I look forward to and enjoy Rob Walker’s Consumed column in every Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.  Recent topics have included Pirate’s Booty, Safeway‘s push into store-brand organics and the magic of the Flip video recorder. 

I have found the columns to be interesting, insightful and well-considered.buying-in-cover-stephanie-fierman.jpg

So I am bewildered by Mr. Walker’s new acclaimed book.  In Buying In, Walker pulls back the proverbial curtain to reveal that there is a “secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are” because, although consumers will almost always claim they make purchases based on rational factors such as price, convenience and quality (here comes the secret), it’s not true.

He refers to a Roper Study in which only one fifth of responders claim that branding is a factor in what they buy, and then he debunks it.  He says that there is a “knee-jerk bias against logos” and uses the word “concede” to describe the emotion we would all presumably feel if we had to admit that brands, images, logos and symbols matter.  The Washington Post’s review of the book says “Walker… makes a startling claim: Far from being immune to advertising, as many people think, American consumers are increasingly active participants in the marketing process.”

And in another Buying In review, Po Bronson offers that
Walker “obliterates our old paradigm of companies (the bad guys) corrupting our children (the innocents) via commercials. In this new world, media-literate young people freely and willingly co-opt the brands, with most companies being clueless bystanders desperate to keep up.”

Who said that consumers were immune to advertising, and what kind of huge revelation is it that brands and marketing matter?  Where is the explanation that you can make research say just about anything (take my word for it)?  Why the implication that consumers who pay attention to advertising are fools and suckers, and that advertisers are “desperate?”gucci-ad-stephanie-fierman.jpg

In my experience, consumers readily admit that brands can represent something that transcends the actual products their companies manufacture.  Nike (with the swoosh), Apple, American Apparel… Pick your favorite indulgence. Would Walker say that I had been duped into wanting $250 Gucci sunglasses because of how they make me feelWould he believe that the only way to buy sunglasses is to compare the polycarbonates and chemical coatings and that, if I’d only done so, I would have surely purchased $5 street sunglasses instead?  And on top of all this, I lose $250 pairs of sunglasses in taxis just like I lose $5 ones.  This last piece of irrationality would probably give Walker a fit, but OH! the Guccis are so much more fun.  So, non-news flash: I’m not an idiot.  People love brands.  We assign a meaning and importance to them with which most of us are comfortable, and certainly not ashamed as Mr. Walker envisions.

And with serious respect for Mr. Bronson, I suspect that companies/brands such as Sony, Mentos, Comcast (with a sleeping technician plastered all over the web, and Bob Garfield “seeking ideas for the consumer jihad”) and AOL (with the multiple videos riffing on Vinny Ferrari’s experience) would think it old news that consumers are dissecting, adopting and co-opting brands any way they like.

Much of the consumer world is based on desire – on pleasure.  There is no disgrace here (overspending aside):  many if not most consumer franchises are built on brand, not feature differentiation, and everyone I know knows it.  Walker seems to be a smart guy, so I fail to grasp his argument or the value that is created by 300+ pages of him holding his nose around “frivolous” marketing and “phony image making” (AKA marketing).  If he was going to invest what was probably years in researching and writing a book, it would have been great if his thesis added to the conversation about the relationship between brand and consumer, rather than detracting from it.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my daily blog Stephanie Fierman – Marketing Observations Grown Daily.


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