Lifestyle brands: Selling people a constructed dream

I was introduced to the work of Naomi Klein when we heard that she would be presenting at the University of Regina regarding her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. A few of us quickly read the book before the lecture (and a few more afterwards) and were quite impressed with the strength and applicability of the conceptual model. She was an excellent speaker who was both active and educated on a variety of important topics.

As a person who is easily overwhelmed by intense visual and auditory stimuli, I have always been strongly aware of advertiser bombardment. I was quite interested when I learned that Naomi Klein had risen to fame due to an earlier book, No Logo. Years later, I have taken the time to read the book and take notes, and I am glad that I did.

No Logo covers a variety of important and interconnected societal issues through which we feel the effects of branding. Klein does an excellent job of pointing out and illustrating that the corporate threads in our lives go deeper than our clothing.

Brands above all

An overarching theme of the book is the transformed role of branding both for the corporations producing it and for our society. Advertising has developed in western society along with manufacturing. Throughout the industrial era, advertising has been used as a way to distinguish mass produced products from one another. There has always been a struggle to place regulatory limits on the types of claims that can be made in advertising. However, as Klein points out, we have entered an age where the ’lifestyle brand‘ dominates.

A lifestyle brand is an attempt to make a corporate brand part of the identity of a person or group. People already identify very strongly with their employment, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status. Lifestyle brands often attempt to create similar cultural connections. Their goal is to become another way that people use to relate to one another. Lifestyle brands are an attempt to sell an identity, or an image, rather than a product. Advertisers for lifestyle brands make an effort to call attention to who would use this product or what ideals it represents, as opposed to what the product actually does.

Investors today favour brands that can transcend their products and become a “free-standing meaning”. I would label this practice ‘Brand Shamanism”; investors are worshipping the brand for brand’s sake, with the hope that consumers will do so as well. Investors have good reason to expect that this will lead to greater profits. The ability to manipulate consumers and fabricate the perception of value is the core of a lifestyle brand and of a lifestyle corporation.

While securing great profits from the market, these actions are harmful to the economy in the long run. Wealth is misallocated to inferior goods. Additionally, bubbles of positive perception can be deflated quickly. Practices like this bring to mind the recent financial collapse, where so much value collapsed when investors stopped believing unreasonable things, and the world economy fell into recession.

Lifestyle brands try to present themselves as more of a culture than a consumer good. Rather than making factual (and falsifiable) claims that may be subject to government regulation, lifestyle branding tries to convince you that their brand is the embodiment of a set of values or aspirations that you desire. In practice, this can be as simple as presenting the product in a fun situations with attractive people enjoying themselves. Most cigarette and alcohol advertisements of the last several decades are good examples of this approach. Companies rely heavily on repetition to embed complex, subtle, and nuanced perceptions of their brand in the minds of the public.

It is not only lifestyle brands that make use of extensive branding and advertising tactics. However, they make the most effective use of the power of advertising and branding, turning low quality products into ‘must have’ social symbols without producing appropriate tangible benefits. Branding is used to let physically inferior products masquerade as superior ones in the eyes of consumers and investors alike. A lifestyle brand perpetuates its profits and popularity with branding, not with product quality.

Where did the lifestyle brand come from? Klein points out an important event in the early 1990s known as Marlboro Friday as a likely catalyst for the rise of the lifestyle brand. On that day, Marlboro cut their prices significantly to compete with with less well-known brands on the basis of price. By performing this action they were essentially admitting that they were not actually better than the generic brands in any substantial way. Their stocks fell harshly as a result of both the price drop and the loss of reputation of their brand.

Because of this, it was believed by some investors and executives that brands were dead, that the era of the value brand had come. While many once popular brands saw a steady decline in profile and profits after this time, many of today’s most well known brands were just ramping up. This is what separated our Nikes from our Tides. While both are brands, Nike cultivated itself as a lifestyle brand, while nobody aspires to the ‘Tide lifestyle’.

This was a pointed lesson for companies who had developed a name for themselves in their specific field. Companies had to choose between competing more and more on a price and quality basis or whether they would redouble their branding efforts and become transcendent ‘lifestyle brands’. A quality company may still advertise, but their advertising budget will not increase the order of magnitude required to become a lifestyle brand. A company can generally not afford to pursue both expensive tactics while still remaining profitable enough to satisfy shareholders.

Lifestyle brands are one of the most important concepts explored in No Logo. They have drastic implications for the structure of advertising and the market system. Future articles in this series will explore related issues such as the poor pay found in both the retail industry that sells branded products and the factories of the developing world where the products are produced. At its core, creating a lifestyle brand is a game of subtle psychology. Embedding the central ‘ideal’ and ‘philosophy’ of a lifestyle brand into the public psyche requires an increased rate of repetition of exposure to branding.

Being raised and educated in Canada, I was fortunate enough to be given a grade school education in the advertising techniques used to mislead consumers. No Logo has helped me to enhance my media literacy, allowing me to become a more sceptical and thoughtful consumer and citizen. The book has also provided a lot of compelling material that relates the brand issue to a number of pressing social and economic issues.

Stay tuned for our further work on lifestyle brands and the deleterious side-effects of product production, distribution, and advertising.

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