Rob Walker, New York Times Marketing correspondent, in his book ‘Buying In’ outlines an interesting thesis. His book focuses on the dialogue between individuals and the things they buy. One of his ore ideas is that one of the most important factors for people in deciding what brands they ‘buy into’ is not what these items say to other people about us, but what they say to us about ourselves- think of the middle-manager with the MacBook, assuring himself that he is in some ways creative, more than just an Excel Sheet drone…
Now clearly every product, service or company has a network of associations within culture that effect its brand, and it is the commonality in these that people buy into, which of course means that this isn’t a pure one-to-one dialogue between buyer and brand. (I would actually argue that, a brand ONLY exists in culture- marketers do not position a brand, they shepherd, nudge and cajole a living web of values and equities that inhabit the space between the company & product and the people who buy or use it- as well as those that don’t, but that perhaps is for another time…) However, far too much emphasis is placed on what people are telegraphing to others with their choice of symbols and artifacts that they surround themselves with. Without this reflexive side to the dialogue, how else would we explain designer underwear? (low-slung urban jeans-wearers aside).
Many jaded Brand professionals are particularly quick to criticize the newly rich, and aspirant emerging middle-classes in fast growing emerging economies for their love of branded bling. Often the logos and the Louis, are dismissed simply as a new-world Nouveau Riche display. If we try and see these purchases (legitimate or imitation) through the lens of that reflexive narrative, then it takes on a rather different character. As opposed to a gauche display of new wealth, a keeping up with the Nguyens, da Silvas or Patels, we can read this as a quest for markers and means of finding and understanding ones place in this world.
Newly mass-affluent populations are, in many cases, in uncharted territory. Previous generations may never have had the opportunities to achieve their material comfort that they now possess. Many of these rapidly growing markets were even closed societies that did not afford the opportunity to engage in these consumer interactions. Many of the aspirant individuals we speak to at Flamingo are planning ahead. Saving for homes, marking out milestones, experts at delayed gratification earning and waiting patiently to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Not really the kind of person who is indulging in ostentation for its own sake. What these brands can say to them ( as opposed to telegraph to others) is that, I am doing okay. They can make you feel modern, they provide signposts and markers on this newly trodden path. They can tell the purchaser that they are progressing. Less about ‘I am doing better than you’, much more about ‘I am better than I was before’. This is not to say there isn’t an element of display involved, but there is also internal dialogue. We must understand that in many ways, Luxury is a necessity.