How brands make the man, and the woman – literally

The brands we choose dictate the identity we perform, says Wayhd Vannoni. Photo by Flickr user Damien Roué.

The brands we choose dictate the identity we perform, says Wayhd Vannoni. Photo by Flickr user Damien Roué.

Editor’s Note: How many of us are guilty of buying a certain brand of jeans or sneakers because we liked the way they made someone else look? We don’t just want to look like that person, we want to embody a bit of their identity by wearing the same costume.

Brands are everywhere, and sometimes, as Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz told us in “The Paradox of Choice,” deciding between them can be so overwhelming as to discourage making a purchase at all. But often, we know what we want: the consumption choices we make are guided by how we want to see ourselves in the world. What we wear, sip and drive all play a major part in the identity performance we all participate in every day, says Hult Business School marketing professor and consultant Wahyd Vannoni.

Vannoni, who writes for the Italian website Linkiesta , translated his 2013 post about J.K. Rowling’s authorship of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” into English for Making Sen$e. He returns to this page today, with a literary interpretation of how brands make us who we are.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

“All the world’s a stage,” states Shakespeare in “As You Like It.”

But while the monologue continues to describe how man progresses from infanthood to death in seven stages, let me recast Shakespeare’s allegory in our modern consumer-oriented world.

Brands play two fundamental roles in our lives. The most obvious is that they help us make purchasing decisions. Our lives would come to a standstill if, when faced with hundreds of varieties of breakfast cereal, or shampoo or deodorant in a supermarket, we were to evaluate each and every one objectively. This lurking woe is thankfully minimized by our recognizing a familiar brand among multitudes. We have come to trust its packaging, its colors and all of its elements to the extent that we wouldn’t wish any other companion.

However, this is only the functional and practical aspect. In reality, brands inform who we should be, how we should think of ourselves and how we should behave. As Shakespeare and other playwrights did when they wrote, brands dictate the script we are to follow and tell us what to do. As we shall see, they serve the same purpose today that books did for one of the most renowned literary characters: Don Quixote.

The Merchant of Seattle

Coffee chains such as Starbucks have created a new stage known as the third place. It is neither home nor work. This stage is also meant to be slightly exotic. As Shakespeare brought to London audiences a taste of Verona, Mantua and Venice, Starbucks brought Italy to the heart of Seattle, Halifax and Tokyo.

The chain’s official founding myth is that “in 1983, Howard [Schultz] traveled to Italy and became captivated with Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience. He had a vision to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States.”

This “third place” stage also implies that within this space, we are to be creative and thoughtful. “When our customers feel this sense of belonging, our stores become a haven,” Starbucks tell us in their mission statement.

So bring a computer, bring a book, and seat yourself in that sofa in such a way so that if you were to see yourself through the windows, you – the spectator — would see you — the actor — holding court like a prince.

As for the dialogue we recite in this theater, Starbucks publishes a script for us : macchiato, frappuccino, mocha, Americano or venti. Be prepared to use these lines when your part comes in Act I, Scene II. The barista may not understand what “American” or “twenty” mean.

Starbucks and Moleskine notebooks are two brands that help us perform our identities. Photo by Flickr user MyLifeStory.

Starbucks and Moleskine notebooks are two brands that help us perform our identities. Photo by Flickr user MyLifeStory.

What the barista will do, though, is formally introduce us to the play in the most dramatic and inventive of ways. Unlike most characters throughout theater history who are given a name by the playwright, at Starbucks, we get to choose our stage names. When that name — our given name or any name we care to give — finally appears on the cup, we become the main protagonist and merge into the brand.

We gain recognition of our existence when the brand acknowledges us. Our name will eventually echo throughout the store and the audience (other customers waiting for their orders) will turn their heads to find out who that Jennifer or John is.

The illusion of the stage is so powerful and so carefully crafted that we hardly remark that what we consume is rather different from what we say and pretend we consume; most of us buy and drink a larger quantity of milk than coffee while at Starbucks, for example. And yet, no one acknowledges that it is a coffee shop where we mostly buy dairy.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Brands deconstruct every situation we might face during the course of a day and recreate an alternate reality that we are destined to inhabit.

The IKEA catalogue, for instance, is magnificent in its ability to suggest how we should stage our bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. Each picture in the catalogue tells a story about who lives there. The actors are precisely positioned to suggest happiness and satisfaction with life. When you do not see anyone in the picture, we still know what has happened just before. The unkempt linen on the bed or the forgotten headphones on the sofa suggest that the owners are confident enough to afford the occasional imperfection because they are in control of their lives, and so would we be if and when we furnished our home from IKEA.

Screenshot of a living room set from the IKEA website.

Screenshot of a living room set from the IKEA website.

For those of us who want to don a heroic yet sophisticated costume, the leather-bound Moleskine notebook is the answer. We could buy “sheets of paper that are attached at one end and used for writing notes” or we could buy a “legendary” notebook, one that might have been used by Hemingway or Picasso. A piece of paper from a Moleskine notebook is not merely fiber for ink to dry on but a springboard that enables each of us to revolutionize culture and the arts.

The association with Hemingway is not casual; among other heroic achievements, he was a reporter in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and wrote a play during that time.

Screenshot courtesy of the author from Harley Davidson website.

Screenshot courtesy of the author from Harley Davidson website.

A Moleskine notebook endows us with heroism, but how do we know when we’re truly free?

To settle this existential question, Harley Davidson comes to the rescue proclaiming “Freedom above all else” through the ownership of one of their motorcycles, or indeed, a “freedom jacket.”

The stage Harley-Davidson has set for us is one in which we escape the daily grind. Riding a Harley helps us reconnect with the myth of the American West, a time when the frontier lay untamed and when heroic, solitary explorers braved all manner of dangers.

“To all the freedom loving riders who celebrate the spirit of Harley Davidson every time they start their bike – we salute you,” Harley Davidson proclaims.

Screenshot from Harley Davidson website courtesy of the author.

Screenshot from Harley Davidson website courtesy of the author.

The Ingenious Hidalgo

We may never have heard of the then-nearing 50-year-old Alonso Quixano. His life is unremarkable up to the moment Cervantes introduces him to us. The retiring Alonso becomes infatuated with chivalry books and decides to rename (“rebrand” in modern parlance) himself as Don Quixote. He has lost all reason and sets out to recreate the fictitious world conveyed by the books he has read. He learns how to dress, how to speak, how to act and at last, finds a purpose for his life.

As chivalry books informed Don Quixote on his place and goal in life, brands inform modern man. They provide an essential service because, without them, we would not know who we are.