does good matter?

Companies: How to Make Millions By Switching to A Green-Colored Logo
– Headline in The Onion’s “Obligatory Green Issue”

I’ve been thinking about this, the third in what’s evidently become a series of posts inspired by Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between Who We Are and What We Buy, by Rob Walker, since I read the section in the book (it’s also been reprinted as a Fast Company article) where Walker writes about American Apparel changing its brand messaging. Initially the company’s identity hinged on its “Sweatshop Free” production, but sex, surprise surprise, turned out to be a much better sell than good labor practices. Walker writes:

American Apparel seemed to me to be a marquee example of a business that had positioned itself to respond to a rising tide of ethical, antibrand consumers. At a moment when practically every clothes maker was offshoring to cut costs, American Apparel made its wares at a U.S. factory in which the average industrial worker (usually a Latino immigrant) was paid between $12 and $13 an hour and got medical benefits. The company had taken out ads in little arty magazines, noting that it was “sweatshop free.”

[But] Another self-consciously ethical clothing brand, SweatX, had just gone out of business. The lesson of SweatX, [American Apparel CEO Dov] Charney said, was that building a brand solely around a company’s ethical practices was not a good strategy for reaching masses of consumers. The ethical sell was too limiting. It was a niche strategy, at best. Which was why American Apparel was moving away from the ethical sell to something very different.

Charney pulled out a copy of a book called The 48 Laws of Power and read me No. 13, which suggested that to get what you want, you must appeal to people’s self-interest, not to their mercy. “That’s the problem with the anti-sweatshop movement. You’re not going to get customers walking into stores by asking for mercy and gratitude.” If you want to sell something, ethical or otherwise, he said, snapping the book closed, “appeal to people’s self-interest.”

By the time I visited American Apparel’s headquarters and factory in Los Angeles to meet with Charney a second time, the company had transitioned to an image soaked in youth and sex. This was apparent in its stores — where the decor often included things such as Penthouse covers — and in its print ads. Yes, some of these ads mentioned quality and the sweatshop-free angle, but usually in small type, under a photograph of a half-naked young woman.

The company was producing 32,000 pieces a day and struggling to keep up with orders. In months, [the company’s] system was churning out 90,000 pieces a day and would eventually reach 250,000. While the company was projecting an air of almost reckless decadence in its ads, it was quietly building a thriving made-in-America business model.

All of which, of course, made me wonder–and perhaps might make you wonder, too: Does good matter?

Good itself, I mean, without a gloss of sex covering it over, does it matter as a selling point to us as consumers?

Researchers Remi Trudel and June Cotte were trying to figure out the same thing in their studies for the May 2008 Wall Street Journal piece Does Being Ethical Pay?

For corporations, social responsibility has become a big business. Companies spend billions of dollars doing good works — everything from boosting diversity in their ranks to developing eco-friendly technology — and then trumpeting those efforts to the public.

But does it pay off?

To find out, we conducted a series of experiments. We showed consumers the same products — coffee and T-shirts — but told one group the items had been made using high ethical standards and another group that low standards had been used. A control group got no information.

In all of our tests, consumers were willing to pay a slight premium for the ethically made goods. But they went much further in the other direction: They would buy unethically made products only at a steep discount.

Our first experiment asked two questions. How much more will people pay for an ethically produced product? And how much less are they willing to spend for one they think is unethical?

To test these questions, we gathered a random group of 97 adult coffee drinkers and asked them how much they would pay for a pound of beans from a certain company. We used a brand that’s not available in North America, so none of the participants would be familiar with it.

But before the people answered, we asked them to read some information about the company’s production standards. One group got positive ethical information, and one group negative; the control group got neutral information, similar to what shoppers would typically know in a store.

After reading about the company and its coffee, the people told us the price they were willing to pay on an 11-point scale, from $5 to $15. The results? The mean price for the ethical group ($9.71 per pound) was significantly higher than that of the control group ($8.31) or the unethical group ($5.89).

Meanwhile, as the numbers show, the unethical group was demanding to pay significantly less for the product than the control group. In fact, the unethical group punished the coffee company’s bad behavior more than the ethical group rewarded its good behavior. The unethical group’s mean price was $2.42 below the control group’s, while the ethical group’s mean price was $1.40 above. So, negative information had almost twice the impact of positive information on the participants’ willingness to pay.

Trudel and Cotte also researched just how ethical companies really need to be in order to reap marketplace rewards, that is, are consumers willing to pay more for a product that is 100% ethically produced versus one that is 50% or 25% ethically produced? Their findings showed that there is a certain “ethical threshold” beyond which any ethical acts might reinforce the company’s image, but don’t induce people to pay more. And lastly, they examined the effect of pre-existing consumer attitudes, and found that people with high expectations about how companies should behave doled out bigger rewards and punishments than those with low expectations.

