The Pretty Good Problem
Rational Thinking . . . Fifty-three Pretty Good Kitchen Ranges . . .The Commodity T . . . Ecko Unltd.'s cul-de-sac cred . . .The "projectability" of Hello Kitty . . . The HundredsRational Thinking
Imagine that you're naked.
Or maybe it's better to put it this way: Imagine that you need some sort of clothing. This may not be a biological imperative like thirst, but wearing something is still pretty much a baseline acceptable social behavior. How, then, do you choose to meet this authentic consumer need?
Cram as many responses to that question as will fit into the two million square feet of exhibition space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and you have Magic. Magic is a twice yearly trade show for the apparel industry, a place where makers of clothes gather to display their wares for the benefit of retail buyers-the people who decide what boutiques and department stores all over the world will make available to consumers. Most every brand that you could think of is here (from Polo to True Religion Jeans, from Jhane Barnes to Timberland), along with many brands you probably could not think of.
The geography of Magic is the geography of consumer demographics: Sections are labeled Young Men's, Magic Kids, Active Lifestyle, Casual Lifestyle, Women's Sportswear, Dresses and Outerwear, and Streetwear. The mode of Magic is mercenary tribalism: buyers and sellers roaming the floor in their signifying outfits (there's a couture guy, here's a hip-hop girl, there goes a Japanese hipster kid), cutting their deals, while the trend prospectors and fashion editors study the action, looking for the smallest flicker of a pattern change in the garment zeitgeist. The language of Magic is an endless babel of logos and brands.
Part of the reason for my first trip to Magic, in early 2005, was to connect with Bobby Kim, otherwise known as Bobby Hundreds. I had met him in Los Angeles some months earlier, and he seemed likely to be a great help to me as I worked to understand what was changing in the consumer marketplace. He was twenty-five years old, a Korean American who grew up in multicultural Los Angeles and was into hip-hop, punk, and skateboarding. He was the kind of person the youth-obsessed marketing industry chases relentlessly, and he knew it. But he scorned mainstream efforts to speak to his generation. I'd been struck, for example, by an essay on his Web zine blasting the "commercialized" version of skateboarding culture that he saw in the X Games or on MTV as a "big-industry ruse."
So that's Bobby Hundreds: He is hard to impress. I'm making him sound like a cynic, but that's not the case. He's a smart guy with a lot of hustle; he has the highest standards, the greatest expectations, the biggest dreams. He's the new consumer, the nightmare of the brand managers and retail buyers who make Magic hum. We'll spend more time with him later; but for now, all you need to know is that when Bobby Hundreds looked around Magic, it was with a knowing smirk. He saw through the whole charade-just as the experts said he should. All these brands have no meaning; each one was, he said, "just another clothing line."
If brands and logos are mere symbols, empty of meaning, then choosing among clothing lines-or anything-becomes a largely rational affair. There are probably four, or maybe four and a half, factors to consider. One, of course, is price. Another is convenience. A third is quality. The fourth rational factor, I think it's fair to say, is pleasure. The half factor is ethics, which I'll leave aside for now but return to later, in this book's final section.
Needless to say, these ideas not only collide, but bleed into one another: You can derive pleasure from the simple fact of a bargain's low price, for example. To borrow a term from economics, the goal of the rational consumer is to "maximize utility"-the usefulness, or satisfaction, a consumer derives from a given purchase. A vacuum cleaner that does a nice job on your carpets is both useful and satisfying (assuming you want your carpets clean); a vacuum cleaner that leaves the carpet looking just as filthy as it did before you bought the thing probably isn't.
It's a simple enough framework for decision making, one that marginalizes squishier ideas like brand image. It's also consistent with what twenty-first-century consumers tell surveyors about how we make decisions: We regularly claim that logos mean little or nothing to us. Those polled by GfK Roper Consulting on the subject of why they buy what they buy named "past experience" with a given brand, followed by quality, price, and "personal recommendations of others." Only about a fifth were willing to cite branding as a factor at all. Another survey, focused specifically on apparel, suggested that most consumers had wised up to all the hype about new styles and trends and that a majority agreed that "fashion is less important to me than value and comfort." Who could disagree? Of course you and I are more interested in rational concerns like "value and comfort" than on frivolous trends. "Buying a $5,000 handbag just because it's a status symbol is a sign of weakness," as one keen observer of branded culture put it. Who was that keen observer? Miuccia Prada, overseer of the famous luxury brand. (Presumably, buying a $5,000 Prada bag is okay, if you're doing it for the right reasons-quality and value, for instance.)
