Monday, June 25, 2007

Book discussion chapter 5: Branding and identity

L. L. Barkat and Charity Singleton have blogged about chapter 5 of The Suburban Christian, which is called "Status Check: How Consuming and Branding Shape Our Identity." I don't mention this in the book, but one of the things that most convicted me about brand identities and consumer culture was a speaker at Urbana 93 that mentioned how more people in the world know the name of Coca-Cola than the name of Jesus. That got me thinking about how much consumer brand identities dominate our lives. Charity makes these observations:
I think corporate branding has made us all a little lazy in how we get to know and evaluate the world and the people in it. Rather than creating our own aesthetic style in how we dress and decorate our homes, we simply shop at the Gap or Pottery Barn. And rather than taking the time to explore the character and history of our neighbors, we identify them as the man with the blue Suburban, or the family with the matching Trek bicycles.

I consider myself fairly unbranded; I buy a lot of products in bulk from a locally owned grocery store, or from farmers whose agri-businesses don't even have names. But I still identify myself with brand names when I tell people I listen to National Public Radio and shop at Trader Joe's. I don't tell them this so they can know my listening or shopping habits. I tell them this so they'll know what "type" of person I am.
As a fellow NPR listener, I resonate with Charity's comment. Branding in some ways is inescapable. But we can certainly do our best to minimize the power branding has over us, especially in terms of how it shapes our identity and sense of self-worth and status. In many ways, our consumption shapes our identity. (One of the easiest ways to decode someone's self-perception and identity is to look at the magazines on their coffee table. They usually point to identities that we desire or communities that we aspire to be part of.) The challenge is for our Christian identity to shape our consumer identities, not the other way around.

To be honest, this is the one chapter of the book I wasn't sure about including. I had plenty of stuff to say about consumer culture and it didn't seem to all fit in chapter 4, so some of it morphed into chapter 5. And my company happened to be in the midst of a rebranding process, so I had been reading up on the topic of brand identities and was thinking about a lot of these things. (Even as I resist branding in some areas of my life, I've been a diehard InterVarsity Press brand loyalist for years, buying books simply because they said IVP on the spine.) At any rate, the content is there for whatever it's worth, and I hope folks find it helpful. I'll leave you with a few questions for self-reflection or discussion:

- What sense of self-identity or community is shaping how you consume?
- How are your consumer choices shaping your identity?
- What magazines are on your coffee table, and what purchases have you made because of them?
- What brand stories or images have you bought into?
- Has a particular Christian conviction led you to change any of your patterns of consumption?
- Has your church or Christian community helped you be more accountable in your consumer choices?
- How might your church wield its collective consuming power more Christianly?

P.S. Charity also posted a follow-up to her comments on chapter 3 about commuter culture, with great observations about her experiences using the bus.


Anonymous said...

Al -- As always, a very poignant, thought-provoking chapter. One aspect I did not get to in my post was the Christian branding I often use both in good and bad ways. For instance, I too have bought IVP books for years, simply because I felt I could trust what the brand stood for. However, there are other Christian brands which I won't mention specifically that I've often used to write people off or to label them to others. A person's theology and faith are far too complex, just like the people themselves, to pigeon-hole with a brand name.

By the way, I have continued taking the bus and walking to and from work for the past three weeks. I also have begun riding my bicycle for errands. You've created a new habit in my life through the power of your ideas.

Al Hsu said...

Yep, I think we all make value judgments on people based on whether they listen to NPR or watch Fox News or read Miroslav Volf or Joel Osteen. I recently interacted with some folks who work for an organization and have a theology that I'm not all that excited about, but then I got to know them and was very encouraged by them. Sad how quickly we write people off because of whatever brand markers or identities they may have.

And I'm glad to hear that the bus and the bike are working out well for you! Very cool.

L.L. Barkat said...

Last night, I was reading about Simone Weil, who gave up the trappings of high social status... becoming a laborer when she had other "higher" options. Apparently, she even refused to eat more than a poor person's ration and this cost her her life at 34.

In essence, she chose a "lower" identity. I guess the thing is that we will always have an identity of some sort. The question is why we choose to align ourselves with one versus another. If, as we began to discuss on Seedlings and Wide Open Spaces, we try to move towards an identity that fits in a narrative of love, this is Christ-like.

I don't know that I'd ever choose Weil's particular path, but I am interested in continuing to "re-story" my life in a narrative of love.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post and great comments. Charity and L.L. are both so thoughtful.

Here in Texas, I get branded by others because of the denomination I attend. So much that I sometimes find myself apologizing for it. I shouldn't do that.

On my coffee table:
Three recent photo albums.
Two remotes
Word of Mouth Marketing (my book)
Snow Lake (Amy's book)
Better Homes and Gardens (which we are dropping)
The Week
our denomination magazine (sent to us unasked for)
a college alumn magazine
Technology Review
Entertainment Weekly (blech)
Good Housekeeping
U. S. News and World Report
Some travel magazine (?)
And a Pfaltzgraf catalogue?

(We participate in a magazine exchange with my wife's parents.)

I guess this says that we are trying really hard to look like readers.

Unknown said...

An interesting brand story:
When I lost my earbuds I bought the more general brand because they were cheaper than iPod's. The off-brand's were uncomfortable, fell out of my ears a lot, and didn't provide steady sound to both ears within three months. I bought another pair of true earbuds for $30-- this is one area in which I've decided brand actually mattered, and I'm $20 poorer for it!


I would say I'm the most brand-y when it comes to non-profits or cause-based companies. I have a Compassion child (for 7 yr now), but now am a much bigger World Vision fan. I heart IVCF over Campus Crusade or Navigators. I embrace Christians for Biblical Equality and Democrats for Life and whatnot. I'm also a big fan of Seventh Generation paper products and Pura Vida coffee.

It's interesting that I brand myself by my causes more than anything; it very much goes with my poli sci major and ministry interests-- "THOSE PEOPLE are the ones who would vote like me, THIS GROUP does ministry the way I would do it." I also am more likely to trust other orgs just because someone from one endorses them in some way or another. For example, I know little about the Veritas forums, but I automatically assume they're awesome b/c of IV. I have no actual Alpha experience but I assume it's great because I know IVP authors and evangelical PCUSA churches that like it. To me it's very interesting how our brands interact and encourage us to adopt new loyalties.


Being the book nerd, like you, I can also rank my Christian book brands: Zondervan/Eerdmans tied for 3rd, Baker 2nd, IVP a high 1st. Smaller publishers like Paraclete interest me but don't make the rankings yet.

I will buy almost any soda because it is a Mexican brand.