For companies, the implications of this study — albeit limited — are apparent. Efforts to move toward ethical production, and promote that behavior, appear to be a wise investment. In other words, if you act in a socially responsible manner, and advertise that fact, you may be able to charge slightly more for your products.

Not an overwhelming rallying cry to assert that good is here, it matters, and we should get used to it, exactly, but clearly an opportunity to explore a new ethical “market segment.” As Walker writes:

Perhaps this is why many big companies and brands are not so much changing their products as adding new alternatives to their existing product mixes, or carving a small donation to charity out of their profit margins. Pepsi-Cola is testing an all-natural version of its flagship drink called Pepsi Raw, and Clorox has launched an eco-friendly line of cleaning products. The Bono-promoted (Product) Red initiative brands existing products that dedicate a portion of the purchase price to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. There’s even a (Product) Red version of the iPod.

A whopping majority of American shoppers may consider themselves environmentalists, but, according to the Journal of Industrial Ecology, only 10% to 12% “actually go out of their way to purchase environmentally sound products.” Similarly, Brandweek reported on a survey that found that even among consumers who called themselves “environmentally conscious,” more than half could not name a single green brand.

Ask most people whether they care about the environment, and it’s not particularly surprising that many would say yes. Ask whether they would back that up by “buying green” if they had the chance, and again, it’s likely that very few would admit to being hypocrites by saying no. What we do in the marketplace is another matter.

There is a real-world overload of factors that confront consumers in the marketplace — price, quality, convenience, pleasure, plus the countless number of symbols that provide us with rationales to buy. The Yale Center for Customer Insights designed an experiment to test this phenomenon. It divided 108 subjects into two groups. Members of one group were presented with a straightforward consumer choice. Would they prefer to buy a vacuum cleaner (a utilitarian object) or a pair of jeans (a bit of a luxury), each of which was assigned the same price, $50? About 72% chose the vacuum cleaner. Members of the other group were told to imagine they had volunteered to spend three hours a week either teaching children in a homeless shelter or “improving the environment.” They were asked to explain their choice, a process meant to prod them into engaging with the idea. Then they faced the vacuum-cleaner-or-jeans choice. In this group, a majority (57%) opted for the jeans.

Although very few of the subjects made the connection, the researchers concluded that “the opportunity to appear altruistic by committing to a charitable act in a prior task” gives us license to choose a luxury item. A similar set of studies indicates that subjects are more likely to splurge on fancier sunglasses or pricier concert tickets after giving to charity. If you buy ecological or green products or consume alternative health care or practice yoga, it’s easy to conclude, “Hey, I’ve done my part.”

These efforts [by big companies] add just enough options to the miles of retail shelves to give us all an ethical fix — to do our one good shopping deed. Then we can push our basket a little farther down the aisle, letting other rationales take over: Here’s a bargain, here’s a great product, here’s something that I could probably get cheaper elsewhere, but as long as I’m here, I’ll just get it — and here, yes, here is something ethical. I’ll take one of those, too.

Trudel and Cotte concluded at the end of their research: “The lessons are clear. Companies should segment their market and make a particular effort to reach out to buyers with high ethical standards, because those are the customers who can deliver the biggest potential profits on ethically produced goods.”

Rather than marketing ethical products to a mainstream audience, big companies can simply create a separate ethical brand or product line, repackage it as a luxury “good,” and sell it at a premium to the niche, conscientious consumer demographic–which may be willing to pay more for ethical products, but couldn’t scale to support a company like SweatX, or to motivate the big companies to change their practices overall.

Is that the fate of good, then? Is the extent of it’s significance as a selling point simply the justification for a reverse “ethical tax”?

At the PSFK conference in San Francisco last week, GOOD Magazine co-founder Max Schorr’s presentation, “Aligning Interests,” (echoing that 13th law of power) was subtitled: “When cynical people admit they’re idealistic you might be on to something.” At the beginning of his presentation Schorr asked a room full of marketers how many of us wanted to make a positive impact. Pretty much everyone raised their hands. When he asked how many of us wanted to make money, the same hands shot up. The idea then is that to effect real positive change these kinds of interests have to align. Doing good has to be separated from the bleak, unprofitable, un-fun, self-righteous, and ultimately ineffectual idea lf altruism, and the “triple bottom line” of sustainability, profit, and positive impact, needs to become a single bottom line. Schorr’s presentation was the most loudly applauded of the whole day, and thereafter the most frequently referenced. There is no doubt that marketers–well, those of us that raised our hands anyway–we WANT good to matter. We WANT consumer demand for ethics and sustainability to affect the substance of what the market supplies. We want good to succeed.

