Our Labels, Our Selves



“Branding” worked its way from the butt of a cow to the corporate marketing meeting and has now arrived at trendy cocktail bars. (Cosmopolitans and cross-training are out; saketinis and cross-marketing are in.) These days, you don’t have to be a marketer to chat about brand extensions, cause-marketing (a percent of the profits go to charity) and synergy. Everybody is inured to the likes of “Coca-Cola Picnic Barbie” (cross-promotion). Even Harley-Davidson armchairs (weird brand extension) can’t raise an eyebrow or a giggle.

After all, fashion houses have been licensing perfume for decades, and one-stop shopping suits busy people, so Banana Republic dishes and Gap toiletries seem natural and sensible.

In fact, cosmetics is one business not sharing the branding bonanza. Women who used to be loyal to one brand of makeup whose identity spoke to their fantasies now cherry-pick from more than 1,000 cosmetics lines at every price point from Mary Kay to Marcella Borghese. We’ve reality-checked and realized that, in most cases, the stuff is all the same, so we shop as our whimsies take us. Not that status doesn’t still count. One study found that women are likely to spend more on something they use in public (say, a Chanel lipstick) and save on stuff they use at home in the bathroom (drugstore-brand moisturizer).

But what is a brand, really?

Products with Personality

A business school text might describe a brand’s identity by listing the following:

1. The need filled by the product or service
2. Its identifying marks
3. Point(s) of differentiation from the competition
4. Vision
5. Values

Starting to sound a little New Agey for corporations that churn out hand lotion or hiking boots? Timberland encourages community service projects, and Avon makes sure we know it’s a big supporter of breast cancer research to demonstrate its “corporate values.” And that is necessary because giving brands a “personality” has been the focus of brand advertising since about 1970.

The personality of a brand – and all of its products – is established by using the kinds of reference points we use to describe each other. So Avon is a caring, philanthropic kind of gal. A brand’s personality is in some ways more important than its other aspects because it’s what connects with the buyer’s own personality. The pursuit of personality is, of course, what hiring famous spokespeople (or creating fictional figureheads, such as Betty Crocker) is all about.

And there’s no business like the fashion business for personality because – at the high end, at any rate – you have actual people (the designers) already built into the company.

A classic model is Coco Chanel, a genuinely innovative designer who lived a colorful, stylish life that was reflected in her wonderfully chic and modern clothes. Now, of course, the company’s job is to keep on being modern – which does not at this time include wearing boxy pastel plaid mohair suits with artificial camellias pinned to them – without erasing the signature Chanel-ness that keeps the label’s status and prices high.

Our most ubiquitous contemporary American designer names do not have the same problem.

Clone Wear

Ralph Lauren is sort of the opposite case from Chanel. Ralph created a persona – which is probably true to his own aspirations – that looks not forward but backward to an idealized Anglophilic American aristocracy, with a touch of Old West masculinity to keep the menswear from being wimpy. His brand is meant to confer instant “class,” and indeed his classic preppy wear is authentic enough to be worn by real preppies. The Lauren look gets freshened up as it goes along, but resting on its laurels is what this brand is supposed to do.

Now take Tommy Hilfiger’s approach to branding. The fashion critics who snorted when the words “Ralph Lauren” and “designer” were used in the same sentence are now faced with a guy who is an absolute creature of the culture of marketing, a master not of fabric and cut but of the art of holding up a wet finger to the wind. His mega-success goes like this: Hip-hop meets the suburbs; both are fascinated. His newest take on the Zeitgeist is an excavation and (necessarily) pale imitation of rock ‘n’ roll couture. Stay tuned for global garb: Tommy’s world party. Hilfiger’s goal is not to design clothes but “to have built a lifestyle brand. It’s about pop culture and what is now and meaningful today.”

The music/fashion fusion is indeed hot, hot, hot now: Puff Daddy’s Sean John clothing, the Wu-Tang Clan’s store, Sony Signatures’ plan for a Britney (Spears) brand to pitch not just clothes but shoes, makeup and hair clips to pre-teens. Next up: the fictional lifestyle brand. Ally McBeal-inspired loungewear (called “…isms”) can now be found in select Bloomingdale’s stores, soon to be joined by greeting cards, housewares and beauty products that are supposed to reflect her quirky tastes. “Her”?

Escape from Logo Land

In the heyday of status brands 25 years ago, the satiric illustrator Edward Gorey talked about drawing a story about a woman run down by a bus while crossing Fifth Avenue. Those who tried to identify her saw the initials on her purse (CC), her belt (GG), her sunglasses (CD), her T-shirt (CK) and so forth. Never did find out her real name, and off she was carried to a potter’s field.

Logo merchandise became uncool but only briefly. It has risen up again more reliably than Anne Rice’s vampires and is reaching further and further down the age ladder. A few years ago, we were saddened by teenagers willing to kill for Nikes. Now we’re wincing at label-conscious first-graders. Pretty soon, baby’s first words will be Tommy and Prada instead of Mommy and Dada.

Conformity is a huge issue in adolescence, but it’s a pity to see it start so young and last into adulthood. Brand names can be a valuable clue to quality and reliability in many products, but in fashion, at any rate, design is what really chic women look for, not “designer.” Real style requires personal preferences (your quirks, not Ally’s). For confidence-challenged consumers, branding is the big fix.