The Secret Dialogue Between
What We Buy and Who We Are
By Rob Walker. Random House.
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291 pages. $25.
Opinionated people who hate being sold to – that is, most of us – have always been a problem for consumer-goods companies. As early as 1939, business magazines were warning executives about “better organized” consumers who were sick of “deceptive and stupid advertising.”
So today, successful brands know better than to order some quick copy about the New Best Thing, splash a half-naked girl next to it and count on millions to happily open their wallets.
Instead, they skip overt marketing altogether and engage in “murketing,” says Rob Walker in his revealing new book. Companies such as American Apparel, Apple, Pabst, Timberland and Red Bull have done remarkably well over the past decade by trading on our desire for authenticity and our reluctance to seem like easy marks.
A “do little, sell more” approach worked like a charm for Pabst Brewing. Sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon rose in 2002, reversing a decades-long downward trend. The company had no idea why. It turns out the beer was being embraced by young urban hipsters who appreciated the dollar-a-can promotion in certain bars and who, more to the point, liked the beer's underground, undersold image.
To keep these new buyers, Pabst did almost nothing. It refused to take out ads or court the media and instead funded low-key “bike polo” matches between rowdy bike messengers in Portland, Ore. Sales kept growing. The unbranded beer is Pabst's brand.
Essentially a collection of case studies based on Walker's New York Times Magazine column, “Buying In” seems to be saying that marketers have figured out how to take advantage of our annoyance at the product song and dance and our eagerness to TiVo the jingles away.
But the point is not that we're gullible. “What's striking about contemporary youth is not that they are somehow brandproof,” Walker says, “but that they take for granted the idea that a brand is as good a piece of raw identity material as anything else.” Even rebellious skateboarders long to start their own T-shirt companies – and often become successful because, coming from skateboarders, T-shirts possess the aura of rebellion.
Walker points to the personal narratives embedded in well-murketed products – the outlaw, the pragmatist, the aesthete or, for the 40-year-old iPod owner, the hardworking family man with an electric guitar stashed in his past. Then, in theory, we can consume more consciously.
This is borderline manifesto territory, and Walker treads it carefully. Taking his analysis to heart would mean undergoing psychoanalysis of the credit-card statement, something that sounds a lot less fun than throwing on an American Apparel hoodie, cranking up the iPod and opening a can of Pabst.