But does it have to matter as a selling point to do that?

In his presentation, Schorr talked about how the magazine has stopped using the word “Green.” The reason behind this move being to stop presenting sustainable practices as some kind of distinct “alternative” from what should simply be the default standard. In a sense, this is what American Apparel did as well when they stopped trumpeting their ethical practices to distinguish their brand identity.

Maybe it’s all about thinking ahead. We shouldn’t confuse current consumer attitudes with what they’re likely to be in the future. No doubt a company’s environmental friendliness matters more now to the average consumer than it would have before the release of An Inconvenient Truth. And I’d be willing to bet that ethical production practices in general matter more to us now than they did before the wave of mass internet adoption hit, and access to information about a company’s practices became easily accessible to the average web surfer. Trudel and Cotte even acknowledged that if 100% ethically produced products become the expected norm, anything less may be punished by consumers. So perhaps good actually WILL matter quite a bit more in the future than it does now.

But will it ever matter more than sex?

Maybe that gloss on top won’t hurt anyway. Just…. you know….. in case.


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what ad agencies can learn from indie brands

In Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between Who We Are and What We Buy, Rob Walker talks about “underground brands”–lifestyle symbols created by independent entrepreneurs. In fact, I actually think it’s easier to think of underground brands as “independent brands,” (cuz what does “underground” really mean, anyway?) much like independent music:

In popular music, independent music, often abbreviated as indie, is a term used to describe independence from major commercial record labels and an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing.

Similarly then, indie brands are independent from major publicly-traded companies, and reflective of a do-it-yourself approach to lifestyle symbol creation. Both indie and major brands appeal to consumers for the same reasons–as expressions of identity, and community belonging–but the indie side functions very differently. Indie brands can often take risks that the major ones wouldn’t know how to were they even interested, they are able to maneuver more deftly in a rapidly changing consumer landscape, take advantage of new opportunities more swiftly, and now more than ever before, they are blazing the trails and creating the models that many major brands are starting to emulate.

As someone who’s been intimately involved in the development of several independent brands I thought I would share some suggestions both from my own experience, as well as from insights synthesized with various examples from Buying In, of what ad agencies (and major brands) can learn from the indies about staying competitive in contemporary culture.

Agencies talk of integration like it’s the latest buzzword since “viral,” (which, incidentally, before it was a buzzword, was also first tested by independent brands) but most are still set up to approach marketing in a compartmentalized, paint-by-numbers way that doesn’t fit with how any of us in the digital era actually interact with media and messaging. In a time when we update our facebook status while watching TV online, and google something we’ve just seen on a billboard we drove past, all media overlaps. As natives of this environment, indie brand creators don’t think “Print” vs. “New Media” or “Creative” vs. “Media Buying.” Of course, a variety of skill sets is necessary, but when a “media channel” can now basically exist anywhere that people are playing attention, it’s counterproductive to continue enforcing separation between all the various departments of messaging development and dissemination. Without the imposition of this bureaucratically segregated setup, indie brands approach marketing as an inherently integrated process, dealing with the way the different channels at their disposal feed into one another as part of an interconnected system.

None of the indie brand creators I’ve ever worked with majored in marketing–and that goes for me, too. Marketing majors end up at ad agencies, indie brand creators, on the other hand, end up creating culture. Music, fashion, publications, events, blogs, graffiti, whatever. If it’s a genre of DIY expression, that’s where indie brand creators can be found, and it’s where strategies that take on new marketing options are going to be developed. I’ll admit, I did take one Marketing 101 class, though, and it’s probably because marketing is taught as a segregated process that its students are primed to continue thinking within the same kind of box once they graduate. Indie brand creators think outside the marketing box because 1. They were never taught there was a box to begin with, and 2. They couldn’t afford to try out the box anyway, so developing “alternatives” is their default. This is who you want to be hiring to help develop progressive marketing strategies.

In a consumer landscape niched up into various lifestyles, “mass marketing” is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Indie brands have never had the luxury of a mass marketing budget, so they’ve instead focused on building and sustaining meaningful relationships with the communities that nurture them. In Buying In, Walker talks about Pabst Blue Ribbon’s strategy after discovering that their brand, whose history was essentially as a staid Midwestern working class beer, was experiencing an unexpected popularity surge among the pierced, tattooed, bike messenger alterna kids in Portland Oregon. Clearly this was not a demographic that PBR had sought deliberately (the brand just happened to become quite eagerly adopted by a young culture in need of a cheap beer), but once they noticed what was going on instead of buying up a ton of media targeting this demo, PBR began sponsoring community events such as “bike polo” matches. In fact, a particularly ardent PBR fan that Walker talks to specifically noted he appreciates that he’s never seen a PBR ad of any sort. It shows that “they’re not insulting you,” he says. If advertising AT a community can be perceived as an insult, supporting it can make a brand an integral part of the community’s culture.

