Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Corporate Style Is Reassuring

Do you find brand names reassuring, or oppressive?

I have been thinking about the cultural difference between the two ends of the educated middle class, which I call for short-hand the corporate class and the knowledge class.

Like other members of the knowledge class, I favor independent over corporate in most things. I write this from an independent coffee house, which I would always pick over, say, Starbucks. As I travel and see the same national and international brands everywhere, I often think of the quip "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chain stores."

And yet most people like corporate brands - otherwise they wouldn't be the dominant form.

I was thinking of this as I toured the U.S. Naval Academy. The military needs to be uniform and highly organized for good functional reasons. Yet the U.S. Navy is also a brand. It is a brand that is reassuring - as the very best militarily, of course, but also as reliable and orderly.

As I came out of the Naval Academy I saw a bumper sticker for a large state university. I realized the appeal is similar - Large State U is a well-known, reliable brand. If you go there, you get a decent education. Beyond that, though, you get to belong to the alumni association. You are part of a reliable brand.

I have a hypothesis, which I have not yet tested empirically. I think the core of the corporate class style appeals to the average white collar employees of large corporations, who are also alumni of large name universities, and patrons of large consumer brands. What they have in common is that they are likely to be new to the middle class. The brand name everything is reassuring of your middle-class status.

The knowledge class style, by contrast, appeals to groups who are more senior in the middle class, who have an unshakable, unreflective security in their own middle-class status.

I do not offer either as superior. I do notice that the two styles seem to appeal to different kinds of people. I am trying to figure out what makes the two groups different.


Brendan said...

This is an interesting conclusion. I've noticed myself that I favor independent businesses locally, but have a weakness for brand names when traveling (particularly in other countries).

Black Sea said...

During their rise, many succesful chain enterprises made a point of being blandly uniform and predicatable. This marketing strategy was, in fact, their main selling point. Holiday Inn went to great lengths to make every room look exactly like every other room. Back then, travelers hardly knew what to expect when they signed into a motel: maybe sprung mattresses, dirty sheets, and roaches in the closets, maybe not. Holiday Inn's appeal was that at the end of a long day of driving, you knew EXACTLY what you'd be getting. No surprises. This type of consistency of quality has largely forced the independent operators to engage in better quality control themselves. As a result, flea bag motels have largely (though not completely) died out.

This dynamic also exists with the with restaurants and retail chains. When it comes to dining, sometimes you don't want to be surprised. If a great many independent coffee houses started ofering watery Maxwell House at $2.50 a cup, the Starbucks logo would look more and more appealling.

One way that this observation might jibe with your hypothesis is that knowledge class types would only ever frequent, or even be tempted by, pretty high quality independents. For people of lower incomes, or who live in less toney neighborhoods, chain enterprises may prove more appealing because they offer more consistent, and predicatable, quality.

Anonymous said...

I think the choice between Starbucks and an independent coffee house reveals class preferences more clearly than college choices.

Anyone with $5 dollars can get a cup of coffee at either Starbucks or an independent, so the self sorting that goes on here is immediate and uncomplicated, all things being equal. Also, importantly, nearly anyone has $5. But small liberal arts colleges like Centre and elite institutions like Swarthmore reject hundreds each year who have the money, grades, and desire to attend.

Big State U is full of people who’d rather be at Swarthmore or Centre, but Starbucks isn’t full of people who’d rather be at Café Bohème but were refused admission and couldn’t afford it anyway.

I’d say Centre and Swarthmore rely on branding to appeal to those who have more educational choices while Big State U relies less on branding and more on a dependable supply of those who have fewer choices. Big State U students therefor include a substantial number of those who find private/elite schools more appealing, while private/elite students attend exactly the sort of school that appeals to them. So attendance at Big State U is less of an indicator of appeal than is attendance at a private/elite institution.

Anonymous said...

Also, many view higher education as a public utility. The idea of “branding” a college is like branding the local power or water utility. (Actually bottled water manufacturers have “branded” local water utilities, but many remain immune to their blandishments, thankfully.)

Victoria Wheeler said...

I agree with Brendan and in general I'd be curious to see what happens with types of products and when the preference is acquired.

For instance, these days I shake my fist at Starbucks, buy games from independent game companies, and will go for the new, local restaurant over the chain anytime.

But then it comes to some household goods (like Tide or Dawn) and I can't settle for anything less. I'll add here that Tide and Dawn both remind me of my early home life, which was indeed a shaky period as you know, so I wonder if you aren't on to something with brand loyalties being something people cling to in situations where they are uncomfortable or unsure, including status, and its change when others are more educated or partake of the knowledge class existence.

It'd fit with McDonaldization, too.

Gruntled said...

Buying the brand name saves the transactions costs of researching the independent alternatives if you do not care that much about the product.