This summarizes the thinking of those who point to the emerging superdemanding new consumer. Like Homo economicus-"Economic Man," the strictly rational cost/benefit maximizer of economic
models-the new Consumer Economicus sorts through the explosion of available information and makes his or her best choice. Consumer Economicus is not swayed by branding, "status symbols," or anything else that smacks of phony image making.
Yet it's hard to square this with the endless choices on view at Magic. There must be a million products here, ten million. Clearly there are differences in quality, materials, cut, form. But how many differences can there be? Shirts, pants, dresses, shoes. These are the essential tropes. Are there really so many quality and style variations?
The answer is in the Desire Code, my name for the complex of factors, rational and otherwise, that spark us to make particular purchase decisions. The backdrop for cracking that code-and the reason it's getting more complicated to crack-is the most interesting thing on display at Magic, a thing that absolutely nobody talked about, even though it was obvious everywhere you looked: the Pretty Good Problem.
fifty-three pretty good kitchen ranges
A couple of years ago, Consumer Reports tested and ranked fifty-three different kitchen ranges, priced from $400 to $5,200. Of these, it found that forty-seven were, over all, "very good." Four were "excellent." The lowest composite rating, given to a $1,100 Frigidaire dual-fuel model and a $750 GE gas range, was "good." None were rated "poor" or even "fair."
Barry Schwartz is a psychology professor at Swarthmore College with a particular interest in the incredible (and at times paralyzing) abundance of options available to the contemporary consumer. He wrote a book about it, The Paradox of Choice. Once upon a time, the challenge for the consumer was navigating a world of faulty, shoddy, or unsafe products. But really, Schwartz argues, that's not much of an issue anymore. The fifty-three pretty good kitchen ranges are a routine example of something that he sees happening in practically every consumer category. So when Consumer Reports, or whatever other authority is doing the testing, studies some group of products, the conclusion is invariably that most of the choices are, you know, pretty good. All that's left is to sift among increasingly minor differences to decide which one is the very best value of all, by however
absurdly narrow a margin. And while we may feel otherwise sometimes, the simple fact is that there are probably more pretty good products being sold in America now than at any time in history. This is a tribute to progress, but it both complicates our decision-making as consumers and makes it increasingly difficult for one of those fifty- three ranges to stand out.
While Schwartz approaches this problem from the point of view of the befuddled and overwhelmed consumer, Seth Godin is among those who look at it from the marketer's perspective. Godin is the author of many marketing- and business-advice books, including one called Purple Cow. The title is explained in an anecdote about
driving through France with his family; at first they were "enchanted" by the "storybook cows" they saw, but within twenty minutes, the sight of these animals had become familiar, and "boring." If a purple cow were to come into view, however-"that would be interesting," Godin wrote.
His point was that "most products are invisible," as is most marketing, and this means things must be made "remarkable" if they are to have a chance to succeed. There has to be something there for people to talk about. The first edition of Purple Cow, for example, included a limited number distributed in milk carton-like containers.
It's important to parse the metaphor closely: The cow is not remarkable because it produces more milk or requires less feed or also functions as an MP3 player and digital camera. Its purpleness is not an innovation, it's a novelty. The cow-or the kitchen appliance or the garment-still functions much like all its marketplace rivals. Except that it's purple. Which is "remarkable."
the commodity t
The Pretty Good Problem is even more acute at Magic than it is in the pages of Consumer Reports or, possibly, the picturesque pastures of France. The more narrow the range of actual differences in commodity attributes, the more important it becomes to create a different kind of value-one that transcends the merely material. This is the goal of branding.