Ad folks think it’s their job to create advertising. Indie brand folks think it’s their job to make sure their product sells. The disconnect between these two perspectives is perhaps nowhere more blatant than in the ad agency reticence towards “user generated content.” This is not to say that ad agencies shouldn’t create branded content, by any means, but rather to point out, as Walker does, that some of the most potent brands are ones that have allowed people to project their own meanings onto them. His two biggest examples of this are Hello Kitty and the Live Strong bracelet. One benefited from an inscrutable expression, the other from a statement that allowed innumerable personal interpretations. Neither sought to define what specifically it was supposed to mean or stand for, and thereby each allowed people to cast their own relevance onto the brand. Unequivocally cementing a brand into a “big idea” couldn’t accommodate that. Creating a brand that functions as a “platform” for consumers to create their own meaning (whether it’s as literal as UGC or as ephemeral as a personal projection) is now just as crucial as messaging.

It is tempting to think that a brand creates a community. In fact, many brands, realizing the power of community as a resource, strive to create their own, and brands such as Apple definitely have a cult-like following. But the reality is that brands do not create communities from scratch, they become symbols of communities. Brands can reflect a community’s values and lifestyle, but I don’t think it’s possible to brand a lifestyle before it actually already exists. Was Apple as hot before the rise of the creative class? (The trend itself, I mean, not just the book about it.) Of course, the Apple technology certainly helped facilitate the expansion of the creative class, but the bottom line is that the societal predisposition that can come to constitute a community has to be there, and a brand does not invent it, it reflects it. Indie brands are spawned out of the very communities that they represent, so it’s not like they need to conduct massive amounts of consumer insight research, and their understanding of this community first, brand second dynamic is deeply intimate. For many major brands, however, the focus shouldn’t be on fabricating their own “community” but on developing a more significant understanding of the needs of the communities that buy and endorse them. (Then, see #3).

The relationship between a culture and a brand, like any kind of relationship, takes time. That it can’t always be statistically documented after three months does not necessarily make the relationship unsuccessful. My favorite example of a brand thinking “beyond the quarter” is Scion integrating it’s cars into Whyville, an online community for tweens. Pretty much the coolest thing you can buy in Whyville is a Scion, and its added bonus is that then you can drive all your other friends around in it in the game. They start at 15,000 “clams” (Whyville dollars), but for 20,000 you can get it all customized. The most fascinating thing about this whole strategy, however, is that the Tween demographic is between 8-12 years old. It’s gonna be a while before they even have a driver’s license at all, let alone be in a position to be buying a car in the real world, but when they are, owning that virtual Scion will no doubt be an experience they draw on when making the purchase decision. This is thinking five, ten, fifteen years beyond the quarter, and it’s how indie brands think. Ok, maybe they don’t necessarily have the forethought to think that far ahead, but they do have the luxury to not have to think of success as based on proving something to shareholders every season. After all, just ask Starbucks about how rampant growth can even undermine success in the long-run.

The trend of more and more kinds of facilities cropping up to support DIY creative endeavors means that more and more kinds of indie brands are getting created. The evolution of marketing that doesn’t look anything like what it has before is only going to continue. Might as well take a cue or two from the side that’s plowing head-first into the changing the landscape.


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Hardcore Norm

Because dressing different is such a cliché.



art by Curtis Mead


“The kids are doing the normcore,” my friend Quang said, trying out the new phrase with a deliberate, old fart dialect.

Only a few moments earlier I had tossed off the word like common parlance.

“‘Normcore?’” he had repeated, making sure he’d heard correctly.

“Yeah,” I explained, “It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s us, now.”

A shockingly pleasant March afternoon had arrived in Boston that day, on the heels of a cold that had felt like osteoporosis. A decade in LA had turned me into a wimp. I had forgotten how I’d ever managed to live through this in my youth.

I had grown up here. In high school I discovered raves. By college I was throwing them in 20,000 square foot warehouses in Dumbo. After that, I moved out to the west coast and managed a vaudeville circus troupeproduced electronic music festivals, and worked with a bunch of bands, among other things. In the span of the past decade I saw the niche “electronica” genre evolve into mainstream “EDM;” I saw the circus subculture infiltrate pop performance acts, and the signature, post-apocalyptic, tribal fashion aesthetic originated within the Burning Man community become a major fashion trend.

