Wm's Reviews > Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

Buying In by Rob Walker
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it was amazing
bookshelves: socio-poli-religio-cultural, marketing-pr-social-media

It is quite likely, although by no means assured, that when it comes out this summer Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are will take its rightful place alongside such paradigm shifting titles as The World is Flat, Freakonomics, Applebee's America, The Tipping Point, etc. Like most of its compatriots Buying In relies heavily on expert interviews and case studies to explore how the world has changed over the past 10 years or so. In this case -- marketing, branding and consumer culture. Also like them, it turns the conventional wisdom about the field on its head. However, what makes this book different is that because all of us are consumers of one sort or another and make hundreds of consumer choices each week, the direct impact on our lives off the concepts Walker explores is much more obvious than, say, globalization or the voting habits of exurban females.

In addition, Walker uses a conversational, easily approachable, reader-oriented style and, more importantly, rather than just lay out his arguments, he involves readers in his own journey to puzzle out the changes taking place in marketing and consumer culture. The result makes for a warmer read than other books of this type.

He begins by debunking the common assertion of the past decade that consumers see through marketing now, that marketers were now at the mercy of savvy consumers who are without brand loyalty. That advertising doesn't work anymore and consumers need to be courted. That we have all become immune to commercial persuasion. And yet, as Walker notes, consumption isn't down so something else must be going on. He writes "The truth is that the commercial persuasion industry, while clearing coping with the change, isn't going out of business anytime soon. It's adapting" (introduction*).

And how is it adapting? By engaging in murketing, a term coined by Walker -- "a blend of murky and marketing." That is: the attempt by marketers to "blur the line between branding channels and everyday life" through product placement, unexpected uses of the logo, guerrilla marketing, sponsorships, etc.

If it was just about those tactics, murketing wouldn't be anything other than another name for "21st century marketing" or whatever you want to call it. It would be just another in a long line of valuable-but-ultimately-only-useful-to-marketers books that have been published in the past decade. But as Walker tries to figure out what's going and what he really means by murketing, he discovers that it isn't just about what marketers are doing -- it's also about consumers response to their tactics as well as to the whole idea of brands, logos and marketing. It's consumers, especially young people, actively engaging with the marketers and their products, "playing key, active roles in helping certain products and brands succeed." He notes: "[These consumers] were doing something new, but it wasn't really about resisting and rejecting branding. It was about reinventing it and maybe even revitalizing it" (introduction).

Now, it would be tempting to look at some of the products and companies that Walker explores in the book -- American Apparel, Red Bull, the iPod -- and dismiss Walker as a cool runner, a trendy chaser, a person besotted with unusual ways of branding. Three points: 1. What he finds out about some of these brands isn't entirely what you would expect. 2. He does an excellent job of bringing all his case studies back to bear on the concept of murketing and on the consumer. 3. He isn't acting as a cheerleader here. Walker is trying to figure out what is going on and he discusses what's positive and negative about this move into murketing that our consumer culture is experiencing and is both realistic and hopeful about the possibility of resisting/co-opting it.

Part of how he accomplishes the above is to try (using cognitive science, psychology, narrative theory and more) and tease out what he calls the desire code, the "secret dialogue" mentioned in the title that consumers engage in when they make choices. Whether we like it or not, the consumer choices we make are guided by our sense of who we are (and want to be) and, in turn, when we acquire products they become part of who we are – what we surround ourself with.

To illustrate -- a (long, lame, rather boring) story:

Late last November, I found myself in J.C. Penney's looking at a buy-one-get-one-free sale sign for Arizona jeans. I needed a pair of blue jeans, but that wasn't why I was in J.C. Penney's. I was there because the first snow of my first winter in Minnesota had just begun, and I still didn't have a winter coat. I had found one at Kohl's that was $30 less than I had been willing to spend and had stashed away so that I could return and buy it if there wasn't anything better at Penney's. There wasn't. But there was a sale on Arizona brand jeans. My only pair of jeans had worn out. All of my casual pants acquisitions over the last few years had been khakis. Not by aesthetic choice, but because I could wear them to work and the mild Bay Area climate meant that I could wear them year round.

But now winter, real winter, was coming, and I needed something to wear on the weekends.

I had also recently made the momentous decision to not buy Levi's, the denim brand I have worn pretty much exclusively since I was a teenager. This was not an easy decision to come to. For me, Levi's jeans were the only choice for a true Westerner, which I was. But they were just too expensive, and I didn't want to spend more than $15 for a pair of jeans. My first thought had been to go hipster and pick up some working man's brand at Fleet Farm. But it turns out that Dickies jeans aren't that cheap, and I don't look good in carpenter pants. And Wrangler's don't quite do it. And they didn't have Ben Davis (which is a bit too hipster for me anyhow although I like that they're out of Novato, Calif.). And the Fleet Farm off brand just seemed a bit too flimsy.

So there I am in J.C. Penney's staring at this sale sign for Arizona jeans that are $30 but are buy-one-get-one-free and so meet my $15 limit, and I had gone under budget on the winter coat enough that I could get a coat and two pair of jeans and be all set for winter (the hat, scarf and gloves having actually been acquired earlier that month).

I almost walked away. And I admit that a big part of that was because in my mind Arizona as a brand name is totally lame. It evokes a fake West. None of my rancher forebearers wore Arizona jeans.

After at least two minutes of internal dialogue, a mishmash of desire and brand identification and financial calculation, etc., I went over to the display, grabbed my size in the style I prefer. And there was a bit of confusion about that – I knew “my jeans” only as Levi’s 550 authentic stonewash. I had to translate that into the lingo Arizona used and then try a pair on to figure out if the fit and leg style was right. It was close enough.

A long, trivial story. And yet, when I ready Buying In, the experience came to mind. Why had it been such a painful decision? And why am I still torn by it? Not in some huge, fundamental way. But there’s no doubt that Levi’s was a very small part of who I thought I was.

And that was a fairly traditional brand transaction. What Walker shows is that the culture and marketing are blending in even more, less obvious ways.

So is there any way out? I think our knee-jerk reaction is to want to deny that brands have an affect on us and maintain that our choices are completely rational. Of course, if our consumer choices were completely rational, there wouldn’t be a need for branding or advertising. We’d just crunch the data about the actual physical make-up and uses of the product and decide. But humans aren’t rational. We’re storytellers, narrativists.

Walker doesn’t make any grand claims about resisting consumer culture – although he does explore some interesting, underground attempts to resist or at least redefine marketing.

But he does offer us this:

“If we tell ourselves that we are ‘immune’ to murketing and brands simply by virtue of living in the clicky world of the twenty-first century, it’s that much easier to slip into rationale thinking as we confront the increasingly murky line between commercial persuasion and everyday life. But the significance of the material things and symbols that mean the most has always flowed from us to the object, not the other way around. If we know that meaning and value are things we give to symbols, not things we get from them, the dynamic changes – even in the distracting context of consumer culture” (chapter 14).

*This review is based on an advance copy of the book. The page numbers may change so I'm only citing the chapter from where quotes are pulled. This isn't a professional review even though it's quite a bit longer and more formal than the normal GoodReads review so I'm not going to worry about that -- not that newspaper reviewers include page numbers either. Which when you think about it is kind of lame.

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Reading Progress

March 25, 2008 – Shelved
March 25, 2008 – Shelved as: socio-poli-religio-cultural
March 25, 2008 – Shelved as: marketing-pr-social-media
Started Reading
April 1, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

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message 1: by Gk (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gk this is a great review. you should post it to amazon.

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