Article by Dan Jackson, Bladereviews.com
As a regular reader of the excellent every day carry gear blog Every Day Commentary I have come to greatly enjoy Anthony’s reviews, his insights, and his sometimes controversial musings on all things EDC. One such controversial musing was a relatively recent post entitled “Fanboy Futility” that touched on the subject of branding, and its involvement (or lack thereof) in the gear review and general purchasing process.
Anthony starts off the article innocently enough, advocating that fanboyism, a phenomena where one blindly follows a particular brand without any objectivity at all, has no place when it comes to the rational discussion of knives and tools. I couldn’t agree more. No doubt fanboyism is inherently stupid, and shouldn’t be tolerated in any form if a rational discussion on gear is to be had. I think the majority of folks (ardent fanboys excepted) can agree on that one.
What I found a little more interesting was Anthony’s concept of being “brand agnostic,” that is, to be completely blind to branding and maintain that as both a consumer, and a reviewer, that brand has no place in his purchasing decision. Anthony argues that branding is merely a gimmick companies use to sell more product, presumably for some nefarious reasons (eg, for the promotion of reactionary and blind fanboy-esque purchasing decisions) and therefore should be to be ignored. It’s an interesting concept, and noble in intention, but can we ever really claim to be brand agnostic? I almost liken it to comedian Stephen Colbert’s declaration “I’m color blind, I don’t see race.” The only difference being in Stephen’s case it’s said with tongue firmly in cheek as part of a reoccurring punch line in the show.
Now I’m a big believer in meritocracies, but I’m also a realist. And frankly, I don’t think humans are capable of completely ignoring branding, despite how good intentioned and strong willed you are to do so. Furthermore, I’m not convinced branding is necessarily a bad thing either.
First of all, if brands weren’t so tremendously effective companies wouldn’t spend trillions of dollars on them every year. But even if we ignore that little wrinkle it is still impossible to avoid how marketing permeates every single aspect of our lives on both conscious and subconscious levels. To shrug such signals would require the focus of a monk, and perhaps even the lifestyle of one. Today if you walk outside, turn on a tv, check your email, stare absently at your smartphone, step into a store, or even meet a new person, you are constantly and continually assaulted by marketing. People and companies desperately vying to sell you things. So how did we let things get this way? Marketing as we know it is actually a fairly recent phenomena, a byproduct of capitalism and the industrial revolution combined with a healthy post WW2 economic boom. Suddenly people had money, and factories were there to create new and exciting ways to spend it. So it only made sense mass-market these mass-manufactured goods. I’m sure many find it offensive, the nerve of this capitalistic machine, but to this day it remains completely and utterly inescapable.
So why the emphasis on brands? Brands act as signals, shortcuts allowing us to sift through the information overload and organize data in a way that is coherent and readily accessible. We attach meaning to brands, messages often carefully crafted by the companies that create them. Close your eyes for a second and think of Apple, of Cadillac, maybe McDonalds or Microsoft. You may find that all kinds of thoughts, images, sounds, smells, and even emotions come to mind. You may open your eyes and actually feel different having briefly come in contact with these brands.
But hey, don’t put that tinfoil hat on just yet, it’s not all bad – especially if the message of the company’s brand is consistent with your expectations. Just imagine being trapped in a grocery store in a world without branding. All the packages look the same, aisles of non-descript foodstuffs in plain brown boxes with sterile lettering. It’s like something out of 1984. I guess you could just buy whatever is cheapest, or perhaps even look at the ingredients on the label, but honestly, who has the time to evaluate every single ingredient solely on the merits every single trip to the store? Go ahead and roll the dice; who knows what kind of gelatinous delight will slide out of that tin, or what sort of cereal comes tumbling forth from that box into your waiting bowl. If you don’t like what you picked out, well, you can always roll the dice again the next time the pantry grows bare. The connections between product and manufacturer remain absent, and perhaps even the idea of true choice also fades off into the mist.
So I think branding does have it’s place if it communicates the right message that reinforces your expectations. It can help connect you with the right kind of products and can do so in a relatively painless and efficient manner. Naturally branding it isn’t a perfect system, and a shiny brand can certainly fail to deliver, but as your perceptions sour so does the brand’s reputation. After all, a customer scorned is far more likely to voice their opinion than a satisfied one. So if a company is generally doing a bad job upholding their end of the bargain then the world is going to hear about it. It’s a feedback loop that iterates much faster than a single person’s experience – it is the aggregate experience of all the consumers and it moves at the speed of information.
In the end I totally agree, judging items on there merits is of the utmost importance, and succumbing to fanboyism is utterly stupid. But the fact remains that without good branding many worthy items will never find their way into your hands in first place; the signal to noise ratio in our modern world is simply way too high. It is unfortunate that companies must expend all these funds on marketing, since it indubitably raises the price of the goods, but companies chalk it up as a cost of doing business. And as a guy who has drank the kool-aid and seen the light, I humbly suggest that you do the same.