But that day in Boston, in 2014, hanging out with friends who had come up through the rave, circus, and goth subcultures, you could hardly tell where any of us had been. What we wore now was nondescript. Non-affiliated. Normal.

The week before, at a craft beer tasting party at an indie advertising agency in Silver Lake, a sculpture artist was remarking about recently looking through photos of style choices from the aughts. “What was I thinking,” she said in bewilderment. That evening she was wearing a black tank top, and, like, pants. Maybe three quarter length? Or not? Maybe black jeans? Or not-jean pants? I couldn’t recall. Perhaps, I thought, this was just a symptom of getting older. There was some kind of sartorial giving a shit phase that we had all grown out of. But it turned out this, too, was a trend. Kids, too young to have grown out of anything, were dressing this way.

“By late 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to spot the Downtown chicks you’d expect to have closets full of Acne and Isabel Marant wearing nondescript half-zip pullovers and anonymous denim,” wrote Fiona Duncan, in a February New York Magazine article titled, “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion:”

I realized that, from behind, I could no longer tell if my fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or middle-aged, middle-American tourists. Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”

Normcore—it was funny, but it also effectively captured the self-aware, stylized blandness I’d been noticing. Brad’s source for the term was the trend forecasting collective (and fellow artists) K-Hole. They had been using it in a slightly different sense, not to describe a particular look but a general attitude: embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for “difference” or “authenticity.”

Oh my god, I thought reading this: this is me.

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, published in 2004, cultural critics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter examined the inherent contradiction in the idea that counterculture was an opposition to  mass consumer culture. Not only were they not opposed, Heath and Potter explained, they weren’t even separate. Alternative culture’s obsession with being different — expressing that difference through prescribed fashion products and subcultural artifacts — had, in fact, helped to create the very mass consumer society the counterculture believed itself to be the alternative to.

“To me, Nike’s famous swoosh logo had long been the mark of the manipulated,” wrote Rob Walker, author of  2008′s Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are, ”A symbol for suckers who take its ‘Just Do It’ bullying at face value. It’s long been, in my view, a brand for followers. On the other hand, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for me since I was a teenager back in the 1980′s, and I stuck with it well into my thirties. Converse was the no-bullshit yin to Nike’s all-style-and-image yang. It’s what my outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Combain wore. So I found [Nike’s] buyout [of Converse] disheartening…. but why, really, did I feel so strongly about a brand of sneaker–any brand of sneaker?”

In response to Buying In, I’d written, “Whether we’re choosing to wear Nikes, Converse, Timberlands, Doc Martens, or some obscure Japanese brand that doesn’t even exist in the US, we’re deliberately saying something about ourselves with the choice. And regardless of how “counter” to whatever culture we think we are, getting to express that differentiation about our selves requires buying something.”

But that was five years ago. A funny thing happened on the way to the mid twenty-teens. The digital era ushered in an unprecedented flood of availability — of both information and products. This constant, ubiquitous access to everything — what Chris Anderson dubbed the “Long  Tail” in his 2006 book of the same name – had changed the cultural equation. We had evolved, as Anderson predicted, “from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure. We became what Anderson called  a  “massively parallel culture: millions of microcultures coexisting and interacting in a baffling array of ways.” On this new, flattened landscape, what was there to be counter to?

“Jeremy Lewis, the founder/editor of Garmento and a freelance stylist and fashion writer, calls normcore ‘one facet of a growing anti-fashion sentiment,’” Duncan writes in New York  Magazine. “His personal style is (in the words of Andre Walker, a designer Lewis featured in the magazine’s last issue) ‘exhaustingly plain’—this winter, that’s meant a North Face fleece, khakis, and New Balances. Lewis says his ‘look of nothing’ is about absolving oneself from fashion.”

That is how normcore happened to me, too. When I quit the circus, leaving behind its sartorial regulations, I realized that difference wasn’t an expression of identity: it was a rat race.

“Fashion has become very overwhelming and popular,” Lewis explains in New York Magazine. “Right now a lot of people use fashion as a means to buy rather than discover an identity and they end up obscured and defeated. I’m getting cues from people like Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a very flat look, conspicuously unpretentious, maybe even endearingly awkward. It’s a lot of cliché style taboos, but it’s not the irony I love, it’s rather practical and no-nonsense, which to me, right now, seems sexy. I like the idea that one doesn’t need their clothes to make a statement.”

