The Politics of Brands: What branded experiences mean to real people
If you’re anything like me, you care about brands a lot more at some times than others.
I mean, there are the things you’d buy from almost anyone, almost anywhere – like, say, toilet paper, a coffee to go, or a simple T-shirt. And then there are the things you really care about and want to find the best brand for – like your outfit for a special occasion, or your skincare products.
To put a serious-minded name on what we’re talking about here: this is the politics of modern day consumerism.
Or in normal language, it’s about choices: who makes them, how we make them, and why we choose the things we choose.
Choosing the branded lifestyle
One of the women I work with is a real luxury brand addict, especially when it comes to clothes. She’s always the one with the Chanel bag, Jimmy Choo shoes, and expensive make-up. Sometimes I can’t believe how much she’ll spend to get her favourite brands. I mean, we’re talking about someone who owns more than 40 pairs of shoes, and they’re pretty much all designer brands!
I once asked her why she spends so much money on luxury fashion, and do you know what she told me? She said, “I value it as it’s a part of me… it’s a personal choice.”
Notice how she didn’t even mention the price tag? For her, it really isn’t about the money. It’s about how luxury brands make her feel – special and happy.
She likes to know she’s buying the best, something not everyone will have. For example, Louis Vuitton products haven’t got any cheaper, but she told me she stopped buying Vuitton because it’s “not so exclusive” anymore.
OK, I admit I envy her a bit, but at the same time I’m puzzled by her choices. She believes exclusive luxury brands make her life better, and maybe for her that really is how it works. It’s her money, so who am I to judge?
I’m not fussed about that kind of thing. Of course I’d love to splash out on luxury products a bit more if I had the cash to spare, but I’ve got other priorities. I’d rather spend my money having fun with friends than buying fancy shoes.
How we consume branded experience
To be honest, my experience with designer brands is based more on their ads, and photos or videos of catwalk shows and celebrity outfits, than anything else. It’s glamorous and exciting, but I don’t think of that lifestyle as reality. I look at that stuff more for entertainment than out of any intent to buy the products.
I like to think I’m stylish, but I’m no slave to fashion. I flick through magazines, admire the photos of beautiful outfits on beautiful people, then buy something cheaper from H&M or New Look instead. I might window-shop Chanel, but buy from ASOS online when I get home. And no matter how much of this season’s latest fashion I see, I’ll still wear last year’s favourite bikini or jeans again this year because they’re comfy and flattering.
It isn’t really brands that I care about. And it isn’t luxury, either. What I’m looking for is simplicity and reliability – not just in fashion, but in life.
Let’s face it, most of us are too busy worrying about the state of the economy and the security of our jobs to blow the budget on a pair of designer shoes.
With a general election coming up, the Conservative Party tells us it’s working hard to reduce the deficit and lower taxes. But Labour tells us the Conservatives have already failed and we should cap social security payments and tax the rich instead.
The Liberal Democrats say they’ve cleaned up Labour’s messes and kept a tight rein on Conservative silliness. But they’re still the third party in a two-party system. Of course, there are other parties like Green or UKIP, but they all seem to focus on just one or two niche issues.
I feel like I can’t trust any of these politicians to look out for my interests. If they’re the brands of politics, I’m not buying.
And I can’t help thinking: if this is what it’s like for me, with my moderately comfortable income, how do genuinely poor people cope?
When it all breaks down
Fact: people whose dinner comes courtesy of a food bank don’t much care what brands they’re eating. They don’t debate Team Hellman versus Team Heinz – or if they do, they do it while eating whichever brand they’re given.
Likewise, people who can’t afford to live under any of the potential governments on offer won’t much care who wins the election. Their lives are too challenging, too exhausting, to spare any time debating the finer points of David Cameron versus Ed Miliband.
The scary thing is, more and more people have been using food banks in the past few years. From 2013 to 2014, the Trussell Trust gave food supplies to 913,138 people. If you take that as a measure of the number of people (not only adults, but their children too) who are just barely eking out a life from a low or unreliable income, that’s a lot of impoverished human beings.
They aren’t buying designer brands. They aren’t shopping in H&M or Waitrose, because it’s beyond their means. They scrape by, spending what little they have in Aldi and Primark if they’re “lucky” enough to have access to those lower-cost brands. They aren’t seeing any signs of the economic recession ending.
And that could easily have been me. Or you. If our incomes were suddenly taken from us, how would we survive?
The future of branded experience
We consumers have segmented ourselves into the haves, the have-nots, and the have-a-bits. Brands choose which of those segments they want to sell to, and set their price and quality to match. Things have worked this way for a long time.
What’s different now is how easy it is to jump from one segment to another. My income could increase dramatically or disappear completely over the next 12 months; jobs and finances aren’t as predictable as they used to be.
Even luxury brand consumers may be visiting their local food bank tomorrow. And someone whose benefits were sanctioned last month could be employed and shopping in Harvey Nichols next month. Plus people like me often segment-hop when we’re shopping – I’m a brand tourist, buying a moisturiser from Estee Lauder, a blusher from Maybelline and an eyeliner from Superdrug’s own brand.
So who is each brand really for?
All brands are for everyone, whether we buy from them or not. They’re part of our culture, creating or sponsoring our entertainment, popping up in our day-to-day thoughts.
And we consumers vote with our feet, depending on our circumstances.
I’m not sure if that makes me happy or sad.