"I'm not much of a consumer." It's a refrain that New York Times columnist Rob Walker heard a lot while researching "Buying In," his fascinating new book about the dialogue between who we are and what we buy. His salient point: while none of us likes to think of himself as a brand obsessed zombie who uses his credit cards to purchase an identity, our behavior often tells a different story.
The Big Idea: According to Walker, we have entered an era of "murketing," a hybrid of the words "murky" and "marketing." It has two levels of meaning. "The first," he writes, "refers to the increasingly sophisticated tactics of marketers who blur the line between branding channels and everyday life." The other refers to "the modern relationship between consumer and consumed," which is "defined not by rejection at all, but rather by frank complicity."
Evidence: Dunkin' Donuts recruited teenagers to wear temporary tattoos of the company's logo on their foreheads. Turner Broadcasting paid ex-art students to build mysterious flashing signs around several cities. Savvy marketers have also found ways to cozy up to consumers who resent being walking advertisements. American Apparel built brand loyalty out of selling logo-free clothes. Pabst Blue Ribbon made itself into a hit beer by cultivating an ordinary image. Adbusters Blackspot sneakers—which look like Chucks with a circular black smudge—are a protest brand that says, "I'm not into brands at all."
Conclusion: Millennial consumers—whom Walker calls "the least rebellious generation since the youth concept was invented"—have been billed as resistant to branding. But like the rest of us they still reach for brands to express their cultural selves. The point? Buying in is fine, as long as we know who's pulling the wool over our eyes—and most of the time we're doing it to ourselves.