I have three fleece jackets.
What are they for?
This is a strange question. Things are for… what they’re for! A fleece jacket is for keeping us warm.
They are all made of similar materials. Their prices are also similar but not identical:
Patagonia: $139, Nike: $130, Land’s End: $119.
But, what are they for?
All these jackets appear fit for the purpose of keeping warm in most of America in fall and spring temperatures. That is, as objects of apparel, they all appear functionally capable of doing what we want fleece jackets to do.
But each of these jackets is doing more than just keeping us warm. Each of them is a branded object. Branded objects are more than simply functional. Every branded object is also a cultural object. Cultural objects express meaning(s) beyond their utilitarian purpose. When it comes to our favorites, chances are the cultural meaning of the object is very important.
What are the implications of the cultural meanings of branded objects?
Cultural objects are created to express cultural values. While it is possible to have a favorite object that does not express cultural values (let’s for a minute set aside family heirlooms, which express a whole other category of social values), chances are we become attached to our favorites more for the values they express than for the functional purposes they fulfill.
Take those three fleece jackets as examples.
Each of them shows a logo or wordmark that puts the jacket’s brand front and center when you wear it. Regardless of your conscious intent, wearing the blue jacket says, “I am wearing a piece of Patagonia apparel.” Assuming you purchased the jacket yourself, you chose the item (at least in part) because of that statement. You chose to purchase and wear a piece of Patagonia apparel for reasons that go far beyond its ability to keep you warm.
Some of us are uncomfortable about buying things for anything other than “rational” reasons. We compare price and quality, the logic goes, and then choose the item that provides maximum utility for the best value. I am a rational consumer.
Let’s speculate on some other possible reasons for making a purchase.
Most of the time, you don’t think about they way you feel when you wear a piece of Patagonia apparel. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have an emotional connection with the object. It is, after all, a Patagonia jacket. It could just as well have been a Nike or Land’s End jacket.
The cultural branded meaning of Patagonia is that it is a company that… you finish the sentence!
The remainder of the sentence will probably have something to do with a commitment to making quality products in an environmentally sustainable way, minimizing waste, and treating workers in a humane manner.
In fact, Patagonia says its values include:
Build the best product
Our criteria for the best product rests on function, repairability, and, foremost, durability. Among the most direct ways we can limit ecological impacts is with goods that last for generations or can be recycled so the materials in them remain in use. Making the best product matters for saving the planet.
Cause no unnecessary harm
We know that our business activity—from lighting stores to dyeing shirts—is part of the problem. We work steadily to change our business practices and share what we’ve learned. But we recognize that this is not enough. We seek not only to do less harm, but more good.
Use business to protect nature
The challenges we face as a society require leadership. Once we identify a problem, we act. We embrace risk and act to protect and restore the stability, integrity and beauty of the web of life.
Not bound by convention
Our success—and much of the fun—lies in developing new ways to do things.
If you purchased and wear a Patagonia jacket, you are (consciously or not) proclaiming your support for these values. In fact, supporting these values may be a source of the way you feel when wearing the jacket: “I’m not bound by convention, either!”
It’s clear that when we ask what brands are for we are not just talking about what they do. We are also talking about how they make us feel.
If the cultural object was only about what it does for me and how it makes me feel, then those logos and wordmarks on the front would not be very important. But, they are important. Why? Because they announce to the world that this is a Patagonia jacket, a jacket that has social meaning.
When I wear this jacket I want other people to see me as someone who is “a Patagonia customer/person.” My social status is affected by the judgments others make of people who wear Patagonia jackets. In some social groups, my status is elevated by virtue of wearing this jacket. In other groups, it is diminished.
This is what makes branded objects cultural objects: various cultures and subcultures attribute value-laden characteristics to the object, and the people who own the object, because of its branded meaning.
Think about the Nike and Land’s End jackets. Who is the person who wears the Nike jacket? What values are they embracing/associating with/expressing? Nike has worked for decades to make the meaning of their logo/wordmark stand for active, vibrant, youthful engagement with the world.
What about Land’s End. I’ll leave it to you to think of the cultural associations with their brand, but I’m certain they’ll be different than those that surround Patagonia and Nike.
This all means that the fleece jacket you are wearing is doing a lot of work. That may seem like another odd way of thinking about a jacket. The late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen wrote at length about how each of us “hire” products to do “jobs” for us. The product’s job is not just functional (e.g., keep me warm) but also emotional (“make me feel good about what I’m doing for the environment”) and social (“show others around me that I am a person who is committed to sustainable consumption.”) The more a product succeeds at more than one job, the more likely we are to select it.
Our favorite things are likely to be objects that perform all of these jobs better than others in their category. We can then start to see that our favorites are part of a network of things that we have selected. Chances are we have chosen objects that perform the same kinds of jobs equally well across functional categories. Think about it. What kinds of shoes does the Patagonia fleece jacket customer buy? What kind of car? Which computer? These choices probably all go together relatively harmoniously.
When we look at all the cultural objects we own, we begin to get a clearer sense of what Sartre meant when he said, “The totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being. I am what I have.”
Our branded cultural objects, especially our favorites, are doing the work of concretely expressing-our-identity-in-the-world for ourselves, and for others to see. Think of our favorites as hard-at-work-in-the-world, helping us construct and live our lives in a world of abundant object/values choices, in the context of increasingly diverse identities.
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 Sahej Brar.