Vicki and I were talking about it a few weeks ago, and for both of us it seemed to start with Lacoste shirts and Nike shoes. Lacoste (also called Izod, for some reason) made polo shirts that had a little green alligator on the left breast. Nike made athletic shoes.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, it became very important to have a shirt with an alligator on it, and shoes with the ‘swoosh’ thing on the sides. I have no idea why. Both brands were popular among tennis players, but I don’t remember tennis being all that popular at the time. Maybe the idea was just to look like you were wealthy enough to play tennis, or pretentious enough, or something.

Fads were nothing new. As long as there have been people there have been fashions, and as long as there are fashions there will be fads – but Nike shoes and Lacoste shirts were the first major fads I can remember that were connected to a particular brand. It wasn’t enough to be wearing a polo shirt, it had to be a Lacoste polo shirt. Same deal with the shoes. They had to have that swoosh thing.

Lacoste claims to be the first clothing company that ever put their logo on the outside of the clothes. I don’t think Nike was the first company to have a distinctive design on their shoes, but they definitely made a big deal out of it. Both brands were pretty expensive, and that may have been the appeal. After all, most jewelry is designed to say nothing more than “I am wealthy enough to afford this.” Putting the logo out there where everybody could see it was probably the most efficient way to advertise how much you spent on something.
I’ll freely admit I don’t do a good job of keeping up with pop culture. Just to give you one example, for a long time I thought this whole ‘Jersey Shore‘ thing was some kind of joke. I kept seeing references to it, but the whole premise seemed so absurd I thought people were talking about a Saturday Night Live skit, or maybe a running gag on some other comedy show I don’t watch. Then I saw an episode of South Park where they were making fun of a character called Snooki who was part of this Jersey Shore thing, and it seemed odd to me that South Park would be mocking something from SNL, so I looked it up.

I was probably better off being ignorant.

It was kind of the same deal with Abercrombie & Fitch. I kept seeing people everywhere with Abercrombie & Fitch shirts. Kids, women, men, you name it. I travel a lot, and everywhere I went I saw people with shirts that said Abercrombie & Fitch on the front. If I thought about it at all, I guess I thought it was a place, you know? Like those t-shirts people buy when they go to the Hard Rock Cafe in Istanbul or wherever. Like, “this is the t-shirt you buy in the gift shop at the Abercrombie & Fitch restaurant.”

We spent a long weekend in Orlando when we went down for the shuttle launch, and Vicki managed to talk me into visiting this place called Downtown Disney, which is basically an entire mall made up of gift shops. Seriously. That’s what it is. The whole place was flooded with people sporting Abercrombie & Fitch attire, but I still didn’t see any Abercrombie & Fitch restaurant. I figured if there was any single place where all these millions of people had gone to buy their souvenir Abercrombie & Fitch shirts it would be Orlando, but no dice. So when I got home I googled it.

It turns out that Abercrombie & Fitch is just an overpriced clothing store, where you go to buy stuff that has the Abercrombie & Fitch logo on it. Seriously. That’s what it is. They don’t even pretend the shit is high quality, or stylish, or innovative or anything. The singular appeal of Abercrombie & Fitch garments seems to be that it has the Abercrombie & Fitch logo on it.

I have a hard time getting my head around this sort of thing. It seems like it would be simpler and more effective to just wear a sign around your neck that says “My clothing is very expensive.”
Ten or twelve years ago I was doing some independent safety consulting, and one of my clients was this big textile outfit near Fayetteville where they made sweatshirts. They were having problems with employees getting ergonomic injuries like carpal tunnel and repetitive stress stuff, and they asked me to go take a look at their process and see if I could suggest some improvements.

I spent a week in their factory watching them make sweatshirts, and aside from all the injuries (that’s a story for another post) it was fascinating. The whole thing started with big rolls of sweatshirt-type fabric (whatever the hell you call that stuff) and at the first few stations they would cut all of it into sweatshirt shapes. Then the next station would sew the seams down one side, and they’d pass it down to the next station to sew the seams down the other side, that sort of thing. Every stitch had a different station. They’d sew one cuff on, then the next cuff, then the collar. They even had one station where this woman’s entire job was turning the sweatshirts right-side-out, because they were inside-out when they sewed them.

