I’d barely even given brands a second thought until I got my first job as a retail sales associate at a local department store. After a couple of weeks, I realized an interesting dynamic: most customers were willing to spend much more money (sometimes up to double or even more) for the exact same plain t-shirt if it had a familiar brand name like Nike© stitched across the front.
If the costumers’ brand loyalty had been purely an issue of quality, there were other items comparable in durability and comfort to Nike© but whose names were relatively unknown, and those items never sold nearly as well. The off-brands, even when significantly cheaper, were set aside for the familiar Nike© wings. Some customers were so loyal to Nike© that if we didn’t have the pair of athletic pants or running shoes they were looking for (even if the same exact color, style, and size came in several other brands) they’d have me call around to other stores. Eventually, they’d either decide to “settle” for a different brand or they’d move on to another department store to continue their search.
Why be a Billboard?
The partiality towards Nike© confused me (and honestly still does), why would people spend more money in order to be a billboard? If a Nike© CEP informed me that she’d decided to paint the Nike© symbol on my home or tattoo it on my body and I was going to have to pay top dollar to have the “privilege” of being a billboard, I’d tell Nike© to get lost. But this is exactly what the customers I regularly interacted with were doing. Not only were they willingly advertising without any form of financial compensation, but they were the ones shelling out the money. The customers were paying for the privilege of being a walking advertisement.
Nike© benefited from not only being able to sell the exact same thing for more because they were a recognizable brand with a dutiful following, but they even managed to get free advertising out of the deal. It seemed like a win-win game for Nike©, but I didn’t understand why the customers were choosing to play by their rules. Well, not until I realized what Klein explores in her documentary, No Logo, that Nike was not selling merchandise, they were selling an idea.
What is Nike© Really Selling?
As Klein put it in her video, Nike© was very successfully “lifestyle branding”—peddling not wares, but the idea of a whole new life. As a result, when customers looked at a Nike© shoe it was not just a gray sneaker but the symbol of athleticism, endurance, competition, courage, and individualism. In short, Nike© was not just a sporting goods store; they were sellers of the American dream athletic style.
In sociologist Christine Williams’ book Shopping as Symbolic Interaction she noted how “the Toy Warehouse aspired to present an image as an exciting playground for children and their families” (Williams 174). Each of the toy stores Williams observed was selling a particular idea about family, toys, and even social class in order to attract specific customers. Just as with Nike, for the Toy Warehouse it was less about selling the product than it was about selling the idea of middle class family fun. Once customers caught the idea, the rest was literally in the shopping bag.
But should we allow companies to define what it means for us to be “courageous” or an “individual” with a sneaker? Should we allow them to define us? And do we really want to be duped into paying top dollar for the privilege of being a walking advertisement?