Various Method product packages (via Method Home site and the dieline)
column for the NY Times Magazine. Equally adept at addressing both the
business and cultural aspects of his subject, Walker’s well-reasoned
column has emerged as an unusually clear window on the murky world of
His book, “Buying In, The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” came out this past Summer.
box vox: One
of the companies you write about in your book is Method. You make the
case that buying one of their cleaning products is not a strictly
rational decision, since so much of their product appeal is based on
how cool the packaging looks, rather than how well the product works.
Because of their packaging, Method seems to have inspired one of those
impromptu brand communities that you discuss elsewhere in your book.
Their products are regularly celebrated in package design blogs like
The Dieline and I know of at least one designer’s blog (Nathan Aaron’s “Method Lust”
site) that is devoted to nothing else. Of course, package designers may
have their own self-serving reasons for loving Method, but they don’t
seem to be the only ones who are buying Method because of its decorator
packaging. Is it possible that Method has built a business entirely on
a demographic of aesthetes who want every detail of their lives to
reflect their own overarching good taste?
Rob Walker: It
was actually one of the founders of Method who told me that their
customer feedback indicated that people who bought Method products were
often surprised that they worked—that is, they were attracted to the
packaging for whatever reason, but had some kind of suspicion that
there would be some kind of tradeoff of function for form. I thought
that was pretty interesting, that people would buy a household cleaner,
of all things, on that basis. It’s not like dish liquid is a good
candidate for the “conspicuous consumption” theory of consumer
So I think it’s pretty clear that design was a major
part of what has built Method’s business. BUT ... I’m not sure that I’d
go quite so far as to say they’d built their business totally on the
aesthete demo. That that demo was not crucial.
Here’s what I
mean. One of the things that most interests me about Method is that
they have an eco-friendly or “green” story to tell—their products are
(they say) made without many of the toxic ingredients common to
household cleaning products. But they chose not to make that their main
selling point, their main way of differentiating themselves at the
shelf level. They went with the “good design” strategy instead. They
don’t hide the other, eco-ish story, they just skipped the traditional
strategy of, you know, putting a tree on the bottle or whatever.
I think this strategy worked well at a time when the broad idea of
“good design” was much in the air. I think there were plenty of
consumers who had been in essence conditioned by a variety of cultural
forces (many of them commercial) to pay attention to the idea of “good
design.” And Method offered both a kind of novelty at the shelf, and an
easy way into that broad idea.
I’m generalizing wildly. But
still. I think it was both a clever strategy and, on some level, an
admirable one. I think it’s clever because the truth is the eco/green
thing is really easy to knock off—especially in symbolic/design terms.
(Just add a tree to your package and you’re ... green ... ish.) Many
consumers don’t want to “do their homework” about such issues, so
devious design/packaging strategies can work. And Method, as far as I
can tell, had the right facts to back up their eco claims for anybody
who did do their homework.
So I think that’s clever
because really striking visual design is actually harder to knock off,
if it’s done right. Copycats look like copycats, and it can actually
strengthen the position of “the original.”
And I think it’s
admirable in the sense that there was something going on behind the
“good design.” (I am not particularly impressed by the argument that
buying “good design” is its own reward, which is in effect what many
observers seem to believe.) There was something ethical (for lack of a
better term) about the product—but they aimed for an audience larger
than the one that is overtly tuned in to such issues. And it would
appear that they have attained such an audience. For now!
(Interview continues, after the jump...)
Above: some of Kate Bingaman-Burt's “Daily Purchase Drawings.” Kate was profiled by Rob Walker in a 2006 Consumed column, and (like most of us) she has purchased some of the brands discussed in Walker’s book.
box vox: If a product’s “ethical” features are such a poor selling point, it kind of makes you wonder just how unethical a product must be to provoke some consumer backlash. (Lead paint on toys? Melamine in baby formula?)