To you, this probably sounds like an unusually tedious episode of How It’s Made, but I thought it was pretty neat. There must have been 200 employees in that factory; every single one of them, from the manager down to the maintenance people were women, and it just blew me away how fast they could crank out those sweatshirts. They moved them along in bundles of a dozen, and the bundles were flying. It was like watching water flow through a rapid, somehow. Fabric went in one end, and sweatshirts came out of the other.

Among all this frantic activity, my favorite station was the last one, where they sewed on the labels. There was a huge rack on the wall, and as I wandered along and looked into the bins, I saw labels from Nike, Champion, Jerzees, Target, Eddie Bauer, and Adidas, just to name a few that I remember. There must have been a hundred labels. A couple of bundles came off the line and they got Nike labels. A few more bundles came off the line and they got Target labels.

I was kind of stunned. I said “But those are the exact same sweatshirts” and the woman said “Of course they are.” I said “So what’s the difference?” She just shrugged and said “Price.”

They kept it pretty cold in that factory, but as I wandered back down the line I couldn’t help but notice that none of the women were wearing Nike sweatshirts.
Ballcaps, trucker hats, whatever you call them – they used to be called “Gimme Caps.” Know why? Because they had company logos on the front, and companies felt like if you were going to walk around advertising their product with a significant portion of your cranial real estate, the least they could do was give you the damned hat for free. There was an implied agreement in this arrangement. “Give me a free hat, and I’ll advertise for you.”

Somewhere along the line, the companies realized that people would actually pay money out of their own pocket to become a walking advertisement. Terms like “identifying with the brand” and “being part of the product lifestyle” started cropping up. It isn’t called advertising, of course. It’s “Getting the gear!”

Remember when you were a teenager and it just seemed vitally important to have that t-shirt with the name of your favorite band on it? I’m with you. My AC/DC t-shirt was my favorite garment for years – but why did we all do that? Were we trying to convince other people that this band was awesome and they should listen too? No. We wore those shirts because as teenagers, we had a fragile sense of our own identity. They were a form of tribal marking, much like bumper stickers. Not communication or persuasion, but a way of saying “This is who I am.” See what I mean by that? “I am the kind of person who likes AC/DC.”

I suspect that the same kind of impulse is behind all this branding. We’re identifying with the brand, right? “I am the kind of person who uses this product.” I guess what concerns me is that the popularity of it seems to imply that it’s the adults with the fragile sense of identity now.
At the Bass Pro Shops store in Concord, NC.
“Can I help you with anything, sir?”
“This is a really nice shirt. I like it a lot, but why does it have this guy’s name on it?”
“Oh, that’s the Bob Timberlake logo, sir. We have an entire Bob Timberlake line.”
“Yeah, I see that. You’ve got his name on shirts, hats, pants, luggage, knick knacks, apple butter, furniture and rugs.”
“Mr. Timberlake is a world famous painter of landscapes and wildlife, sir.”
“Great. Do you think Mr. Timberlake has a shirt with my name on it?”
“Ummm… probably not, sir.”
“So why would I want to wear a shirt with his name on it?”



2 comments to Branded

  • I’ve always found this interesting. It’s an example of how we are.

    I used to think if you fell for it you were stupid, but then I realized, if folks like whatever it is about what they buy and it makes them happy, there you go. I just wonder if they realize the truth about the products sometimes. It’s kind of like the guitar amplifier that goes to 11. It’s not louder, but it goes to 11.

    Gasoline was my big shocker. There are usually on a 1 or 2 refineries that supply your area and they all draw from that refinery. I was shocked the first time I see all different brands pulling up to the same rack.

    Do you know why Hybrid cars like the Prius are shaped funny? It’s not for gas mileage like I would think. It’s because the hybrids that look like normal cars don’t sell as well. Buyers want everyone to know immediately that they are saving the planet and a different shape says it better than the great big HYBRID letters.

  • Kendra

    Ken – this is OUTSTANDING. My favorite thing you’ve ever written (and you write some good stuff). Well done, sir. 🙂