I am reading a great book by Seth Godin, “Small is the New Big“. This is a great book that is basically a collection of his blog posts. Seth has a great way of making complex ideas simple and accessible. He is not afraid to say what the rest of us are thinking, but often fail to say. This is what makes his blog and books so compelling- great big ideas, in small packages- what my friend Chris Brogan calls “Ideas with handles”.

I guess I have the heart of an urban sociologist. I love books about why we do stuff- Freakonomics, Paco Underhill‘s great books The Call of the Mall and Why We Buy, Marcus Buckingham books on what makes a great manager, and Tom Rath’s books about Filling Your Bucket. All of these books look at big things we do as people, as a culture, and dig deep into the root cause of this stuff.

Seth’s book talks about how marketing is done, and his rants on the race to the bottom and the race to the top of the economic food chain are intriguing. I’ve been reading alot about motivation, and another recent book talked about the heirarchy of motivations. Some people always want to appeal to our baser instincts of greed, lust gluttony- the seven deadly sins. Yet, there are companies and products that appeal to our higher order of motivations, such as beauty, design, luxury, etc. And remarkably, it’s the things with the great design, the beauty and the simplicity that end up being the most valued, the most expensive, when compared to the basic, stripped down or “blingged up” versions of the product.

For example, Rolex is just a watch. Why do you need to spend thousands of dollars on a Rolex when a Timex will do the same job for less than $20 at Walmart? Comparatively speaking, the Rolex is all about design, durability, and the cache that comes with it. People will assume if you are wearing a real, non-knock-off Rolex, that you are a wealthy and serious person, who has cash to burn on such a fine timepiece. They will not make such assumptions from your cheap Timex, and may even infer that you are not the type of person who values everything that becomes associated with a Rolex.

When you buy an expensive, crafted product, you also buy the brand. A Rolex watch may tell time the same as aTimex, but you can’t trade on Timex’s influence in the same way you can with a Rolex. And this is, of course, what marketers and companies want. They want you to totally identify yourself with the product and brand, and then personify it, assuming that others who use this brand have the same attributes.

It’s interesting- I went to a prep school, and have a bit of the inner preppy still ingrained in me. Polo shirts, tretorn sneakers, etc. Two companies still do prep the way it was in the 80’s- what we might call the “classic look”- Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. I shop at both stores, and my brand association is always one of classic, well made clothes. My mom keeps telling me that where she lives, Hilfiger is a brand she associates with African Americans, because apparently, a lot of people there have adopted this style. She can’t understand why I would persist in buying Hilfiger products, because she associates them with something I am not, yet I associate them with quality and a blast from my past, something she helped create by sending me to that school. Hmmmmm.

I think this goes to something that marketers and companies cannot control. You can put products out on the market, design your ads to appeal to a certain breed of consumer, but the people that will ultimately adopt your brand as their own story may vary from your target market. I can’t even begin to guess why Hiilfiger is becoming an african american brand to some people, yet Ralph Lauren stays as country club as ever, since much of their merchandise has had a similar prep overtone. Yes, Hilfiger has become much hipper and funkier, and Lauren stays classic and suburban. But both have quality merchandise, that is worth the price paid. And I am happy to buy based on quality rather than on perceived ethnicity of brand.

Consumers now are telling their own stories and having their own voice. We tell businesses what is good and what is bad. The only problem is that it is no longer controllable the way it used to be, with more limited media outlets. Now with the internet, the brand story is told and retold, credited and discredited much faster than ever before. You can’t control as well who will see your ads and who will adopt you, as a product and brand. So the trick is, in the end, to be yourself and stop pandering to others- the people who like you will find you just fine on their own. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And let’s face facts. People want authenticity now more than ever. They can smell fake a million miles away. But originality, purpose and heart-this will always be successful, because it is easy- it is like breathing- and we connect to real so much easier than to glitz, especially in the long run.