I sometimes get the feeling that, rather than being an
“incomprehensible ogre” today’s consumer is pretty guileless and
accepting of product claims—particularly those ethical product claims
that give consumers an opportunity to be virtuous simply by making a
purchase. Although, your chapter on American Apparel
makes a convincing case that ethical claims aren’t worth much in any
case, since they don’t appear to help products sell. You write, “the
simple act of not buying something has always been—and remains—the form
of consumer power that brand managers fear most.” With that in mind,
what do you think of Reverend Billy & The Church of Stop Shopping?
Rob Walker: I
can’t say I’m an expert on Reverend Billy—I’ve never interviewed him,
or attended an event, etc. But I’ve always found his stuff pretty
interesting when I’ve read about it. There’s a sense of humor involved
in making the argument, and I think that’s a good thing. I suppose the
obvious question is whether he’s preaching to the converted—whether his
work mostly has an impact on people already sympathetic to his views.
But I would imagine his approach gets a new convert every now and then.
And I always have a lot of respect for people who have an actual point
of view and don’t make a bunch of compromises, who stick with it
despite daunting odds.
On the broader subject of not buying—I’m
not exactly a “simple living” advocate or whatever, but I do think
there’s been an unfortunate drift in the broad idea of “consumer power”
to mean, basically, complaining online so that the company gives you a
discount, or whatever. I’m not convinced that that strategy leads to
lasting and meaningful change—either in the way companies behave, or in
the way we as consumers behave. In a lot of ways it’s in what we choose
NOT to buy that reflects values and thinking. And many of the more
lasting consumer movements of the past have involved the threat of
not-buying as a way to spark changes that benefited everyone (not just
individual complainers). So that’s what I’m trying to get at there. I’m
not sure if that puts me anywhere near the sort of critique that
somebody like Rev. Billy is offering; I really made an effort to write
the book in a way that might cause people to think, but wasn’t telling
them what to think. But I certainly think it’s a good thing to have
voices like his out there.
Timberland box photo from RayStudio’s Flickr Photostream; Timberlands in natural and pink with matching hang tags; on right: Timberland puts an “environmental impact statement” on each box, alluding to the nutritional labeling required on food packaging.
box vox: You’ve coined the term “murketing” to describe
today’s “murkier” marketing techniques. Is murketing just the logical
next step in a continuous evolution running from the “step-right-up”
hucksterism of 19th century medicine shows to the increasingly subtle
forms of story telling in the ads from the 1950s and 1960s—to the more
oblique marketing messages we get today, where we can supply whatever
meaning suits us best? Or is this something new and underhanded?
Rob Walker: It’s
the logical next step, but it’s still new, and may still be underhanded
in its execution. What’s really murky in contemporary consumer culture
is how consumers are in effect complicit in the process, and I suppose
you could say one of my themes is not just “this is happening” but
“you, the consumer, need to know what’s up so you can be in the right
frame of mind when you approach the marketplace.”
I guess what
I’m trying to say there is that I generally don’t see a lot of upside
in someone like me, say, slamming marketers for coming up with clever
new tactics. That’s their job! (And slamming them for it is actually
Rev. Billy's job—among others.) That said, I very much think it’s
useful for the consumer to understand how marketing messages are
changing, and getting more oblique, etc. Then they can be better
equipped to make their own decisions about what’s underhanded or
not—and proceed accordingly.
One of the interesting things
about the book has been the range of reactions to murketing as a
concept. Some people clearly find some of its manifestations totally
outrageous. Others have totally different views, and basically think it
all sounds pretty cool.
box vox: That consumers are complicit in “pulling the wool over their own eyes”—(as you put it in your book)—is
such a great insight. It really explains a lot. What I sometimes
perceive as consumer credulity might instead be a stubborn ostrich-like reaction. Please don’t tell me anything that might
jeopardize my love for this brand. (As your affection for Chuck Taylor All Stars was jeopardized by learning about Nike’s purchase of Converse.)