“Magazines, too,” Duncan writes, “have picked up the look:”

The enduring appeal of the Patagonia fleece [was] displayed on Patrik Ervell and Marc Jacobs’s runways. Edie Campbell slid into Birkenstocks (or the Céline version thereof) in Vogue Paris. Adidas trackies layered under Louis Vuitton cashmere in Self Service. A bucket hat and Nike slippers framed an Alexander McQueen coveralls in Twin. Smaller, younger magazines like London’s Hot and Cool and New York’s Sex, were interested in even more genuinely average ensembles, skipping high-low blends for the purity of head-to-toe normcore.

One of the first stylists I started bookmarking for her normcore looks was the London-based Alice Goddard. She was assembling this new mainstream minimalism in the magazine she co-founded, Hot and Cool, as early as 2011. For Goddard, the appeal of normal clothes was the latest thing. One standout editorial from Hot and Cool no. 5 (Spring 2013) was composed entirely of screenshots of people from Google Map’s Street View app. Goddard had stumbled upon “this tiny town in America” on Map sand thought the plainly-dressed people there looked amazing. The editorial she designed was a parody of contemporary street style photography—“the main point of difference,” she says, “being that people who are photographed by street style photographers are generally people who have made a huge effort with their clothing, and the resulting images often feel a bit over fussed and over precious—the subject is completely aware of the outcome; whereas the people we were finding on Google Maps obviously had no idea they were being photographed, and yet their outfits were, to me, more interesting.”

New media has changed our relation to information, and, with it, fashion. Reverse Google Image Search and tools like Polyvore make discovering the source of any garment as simple as a few clicks. Online shopping—from eBay through the Outnet—makes each season available for resale almost as soon as it goes on sale. As Natasha Stagg, the Online Editor of V Magazine and a regular contributor at DIS (where she recently wrote a normcore-esque essay about the queer appropriation of mall favorite Abercrombie & Fitch), put it: “Everyone is a researcher and a statistician now, knowing accidentally the popularity of every image they are presented with, and what gets its own life as a trend or meme.” The cycles of fashion are so fast and so vast, it’s impossible to stay current; in fact, there is no one current.

Emily Segal of K-HOLE insists that normcore isn’t about one specific aesthetic. “It’s not about being simple or forfeiting individuality to become a bland, uniform mass,” she explains. Rather, it’s about welcoming the possibility of being recognizable, of looking like other people—and “seeing that as an opportunity for connection.”

K-HOLE describes normcore as a theory rather than a look; but in practice, the contemporary normcore styles I’ve seen have their clear aesthetic precedent in the nineties. The editorials in Hot and Cool look a lot like Corinne Day styling newcomer Kate Moss in Birkenstocks in 1990, or like Art Club 2000′s appropriation of madras from the Gap, like grunge-lite and Calvin Klein minimalism. But while (in their original incarnation) those styles reflected anxiety around “selling out,” today’s version is more ambivalent toward its market reality.

In a post Hot-Topic world, where Forever21 serves up fast fashion in processed flavors like, Occupy:

and Burning Man:

Screenshot-2014-03-10-15.20.59 Screenshot-2014-03-10-15.20.48

we’re realizing that alternativeness, as a means for authentic self expression, is futile.“Normcore isn’t about rebelling against or giving into the status quo,” Duncan concludes, “It’s about letting go of the need to look distinctive.”

In our all-access, always connected, globalized world, obscurity is scarce. When everything is accessible, nothing is alternative.

“In the 21st century,”  Rob Walker wrote back in 2008, not recognizing the quickly approaching end of counterculture, “We still grapple with the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we’re apart of something bigger than ourselves. We all seek ways to resolve this fundamental tension of modern life.”

In 2014, normcore is one solution we’ve found to resolve it.


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the empire’s new clothes

Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign again the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.

– Andy Warhol

It is totally disconcerting to discover a book that pretty much compiles your insights and articulates them back to you. Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy & Who We Are, by Rob Walker, delves into many of the exact same observations as I have witnessed amid the ecosystem of contemporary culture, marketing, and identity. Reading it feels something like discovering America’s Next Top Model is biting your personal fashion style, I would imagine. Sure, it’s incredibly validating to see your own insights coming at you from a New York Times Magazine writer, but it’s sorta frustrating to have to know that they’re not just yours anymore.

In social science there is probably nothing as revelatory as a contradiction exposed. That the emperor is not wearing any clothes is much more stunning a revelation than any critique of the fashion aesthetic. And it’s contradictions that Walker is interested in:

There was one specific incident that finally made me reconsider what I thought I knew about consumers, marketers, and even myself. This was the news that Nike had bought Converse.

