How consumers stay bound to brands

"Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are" by Rob Walker

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Lots of us are scaling back on spending these days. And you know one thing that's often the first to go are brand name products. Maybe you dump Tony the Tiger for a generic box of frosted flakes or the back-to-school sneakers for the kids do not have a Nike swoosh. Yes, you're saving money, but if you're really into labels -- or your kids are -- it's a little disheartening.

But why? Why are we so invested in name brands?

Well, Rob Walker has an idea. He's the author of "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are."

Welcome to the show.

Rob Walker: Thank you for having me.

Vigeland: We've been hearing for years now -- and you address this fairly early on in the book -- that the consumer is now in charge and a lot of that is because of the Internet. We can all go on and we can find the best deals and we can find out all this information about the products. You say this really isn't true. Why is that and how is that?

Walker: Well, I talk about the dialogue, but I also call it a secret dialogue and there's two reasons for that. One is that while a lot of attention is given to the new forms of control that consumers have, the new sort of tools we have at our disposal, what gets kind of ignored is all the new tools that advertisers have at their disposal, which in some cases are the same kinds of tools. The Internet has hardly proven to be an ad-free zone. And the other side of the secret part is that we kind of sometimes overestimate when we have this idea that "I'm brand-proof, I'm not affected by advertising and marketing messages." It kind of puts us in this mental place where we're ignoring a lot of the non-conscious processes that guide what we end up buying and that's the secret part.

Vigeland: Isn't a lot of marketing these days targeted to the people who say that they don't buy into marketing?

Walker: One of the weirdest stories that came up that's part of the book actually was the sort of adoption of Pabst Blue Ribbon along these lines as this kind of anti-brand brand of beer. There were consumers who were talking about it as "I'm sick of all the beer advertising. There's no advertising for this stuff; It's kind of an anti-statement." And the really weird thing about that is that that's an idea that came from consumers. The people at PBR did not dream that up and when it first started happening, they had no idea what was going on.

Vigeland: You know, I also love the example of the LIVESTRONG wristbands. As you say, they had no practical function, they were this awful bright yellow, so hardly a fashion statement, and the question you raise, which I thought was very interesting, is why not just donate to the foundation? If that was your point in buying it, why not have your full dollar go toward that cause instead of, you know, the 70 cents out of that dollar. What's your answer to that?

Walker: I don't mean to pick on anyone who's wearing one; I have no problem with it, but I think it's another thing where the meaning of that object came from us, came from consumers who came up with a number of different things and sometimes it was supporting a good cause and sometimes it had to do with maybe an individual in their life who they were supporting. You know, not only this point about why not give them the whole dollar... at the height of that craze, supply and demand were so out of whack that people were actually selling them on eBay, on the secondary market, for like $10 and none of that money went to charity, so it shows how hard people will try to participate in something like that.

Vigeland: Throughout the book, you talk about cracking what you call "the desire code" and certainly from a marketer's perspective, that's very easy to understand: You've got to figure out how to make your product desirable for the consumer; that's what it's all about: generating profits. On the reverse, for those of us who are the consumer, how do we change our behaviors, how do we crack that desire code from our end?

Walker: Much of the point of branding is just to get the idea of a product into your head and kind of to give you a shortcut so that you avoid a lot of reflection and you're kind of acting almost in an instinctual manner and the way to come at it, I think, is to really give some reflection to "Well, what are the purchase decisions that are important to me." Then also, "What are the things that I can satisfy in some other way." You know, the craving for individuality or to be part of something? Maybe what you buy isn't the best way to satisfy those particular desires.

Vigeland: Rob Walker is the author of "Buying In" and you can also find him in the New York Times Sunday magazine. He is the columnist for "Consumed." Thanks so much for talking to us today.

Walker: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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