Towards the end of “Buying In” you mention an article by Jon Gertner (The Futile Pursuit of Happiness).
I remember reading that article back in 2003 and it really stuck with
me. What I took away from it was the inevitability of buyer’s remorse.
That whatever you wanted—if you actually got it—would NOT make you
happy. (Or not as happy as you thought it would for as long as you
thought it would.) Meanwhile, “happiness” is probably the best-selling
“brand promise” there is.
In the same chapter, you cite two
sorts of materialism, and—(like cholesterol)—there’s a bad kind and a
good kind. The bad kind, promises happiness that it cannot deliver and
is called “terminal materialism.” The good kind is “instrumental
materialism”—those things we possess that actually mean something to
us. While I hate to think that I’m in the business of promoting terminal materialism, it’s pretty obvious that an awful lot of advertising (and packaging) seeks to push those buttons in us. Is there any future, do you think, in trying to sell products by appealing instead to instrumental materialism?
Rob Walker: You
know, that’s the sort of question I was hoping the book would inspire
among marketers and designers. I can’t say I have any easy answers, but
what I like about the way you’ve framed it is that it really sets the
bar pretty high. I think the objects that mean the most to us over
time, as individuals, get their meaning from us, from how the object
fits into the narrative of the individual life—not from a “great brand”
or from “good design” or from any other property that gives objects
In a way the whole game for marketers and
designers depends on terminal materialism—depends on the idea that the
consumer will always want the next new thing. Often that point gets
made by citing “planned obsolescence” and so on, but I think it’s also
a function of the very normal desire for progress. Consumers want to
experience progress; creators (including designers) want to, you know, create.
Sometimes there’s a bit of denial about this, I’ve encountered the idea
that a designer will argue that his or her new creation is so awesome
on some level that the consumer will keep & use it forever. But I
find that line of argument is often a bit suspect and based on wishful
thinking. Even if that appeals to instrumental materialism, it still
does so by insisting the consumer can only gain access to that mode of
life by way of ... buying a new product!
I was just saying to
someone the other day that if I had a lot of extra money it would be
amusing to create a massive marketing campaign on behalf of “things you
already own.” Of course the problem with that is there’s ... not much
chance for profit in it.
I guess it would take somebody smarter
than me to offer a definitive program for appealing to instrumental
materialism. But as a mental exercise for producers it seems worthwhile
to me to at least ask: Is this new thing real progress, or mere
novelty? Is there something intrinsic to what we’re doing here that
offers real improvement (and not just by the totally lame standard of
“making the consumer’s life better,” which I hear all the time and in
my opinion is so vague it can be used to rationalize pretty much
anything)? If the object is sold on the basis of offering a sense of
community or individuality—does it really deliver on those
things, or is it merely trying to capitalize on the widespread human
hunger to satisfy those yearnings? Will the pleasure and utility of
this thing last beyond the purchase moment? Does it offer possibilities
for rediscovery well beyond that purchase moment?
Actually this is a weird example because the object itself is kind of silly, but I wrote a while ago about the Chumby.
While I don’t endorse that specific product (I don’t endorse any
specific product) I was interested in the creators’ notion that because
the device would get new, free software updates, its functionality
would increase over time, without a new purchase being required—in
other words the idea was that unlike most gizmos it was not doomed to
obsolescence from the start. Or that was the theory. Again, without
getting hung up on that particular product, I thought that notion was
Anyway, I guess it’s obvious by now that I don’t
pretend to have answers, but I do think there’s value in asking
questions that are harder to answer—and more interesting—than the usual
ones that I hear, which always seem to be about which new-media tactics
deliver the best ROI, and that sort of thing.
