Advertising: Rob Walker on Buying Into a Brand

Rob Walker, the author of the weekly New York Times Magazine column Consumed, has devoted years to telling Americans why we buy stuff. In his new book, "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are" (Random House. $25.), he looks at the latest generation of consumers who have been inundated with 360-degree advertising campaigns. But instead of finding them jaded or immune to marketing ploys, he describes a youth culture that embrace certain brands as forms of self-expression. And when there isn't an existing brand that fits the bill, they'll create one of their own.

NEWSWEEK's Temma Ehrenfeld spoke to Walker about today's brand-conscious consumer, why they're so willing to buy-in and how susceptible we are to "marketing." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: It seems that we've all gotten more skeptical as consumers and are less likely to shell out for the reassurance of a well-known brand. Is that really true?
Rob Walker: I was hearing that we were becoming more brandproof and that young people were especially brand-resistant. But it turned out that while young people were savvy about marketing and rejecting mainstream brands, I found that they were creating brands of their own with streety cachet. I didn't expect that. It interested me that they were choosing to create brands, as the center of a new subculture. For instance, when you buy the Hundreds T shirt you're buying the brand, the Hundreds lifestyle--it's rebellious, Southern California, hip-hop. It's like punk, with no ideology or music. I'd ask, "So what does the lifestyle consist of besides buying the Hundreds product?" The answers were vague. It was completely brand oriented.

Word of mouth campaigns aren't exactly new, but you describe companies that upped the ante. In particular, Al Fresco sausage, which convinced some 2,000 of its customers to serve as unpaid company representatives at their friends' and family's July 4 parties, pass out free samples and collect responses. Who are these people? Don't they have a life?
It seems hard to believe that people would do this in their free time. But these volunteers aren't crazy, they were normal people and they weren't pathetic. The fundamental thing the word-of-mouth agencies like BzzAgent (which devised the campaign) have tapped into is a desire to feel like a trendsetter, to tell your friends about the new thing. The volunteers are getting stuff for free. If you get it first and no one hears about it, then it doesn't mean anything. If you go out and tell people and other people drink your Kool-Aid, you get the buzz of having had the product first.

You say successful brands can have a placebo effect on its customers. Do you have proof of that?
There's one study about people drinking energy drinks and doing puzzles. When people were told that drink cost $2, their performance on the puzzle improved. When they heard that the drink only cost 40 cents because the university had gotten a discount, their performance dropped. The researchers concluded that you do get what you pay for. It's essentially a variation on the placebo effect. You buy into the sell--it doesn't come from marketing or the consumer alone, it comes from the two together.

And businesses everywhere are dying to know what makes this happen. Is there a new secret?
Marketers might not like to hear this, but it's different every time; there's chance and culture involved. The consumer embrace is part of it--we're not passive, and we never were. New Coke is a good example. Consumers had a short conversation with New Coke and we said we didn't want it.

You point out that companies are adding "green" options to please a customer that wants a fast "ethical fix." What do you make of the debate over Fiji brand water ? Can the company get away with saying it's "green" when its selling water in plastic bottles that's been flown halfway around the world?
There's been a lot of press that there might be a backlash against bottled water. Fiji is just the most extreme. There's nothing they can do to change their business model, the whole point of the product is that the water comes from Fiji and that's what makes it pure and expensive. Fiji's sales have been strong. What's notable is how aggressive their campaign is to persuade people that they're green. There are some people who say the consumer won't stand for it. But the marketplace is offering so many signals, adding the green, eco idea just adds to the confusion and consumers are just trying to get through their day. Fiji is trying to convert the act of drinking bottled water into a virtuous act.

That reminds me of the Dove soap campaign about women who are super-wrinkled or freckled being beautiful. What did you think of those ads?
Dove is making a statement about what beauty is. What's shocking is how big that conversation has gotten on the basis of a marketing campaign. Dove has commissioned a play in Canada with a serious playwright about older women. It's an example of how the difference between culture and advertising is becoming murky.

You like the word murky.
I do. That's why I use the word "murketing" to describe the many ways the lines between marketing and culture and everyday life have become murky, from Dove producing a play to grass-roots movements to create a brand.

Advertising has always been so obsessed with youth. Will that ever change as the country gets older?
Youth are always going to be susceptible to brands--because it's a time of identity formation and brands help. At some point, you lose interest in identify formation--you've figured yourself out--but the timeline has extended. Culture is cajoling us to stay young, which works to the advantage of marketers. But consumers demand it themselves--we want to think that if we wear a certain pair of Nikes we'll stay young. We want to identify with a younger version of ourselves.