What’s your favorite brand of black pepper?
That’s a question that would have been absurd 30 years ago. Black pepper was black pepper back then. The only decision you made was whether to get whole peppercorns or pre-ground pepper.
Remember what your spice rack was like when you grew up. Turmeric? Coriander? Smoked paprika? Depends on when you grew up. My peers… probably none of those. Yours, maybe all of them. What happened?
Culture turned food into an important marker for personal identity.
Today, we have favorites in things that barely existed 30 years ago. Merchants have created categories and products to fill the “identity space” available. As the identity-possibilities in culture have expanded, so have the products that support those identities. That means that while black pepper might have been an “identity-neutral” category in the past, it’s now become a small part of a much larger network of “identity-strengthening” or “identity-diminishing” objects.
This also means that there has been a subtle change in our relationships with objects over that time. More things have become important to us than they were in the past.
Last time, we looked at the identity-expressing role of a fleece jacket. Patagonia? Land’s End?, Nike? Our choice is very likely to be consistent with a larger style of declaring my culturally-consistent-way-of-being-in-the-world. In a world of identity-expression-through-objects (which we may not be consciously aware of), fewer and fewer choices are simply functional objects-in-themselves.
Almost everything we buy means something.
Our identities have become more sharply discernible through the objects we choose. We express ourselves in more and more detail today. Consequently, items that strengthen and signify clusters of those identities have come to market: more fine-grained choices for more nuanced expression of identity.
Anyone whose identity involves “serious” engagement with food (aka, “foodies”) now explores market offerings with an eye towards cuisines, ingredients, and equipment that are suited to their particular kind of commitment to food. That might mean finding the “best” quality of every ingredient that goes into preparing increasingly diverse dishes. Maybe only shopping in the most “authentic” markets for the same ingredients used in a cuisine’s native land will do.
What used to be called “ethnic” food is now deeply integrated into the American supermarket. (This is an indication of how important food has become for identity expression.) For some of us, finding an ingredient in a local supermarket is an automatic disqualifier. Specialty stores in a wide variety of cuisines have become a well-served market niche. Cities of all sizes have seen a proliferation of specialty groceries focused on preparing items from every corner of the world. Preparing what used to be called “cosmopolitan” cuisine at home is now commonplace. And, of course, there are scores of TV shows and hundreds of YouTube/Instagram/TikTok channels available to teach us all we need to know about how to expertly execute our chosen approach to food.
This is the kind of world Barry Schwartz envisioned when he wrote The Paradox of Choice. We now need to “decide” what kind of pepper we want, when just reaching for pepper on the supermarket shelf was all we needed to do in the past. But identity-congruent choices make selection a guided process. If you’re a “serious” foodie, you only want to buy black pepper that reflects that seriousness. Natural. Organic. Sustainable. An intimate relationship between the grower and the brand. No pre-ground mass produced McCormick’s for you! Then, it’s just a matter of Diaspora or Burlap & Barrel. Or maybe an even more bespoke spice dealer you’ve discovered in your search for the clearest expression of your food passion!
Think of this as the hidden spending of “identity consumerism.” Black pepper prices: Diaspora, $12.00. Burlap & Barrel, $9.99. McCormick, $3.44. If your identity is tightly connected with your approach to food, these price differences are irrelevant. You will choose the identity-coherent brand. Pepper’s price is probably highly elastic for you. Perhaps pepper is important enough to be a Veblen category.
Now think about your favorite bath soap, shampoo, or tea. What are your choices in these categories? How do they express your identity? What are the cost factors involved in those choices?
We live in these minute choices much more than we realize. It’s their aggregation… the emergence of the whole from the coherent patterns that are fractally micro-present in the details… that allows us to see ourselves in our things more clearly. But, it’s too easy to get tripped up by the obvious big choices (“I drive a Tesla”) and to miss the “Tesla-ness” of the black pepper choice.
Let the details of your object choices, especially your favorites, show you the depth of your commitment to a particular way of presenting yourself in the world.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.
Header image by Tijana Drndarski.