walker: It’s the logical next step, but it’s still new, and may still be underhanded in its execution. What’s really murky in contemporary consumer culture is how consumers are in effect complicit in the process, and I suppose you could say one of my themes is not just “this is happening” but “you, the consumer, need to know what’s up so you can be in the right frame of mind when you approach the marketplace.”

I guess what I’m trying to say there is that I generally don’t see a lot of upside in someone like me, say, slamming marketers for coming up with clever new tactics. That’s their job! (And slamming them for it is actually Rev. Billy's job—among others.) That said, I very much think it’s useful for the consumer to understand how marketing messages are changing, and getting more oblique, etc. Then they can be better equipped to make their own decisions about what’s underhanded or not—and proceed accordingly.

One of the interesting things about the book has been the range of reactions to murketing as a concept. Some people clearly find some of its manifestations totally outrageous. Others have totally different views, and basically think it all sounds pretty cool.

box vox: That consumers are complicit in “pulling the wool over their own eyes”—(as you put it in your book)—is such a great insight. It really explains a lot. What I sometimes perceive as consumer credulity might instead be a stubborn ostrich-like reaction. Please don’t tell me anything that might jeopardize my love for this brand. (As your affection for Chuck Taylor All Stars was jeopardized by learning about Nike’s purchase of Converse.)

Towards the end of “Buying In” you mention an article by Jon Gertner (The Futile Pursuit of Happiness). I remember reading that article back in 2003 and it really stuck with me. What I took away from it was the inevitability of buyer’s remorse. That whatever you wanted—if you actually got it—would NOT make you happy. (Or not as happy as you thought it would for as long as you thought it would.)  Meanwhile, “happiness” is probably the best-selling “brand promise” there is.

In the same chapter, you cite two sorts of materialism, and—(like cholesterol)—there’s a bad kind and a good kind. The bad kind, promises happiness that it cannot deliver and is called “terminal materialism.” The good kind is “instrumental materialism”—those things we possess that actually mean something to us. While I hate to think that I’m in the business of promoting terminal materialism, it’s pretty obvious that an awful lot of advertising (and packaging) seeks to push those buttons in us. Is there any future, do you think, in trying to sell products by appealing instead to instrumental materialism?

Rob Walker: You know, that’s the sort of question I was hoping the book would inspire among marketers and designers. I can’t say I have any easy answers, but what I like about the way you’ve framed it is that it really sets the bar pretty high. I think the objects that mean the most to us over time, as individuals, get their meaning from us, from how the object fits into the narrative of the individual life—not from a “great brand” or from “good design” or from any other property that gives objects marketplace value.

In a way the whole game for marketers and designers depends on terminal materialism—depends on the idea that the consumer will always want the next new thing. Often that point gets made by citing “planned obsolescence” and so
on, but I think it’s also a function of the very normal desire for progress. Consumers want to experience progress; creators (including designers) want to, you know, create. Sometimes there’s a bit of denial about this, I’ve encountered the idea that a designer will argue that his or her new creation is so awesome on some level that the consumer will keep & use it forever. But I find that line of argument is often a bit suspect and based on wishful thinking. Even if that appeals to instrumental materialism, it still does so by insisting the consumer can only gain access to that mode of life by way of … buying a new product!

I was just saying to someone the other day that if I had a lot of extra money it would be amusing to create a massive marketing campaign on behalf of “things you already own.” Of course the problem with that is there’s … not much chance for profit in it.

I guess it would take somebody smarter than me to offer a definitive program for appealing to instrumental materialism. But as a mental exercise for producers it seems worthwhile to me to at least ask: Is this new thing real progress, or mere novelty? Is there something intrinsic to what we’re doing here that offers real improvement (and not just by the totally lame standard of “making the consumer’s life better,” which I hear all the time and in my opinion is so vague it can be used to rationalize pretty much anything)? If the object is sold on the basis of offering a sense of community or individuality—does it really deliver on those things, or is it merely trying to capitalize on the widespread human hunger to satisfy those yearnings? Will the pleasure and utility of this thing last beyond the purchase moment? Does it offer possibilities for rediscovery well beyond that purchase moment?

Actually this is a weird example because the object itself is kind of silly, but I wrote a while ago about the Chumby. While I don’t endorse that specific product (I don’t endorse any specific product) I was interested in the creators’ notion that because the device would get new, free software updates, its functionality would increase over time, without a new purchase being required—in other words the idea was that unlike most gizmos it was not doomed to obsolescence from the start. Or that was the theory. Again, without getting hung up on that particular product, I thought that notion was intriguing.

