Before there were Brands

I may have written about this before, but there was a time when there weren’t brands.  Well, OK, brands have been around for a while–much longer than me–but there was a time when I was growing up when what something was was more important than what name was on it.

I was reminded of this recently when my boss (who is about the same age as me) received a scan of an old black and white photo from a friend and sent it around the office for amusement.  It showed a bunch of 18-year-olds sitting around near a monument, all dressed in windbreakers.

See, that’s the trick.  They were dressed in windbreakers.  Not Columbia, North Face, or any other brand.  Windbreakers.

If you’re my age (or about my age) you’ll remember these.  Flannel-lined nylon shells with two slash pockets on the outside, done up with snaps that were usually painted to match the nylon color, which was usually dark blue, but sometimes black or green.  They must have been manufactured or or imported by the millions, because every teenage male I knew in high school (it seemed) owned one. 

They probably had some maker’s label inside, but none of us paid any attention to those.  We wore those with shirts, jeans, boots the brand of which largely didn’t matter.  I have a vague notion of brand consciousness emerging around that time with Levi’s “501” campaign, but other than that, the only thing I really remember being branded was “pocket” calculators, and that was because we all knew that TI SR-10s were the best.  🙂

Branding is pervasive.  I noticed when my kids started to attend high school that it had become fashionable not to remove the cloth band from a suit’s sleeve–the band that had the maker’s name and logo attached to it.  To me, having that band looked gauche.  To them, it was an announcement about the suit.  Hmmm.

A few years ago, I took my daughter to visit a Midwestern college she was thinking of attending.  After lunch, we wandered around the student center (why do no colleges have student unions any more?) and looked at the poster vendors, books, t-shirt sellers, etc.  My daughter found a shirt she wanted, so I pulled out my purple wallet and immediately the vendor (a student herself) started to “ooh” and “ahh” at my North Face wallet.

At this point, I can only think of this image:


What is it about brands?  What does it matter?

I’ve written before about the importance of brand and identity.  And I’m subject to it as well.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t become a little brand-agnostic.  Or nostalgic for a time when brands were considerably less important.

OK, brain fart.  I was about to write about how cool it is to shop at Goodwill and how that frees me from brand consciousness.  After all, I’m wearing stuff from Goodwill right now.  Then I realized something.  I’m not just wearing stuff from Goodwill.  I’m wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt that I bought at Goodwill.  When I pick out clothing like shirts, pants, ties at a thrift store, I’m still very conscious of branding.  It’s not “look at this cool thing I got for $5!”  It’s “look at this cool brandname thing I got for $5!”t

Ugh.  What to do?

What to do is this.  Remember the True Purpose of Branding.  That True Purpose is just to distinguish what you’re selling from what someone else is selling.  But distinction is not necessarily about being better.  Sometimes, it’s just about being different.  And that’s fine.

But look at things for what they are, their functionality.  Prestige is for suckers.

Now hand me my windbreaker.  I’ve got to go outside.


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