It's easy to think of branding as a transparent and almost pointless process: Huge companies buying TV ads to shout their trademarked names at us is pretty much the opposite of honest and authentic expression, let alone novelty. A mere logo, then, seems an unlikely way to achieve Godin's state of purpleness. But there is more to branding than that. Branding is really a process of attaching an idea to a product. A hundred years ago or more-when consumers started to choose (for instance) factory-sealed containers of flour marked Pillsbury, rather than buying flour of unknown provenance and quality out of open vats-that idea might have been strictly utilitarian and rational: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, and thanks in part to the sprawling abundance that production improvements offered, the ideas attached to products have by necessity become more elaborate and ambitious. This is why, for example, a widely discussed and award-winning campaign for Dove skin cleansers-featuring women who were decidedly less svelte than the models traditionally used in advertising images-took the form of a grandiose statement on the nature of beauty itself.
If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people-whether they admit it to pollsters or even fully understand it themselves-to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand. It solves the Pretty Good Problem.
Here is one tool for understanding how this plays out in the market: the T-shirt. The T-shirt, really, is nothing. A former undergarment popularized as outerwear by World War II veterans who enjoyed their "skivvy" shirts on the often balmy Pacific front, it is today the plain brown cow of clothing, the sartorial equivalent of tap water. On a functional level, T-shirt innovation has not been radical compared with, say, the evolution in music-listening products. A time traveler from the 1930s might not know how to operate an iPod but could still figure out how to use the twenty-first-century T-shirt.
But speaking of music: Band logos stood out as one popular strategy for adding value to a commodity in my safari through the Magic wilderness. A dozen or more companies offered T-shirts for the Clash, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, and a seemingly endless variety of others, from the well-known to the obscure. At least three companies were selling rock T-shirts for
toddlers-two had Ramones offerings. Maybe the bands who turned CBGB into the birthplace of American punk did not sell branded merch at the time, but thirty years later, Ramones T-shirts have outsold Ramones albums ten to one. And CB's itself had a sizable Magic booth; in fact, its clothing line grossed $2 million in 2004, double the revenue of the actual music club, which later shut down.
Of course, music-related T-shirts were only one category. A sizable percentage of the apparel on sale at Magic really exists solely as a carrier for symbolic meanings developed elsewhere in the marketplace. Playboy had a huge display of its branded apparel, and Hustler was there, too. American Chopper, the television show, had a big space, as did Fender guitars and Lowrider magazine-one of several brands that offered a working bar, live events, and DJs. Lowrider, as far as I knew, was just some specialty publication for fanatics of a particular style of car, but now sold apparel as well.
Kung Fu Inc. had shirts promoting the scabrous antiauthority clip-art comic Get Your War On and the indie-chick pornography brand SuicideGirls. Old Varsity sold college-wear. An endless number of television shows and movie properties were represented, from Adult Swim to ESPN to The Redneck Comedy Hour. One of the biggest booths was stuffed with T-shirts and other apparel carrying the symbol of John Deere, the maker of heavy farm equipment. Then there was X-Lab, distributor of shirts that say things like "Fuck the Fucking Fucks." Now that's purple.
Finally, there were T-shirts that simply advertised consumer products. Coastal Concepts had Burger King and Reese's Cup shirts. Logotel had shirts for Kellogg's, Hostess, M&M's. There were Moon Pie shirts. Others had Ford, Dodge, and Chevy shirts. And if you are still imagining that you are thirsty, there were shirts for 7UP, Mountain Dew, RC, Dr Pepper, A&W root beer, Miller High Life, Corona, Guinness, Budweiser, even Hamm's and Mickey's. A company called Brew City offered up the "subversive" versions that assumed brand literacy in order to mock it, by way of emblems like Schitt, in the style of the Schlitz logo.
Eventually, I turned a corner and was confronted with the Che booth. Here, in a fairly large and lavish display, a company called Fashion Victim was peddling to interested retailers a huge array of shirts, banners, and other items featuring the iconic image of Che Guevara. It also offered Lenin shirts, Mao shirts, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Geronimo shirts. Fashion Victim's website explained: "Join the revolution with us here at Fashion Victim! These are revolutionary times, so where better to get the gear you need. We have all the latest designs in the world of propaganda and revolution, not to mention we are the only licensed retailers of Che Guevara shirts in the US of A."
Excerpted from Buying In by Rob Walker. Copyright © 2008 by Rob Walker. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.