Sunday, June 29, 2008

Buying In by Rob Walker

Since I'm now working as a "Marketer" rather than an "Editor" -- leaving aside the argument of how much what editors do is marketing -- I thought I should spend some more time and thought on what marketing is these days, and how to reach the people I want to reach.

So I grabbed Buying In when I saw it at the library; I'm somewhat familiar with Walker's work from his "Consumed" column in The New York Times Magazine, and I figured I could trust him as much as I could trust any business-book author. The subtitle is "The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are," and it's another one of those books that tries to describe contemporary American consumer behavior and figure out what it all means. (Walker describes his "Consumed" column as a "blend of business journalism and cultural anthropology," which also describes Buying In pretty well.)

Buying In, in a nutshell, starts with the conventional wisdom that brands are dead and that advertising no longer works -- since consumers are more savvy, have more options, and are more independent than they were in the past -- and examines it. Along the way, Walker digs up some great quotes -- including what I think was a Business Week article from 1939 -- about how consumers are "now" radically different than they ever were before. His point is clear: this supposed huge, recent shift is something that marketers have been dealing with for close to a century now; it's not new.

Walker is polite, and never quite says that conventional wisdom is bullshit, but he's obviously thinking it. As usual, the reality is more complicated and nuanced than the PowerPoint version -- there's always an audience that considers itself too sophisticated to be influenced by advertising, and that audience (in this modern, media-saturated age) is now a great majority. But saying that advertising and marketing don't influence you is not the same as making it true -- and Walker dives into studies that prove that.

He's got some individual jargon -- the Pretty Good Problem, "murketing," the influencer -- but he explains it all well, and they're all important to his points. He also has done a lot of research, particularly with interviewing entrepreneurs in the "alternative" area, like American Apparel's Dov Charney, to find out their thoughts, plans, and schemes.

Walker's big idea is that consumers are actually more interested in brands than ever before, but they're not passive followers of brands the way they used to be. One of his case studies is the way hip-hop appropriated Timberland boots for their own purposes, and how the company struggled to understand and deal with their new audience. Over and over, Walker points out that the consumer base for a product is not necessarily a single one, wide and deep, but different pieces of a fragmented consumer culture -- in Timberland's case, both urban hip-hop musicians looking for a certain look (and their fans, both urban and suburban), and blue-collar workers who need tough shoes with steel toes.

I tend to think of myself as someone more resistant than the norm to marketing efforts -- but, then, nearly all of us do. (As Walker puts it, most people think that they're smarter, better looking, and more savvy than most people.) Buying In is a great book for consumers interested in their relationships with the things they buy, and an even better one for marketers trying to connect their products to the people that would want and use them most.

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