To me, Nike’s famous swoosh logo had long been the mark of the manipulated, a symbol for suckers who take its “Just Do It” bullying at face value. It’s long been, in my view, a brand for followers. On the other hand, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for me since I was a teenager back in the 1980’s, and I stuck with it well into my thirties. Converse was the no-bullshit yin to Nike’s all-style-and-image yang. It’s what my outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Combain wore. So I found the buyout disheartening…. but why, really, did I feel so strongly about a brand of sneaker–any brand of sneaker?

As a consumer behavior columnist, Walker had observed as “the steady march of progress that had been reshaping media and technology for years broke into a sprint, through the rapid rise of devices and innovations like TiVo, the iPod, increasingly sophisticated cell phones, YouTube, Facebook, and so on.” He notes that according to many marketing experts and consumer-culture observers, this new landscape had created a “New Consumer:”

A clever creature armed with all kinds of dazzling technology, from ad-blocking gizmos to alternative, grassroots media. This added up to what professional zeitgeist watchers–

–and i’d like to add, none too few self-congratulatory alternative cultures–

like to call “a paradigm shift.” “Consumers don’t march in lockstep anymore,” one celebrated trend master declared. “We are immune to advertising,” other experts announced. The mindless “mass market” had been shouldered aside by thinking individuals: “Consumers are fleeing the mainstream.” Somehow we had all become more or less impervious to marketing and brands and logos; we could see through commercial persuasion.

The trade, business and mainstream press–

–as well as no shortage of idealistic social media folks–

have seconded this judgement. Thanks to “the explosion in information available to shoppers,” The New Yorker argued, “brand loyalty is in fast decline,” and “the customer is king.” The Economist, too, pointed to super-informed shoppers who have acquired “unprecedented strength” in their dealings with commercial persuaders and approvingly quoted a famous ad executive announcing: “For the first time the consumer is boss.” Advertising Age soberly informed its readers that because of “the power of the public,” consumers have lately obtained “increasing sway … over any product’s success”–in fact, the consumer is in control.

The only problem with this was that it did not match up particularly well with the realities of the marketplace that I was writing about every week in The Times Magazine.

It’s one thing to conclude that the advertising business is evolving with the new media landscape. But these giddy claims go well beyond that….

Meanwhile the number of brand messages we are exposed to goes up, and so does the amount of trash we produce. And on a more personal level: Have you noticed any decrease in the number of times you buy something you were sure you would love, only to regret it later or simply forget about in the back of a closet? There you are, contemplating the limitless and ever shifting choices in what to drink, what to wear, what to drive, what to buy. It is literally impossible to try everything for yourself. Be honest: As you navigate this brand-soaked world, do you feel in control?

Sure, we tell pollsters and friends that we’re sick of being bombarded with advertising, we’re indifferent to silly logos, we’re fed up with rampant materialism. In reality, one of the most significant changes I’ve observed over the years that consumer behavior has been my primary beat is something that goes well beyond the long-standing human tendency to enjoy acquiring things.

The change is particularly noticeable among many of the younger people I’ve met. Frequently, these smart and creative young people were quite happy to inform me that, yes, they were immune to commercial persuasion–that they saw right through it, as the experts liked to say. Meanwhile, they were playing key, active roles in helping certain products and brands succeed.

They were in the vanguard of what looks an awful lot like an increasingly widespread consumer embrace of branded, commercial, culture. The modern relationship between consumer and consumed is defined not by rejection at all, but rather by frank complicity.

This goes against what we’d want to think of ourselves, and of individuality. We want to think that our highly-attuned “seeing through”ness, and our distinctive tastes have set us apart, granted us superiority over the tastelessness of lowly label whores. We want to think that expressing our identities, and asserting our belonging within a particular cultural community is unrelated to, and, in fact, an escape from brand-consciousness. We want to think we are–as 77% of the respondents in a formal poll mentioned by Walker considered themselves to be–far smarter and savvier than most consumers. Which is a mathematical impossibility.

The truth of the matter is that actually we don’t really know ourselves that well at all. That’s the “Secret” in “The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.” We have come up with enough misconceptions about the relationship between, as Walker calls it, the consumer and the consumed, that the real mechanics of this interchange are happening beyond our consciousness. We’re not aware we’re naked beneath our fancy new clothes.

“Symbols matter to us,” Walker says:

Meaningful symbols (logos included) get created–and even when we claim to be immune from such things, we often participate in that meaning-creation ourselves….In the 21st century we still grapple with the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we’re apart of something bigger than ourselves–and that, most of all we all seek ways to resolve this fundamental tension of modern life.

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter delve into the social psychology history of individuality, excavating its modern beginnings from the wreckage of the post-WWII distrust of “mass culture.” They propose that witnessing how conformity had devastated Europe as enforced by the Nazis, plus the results of the Milgram experiment, which exposed some nasty realities about our human relationship to authority, “led conformity to become the new cardinal sin in our society.” By the time Walker gets around to weighing in on it, this manifest individualist destiny has become an American right.