Anyway, I guess it’s obvious by now that I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do think there’s value in asking questions that are harder to answer—and more interesting—than the usual ones that I hear, which always seem to be about which new-media tactics deliver the best ROI, and that sort of thing.


Photo of box with grommets from Diego Rodriguez’s metacool blog;  wooden Converse package by Sandstrom Partners (via the dieline); Chuck Taylor, himself; cross-referential "Beef Jerky" poly-bag packaging for Bodega x Converse Jack Purcell—(note: the nutritional label in this case is all about beef jerky, unlike Timberland’s environmental impact version); a loyal consumer and his collection of 1000+ Chuck Taylor sneakers (via Emma Thea’s Design Talk blog.)

box vox: There were several brands of shoe discussed in Buying In: Converse, Nike, Timberland (& Adbuster’s Blackspot). I had some thought of ending this interview on a personal note and asking you what brand of shoes you wear. Your comment about not endorsing a product, however, has warned me off from that line of questioning… So instead, I’ll ask a you more general, but potentially more personal question.

I know from your web site that you and your wife, “E” live in Savannah. One thing about buying stuff that marketers sometimes overlook: it’s not always a sole, solitary consumer who makes the purchasing decision. So much of what you read out there gives the impression that we each live alone in our own consumer bubble. That every purchasing choice is yours and yours alone to make. If you’re married or otherwise sharing expenses, however, these decisions are generally open to negotiation. (Personally, my own attitudes about buying stuff and spending money are different from my wife’s.) As writer of the NY Times Magazine Consumed column, how do you feel about the traditional countdown of shopping days in December? Are you and your wife on the same page with gift giving? Or is Christmas shopping like a busman’s holiday for you?

Rob Walker: We’re totally on the same page on gift-giving—we don’t do it! We've really never been very big Christmas people. When we lived in New York we always went to Chinatown on Christmas day … very fond memories. But I digress. Speaking for myself, I like the idea of a time of year sort of dedicated to good cheer or however you want to put it, I think that’s a great thing for everybody. And I think Christmas is a fun thing if kids are involved, but we don’t have kids. So I’m not Scrooge. But I’ve long been very ambivalent about the trappings of the holiday, and I guess it was 10 or 15 years ago that one of my brothers suggested that we (siblings) shouldn’t buy gifts for each other anymore, it was silly, we should just up our charity or whatever, etc., and I certainly agreed. And since then I’ve kind of just … not done the whole Christmas thing, and yes, E and I are on the same page on that. Although we do now send out holiday cards. Plus I have some excellent holiday music that I break out for one day a year.

I’m a little worried this makes us sound like “simple living” types or something, and that would be very misleading. (It also may just make us sound weird, which might be true.) Basically my wife and I live well below our means, largely because I’m so paranoid about money. We have done a fairly good job of saving. But we also certainly spend.

Obviously I now think about consumer behavior, including my own, much more than a normal person would. I think the most interesting thing I can say about that is that it’s very routine for me to go through this pattern—I’ll learn about something that I think would make a good column; I get really interested in it, talking to people who have bought it or who made it; I have this moment where I want it (and I am forbidden from accepting free stuff, so that means I am mentally preparing myself to buy it once the column is done); and then I write the column, and it comes out, and … I’ve lost interest. I’ve sort of had the exciting moment of interest and anticipation and engagement … but now I’ve moved on. And often I realize, Yeah, that’s something I might have bought, enjoyed for a short time, and forgotten about. But I got much of the enjoyment, without ever actually buying it! In a way, I think sometimes the column can serve a similar function for the reader, a sort of virtual consumption —you can engage in and think about this or that object or brand or whatever, and learn all about it and have your own ideas about it. But if you like, you can get all that without buying anything. Well, except for the Sunday New York Times. But that’s totally worth the money.

More seriously, that Converse stuff you mention was a big motivator in writing the book: Realizing that I thought I was “immune” to branding and certain commercial-persuasion influences, when I wasn’t. It was a learning experience for me, and I encounter that “I’m immune” attitude so often, I hope that what my work in general does is make people think about material culture in a new way. People actually seem more open to that they did a year ago. We’ll see.

Photo on left: one of the New York Public Library’s 28 reservable copies of Buying In; on right: self portrait by the author. Also check out: the Murketing Journal.

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