Photo of box with grommets from Diego Rodriguez’s metacool blog; wooden Converse package by Sandstrom Partners (via the dieline); Chuck Taylor, himself; cross-referential "Beef Jerky" poly-bag packaging for Bodega x Converse Jack Purcell—(note:
the nutritional label in this case is all about beef jerky, unlike
Timberland’s environmental impact version); a loyal consumer and his
collection of 1000+ Chuck Taylor sneakers (via Emma Thea’s Design Talk blog.)
box vox: There were several brands of shoe discussed in Buying In: Converse, Nike, Timberland (& Adbuster’s Blackspot).
I had some thought of ending this interview on a personal note and
asking you what brand of shoes you wear. Your comment about not
endorsing a product, however, has warned me off from that line of
questioning... So instead, I’ll ask a you more general, but potentially
more personal question.
I know from your web site that you and
your wife, “E” live in Savannah. One thing about buying stuff that
marketers sometimes overlook: it’s not always a sole, solitary consumer
who makes the purchasing decision. So much of what you read out there
gives the impression that we each live alone in our own consumer
bubble. That every purchasing choice is yours and yours alone to make.
If you’re married or otherwise sharing expenses, however, these
decisions are generally open to negotiation. (Personally, my own attitudes about buying stuff and spending money are different from my wife’s.) As writer of the NY Times Magazine Consumed column,
how do you feel about the traditional countdown of shopping days in
December? Are you and your wife on the same page with gift giving? Or
is Christmas shopping like a busman’s holiday for you?
Rob Walker: We’re
totally on the same page on gift-giving—we don’t do it! We've really
never been very big Christmas people. When we lived in New York we
always went to Chinatown on Christmas day ... very fond memories. But I
digress. Speaking for myself, I like the idea of a time of year sort of
dedicated to good cheer or however you want to put it, I think that’s a
great thing for everybody. And I think Christmas is a fun thing if kids
are involved, but we don’t have kids. So I’m not Scrooge. But I’ve long
been very ambivalent about the trappings of the holiday, and I guess it
was 10 or 15 years ago that one of my brothers suggested that we
(siblings) shouldn’t buy gifts for each other anymore, it was silly, we
should just up our charity or whatever, etc., and I certainly agreed.
And since then I’ve kind of just ... not done the whole Christmas
thing, and yes, E and I are on the same page on that. Although we do
now send out holiday cards. Plus I have some excellent holiday music
that I break out for one day a year.
I’m a little worried this
makes us sound like “simple living” types or something, and that would
be very misleading. (It also may just make us sound weird, which might
be true.) Basically my wife and I live well below our means, largely
because I’m so paranoid about money. We have done a fairly good job of
saving. But we also certainly spend.
Obviously I now think
about consumer behavior, including my own, much more than a normal
person would. I think the most interesting thing I can say about that
is that it’s very routine for me to go through this pattern—I’ll learn
about something that I think would make a good column; I get really
interested in it, talking to people who have bought it or who made it;
I have this moment where I want it (and I am forbidden from accepting
free stuff, so that means I am mentally preparing myself to buy it once
the column is done); and then I write the column, and it comes out, and
... I’ve lost interest. I’ve sort of had the exciting moment of
interest and anticipation and engagement ... but now I’ve moved on. And
often I realize, Yeah, that’s something I might have bought, enjoyed
for a short time, and forgotten about. But I got much of the enjoyment,
without ever actually buying it! In a way, I think sometimes the column
can serve a similar function for the reader, a sort of virtual
consumption —you can engage in and think about this or that object or
brand or whatever, and learn all about it and have your own ideas about
it. But if you like, you can get all that without buying anything.
Well, except for the Sunday New York Times. But that’s totally worth
More seriously, that Converse stuff you mention was a
big motivator in writing the book: Realizing that I thought I was
“immune” to branding and certain commercial-persuasion influences, when
I wasn’t. It was a learning experience for me, and I encounter that
“I’m immune” attitude so often, I hope that what my work in general
does is make people think about material culture in a new way. People
actually seem more open to that they did a year ago. We’ll see.