Enter “The Pretty Good” problem, as Walker calls it. Or as Alex Bogusky says: “All products are excellent.” It’s no longer about what’s better than what, or what’s more reliable, or what’s more effective. It all works, it’s all really good. The way you choose between all this totally dependable functioning stuff is, essentially, based on what expresses you.

“Buying a $5,000 handbag just because it’s a status symbol is a sign of weakness,” Walker quotes a particular “keen observer of branded culture”: Miuccia Prada. “Presumably” Walker suggests, “buying a $5,000 Prada bag is okay, if you’re doing it for the right reasons–quality for instance.” But I don’t see anything ironic in Prada’s remark. It’s probably the way anorexics think about the eating habits of the obese. In between those extremes though, weakness or not, we all have to eat. And we all feel we have to express ourselves, define ourselves, locate ourselves, even, on the cultural spectrum. How do we do that in our modern world?

Well, like, take the gutterpunk bike messenger dude Walker comes across while investigating the resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon’s popularity, getting a PBR logo brand–that’s skin brand–the size of his back. This may seem a bit excessive, but “Pabst is part of my subculture,” he says. More specifically, it can function as a symbol of a subculture, and skin branding as a means of expressing both a personal commitment and community loyalty is actually not at all uncommon among fraternities. In the absence of a Greek letter, endorsing a brand–that’s logo brand–can, and often does, become adopted as a symbol of belonging to a culture or community. You might not have gotten a skin brand or bought a $5,000 handbag, but all of us have purchased things not just for our own “personal narrative,” as Walker suggest, but because they represented our culture, our context, where we belong.

This is actually the part in the book where Walker’s assessments start to fall apart, I think. Unlike his research on the consumer adoption of corporate brands, in chronicling “underground brands”–by which he means, essentially, lifestyle symbols developed by independent entrepreneurs–he doesn’t mention any research from talking directly to the adopters of these brands, and thus fails to convey that the adoption of both kinds of brands happens basically for the same reasons.

He gets part of it right. Many underground brand creators:

Clearly see what they are doing as not only non-corporate, but somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materlistic mainstream–but doing it with different forms of materialism.

Take a minute to get acclimated to the irony if you need to, but that’s not the real contradiction here. This is:

Perhaps the threat that brand-smart young people really pose to commercial persuaders is not that they have stopped buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.

What the exact definition of an “underground brand” is–beyond being created by “brand-smart young people”–is never actually defined, and that may be the root of the oversight. Walker’s case studies for underground brands are pretty much exclusively clothing, or even more precisely, t-shirt labels, but I’ve seen the same phenomenon play out with underground music brands bands, and events. A community, weather it’s mass or niche, Greek or gutterpunk, needs symbols, and the difference between how an “independent” maker of symbols behaves vs. a “corporate” one, is that the corporate one answers to Wall Street.

You can argue that size matters. That somewhere along the slippery slope a brand is either big or small, but I would imagine even small Wall Street-beholden brands would behave the same way big ones do. And conversely, as Walker himself talks about, though doesn’t quite process to it’s logical conclusion: to stay competitive, Wall-Street brands are starting to behave like indie ones. Scion’s success via alternative marketing, which Walker calls “murketing,” happened not because it invented its own grassroots community from scratch, but because it leveraged the communities around existing independent brands in much the same way a concert venue leverages the community around a music act.

Talking to independent brand creators, Walker says, “Made me realize that it wasn’t just commercial culture that the brand underground was co-opting–it was the most exclusive and elevated form of it.”

Which is kind of like saying that an indie-rock band “co-opts” Elton John. I think music fans are only too happy to have more options.

It’s not culture that’s being co-opted, it’s industry. An indie band “co-opts” the music industry, and indie brands “co-opt” the industry of commercial persuasion itself. This isn’t a “threat” to commercial persuasion, as Walker suggests, but an expansion, an upgrade. Commercial persuasion, v. 2.0.

Or whatever.

“It’s time to set aside the old conspicuous consumption argument that consumer behavior is all about status–all about badges,” Walker writes. “If the underground logo is a badge, it’s one that is most noteworthy for how few people can see it.”


The average underground logo–just like many corporate ones–may be more subdued than, say, the narcissistic in-your-face mania of Louis Vuitton’s logo, but the underground brand is a badge, and it’s one that is most notable for how meaningfully it expresses a community. (By the way, that requires visibility). It may not be all about “status” but it IS all about identity.

Suddenly, the book is not so disconcerting after all.


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