Story as Product
This blog post is unlikely to win me any friends. In fact, it’s likely to annoy the friends I have. But I’ve got a beef with the marketing industry. Yes, my industry. I’ve also got a beef with the values of the bhakti chai-sipping (I’m drinking one now), yoga-doing ( huge fan), farmer’s market-shopping (yep, me too) “Bohemian Bourgeois” (or “Bobos“) David Brooks identified in 2001.
It started with Anthropologie, which for those of you who don’t know, is a boutique-esque chain that manages to make eclectic and sometimes downright frumpy, weird stuff look cosmopolitan. I love it and stalk its sales on a regular basis. It was there I ran across the “Vegan Leather Jacket.” Leather for Vegans! It’s like Tofurky you can wear! And it comes in brown or green and has a demure little ruffle. Except, what is it made of exactly? Well, as we called it in Iowa, it’s, you know, plastic. Yep, a plastic jacket for $188. The upside is that the cleaning costs are quite low; just hose it off in the backyard.
And then there are Toms. The simply constructed, flat shoes developed by polo-playing, globe-trotting (yes, I’m jealous) Blake Mycoskie after observing shoeless children in Argentina. His “philanthropic, for-profit” business model is meant to be financially viable while not reliant on donations because for every pair of the $55 shoes a Bobo like me buys herself or her children, they donate a pair to someone in poverty. And the market loves Toms. Real facts about Toms’ financial success are hard to come by since they are a private company, they are reportedly doing just fine. The New York Times reports that “since its founding, Toms has given away more than 2 million pairs of shoes in 51 countries.”
Critics have suggested that Toms is an unnecessary Band-Aid on a bigger problem which is poverty itself. My family has lived in different (poor) parts of the world for generations and have seen how well-meaning charitable interventions are sweet, but often ignorant, sometimes disruptive, and do not develop on-the-ground capacity locals can use to empower themselves.
But, it isn’t Toms surface or not-nearly-enough attempt to resolve global poverty that is my beef with Toms. I mean, sure it’s not perfect, but they’re trying. My beef with Toms is that their shoes are super ugly.
And there it is; the gasp from people who will surely email me to say that I suck. But Kyndra! Didn’t you know those shoes are based on the design Blake saw Argentine farmers wearing!? Sure, and good for him. But I’m also here to tell you that if you wander off the tourist track in any poor country and find a local general store, you’ll find Toms lookalike shoes that cost about $2 each and are nestled somewhere amidst the boxes of milk, the party favors, the office supplies, and the garish makeup kits from China. I dislike Toms because they are flimsy, stretchy little lumps resembling canvas burritos.
Toms silver shoe
Just because the poor can’t afford good shoes doesn’t mean we should congratulate ourselves on giving them crappy ones.
For those of you who aren’t too incensed to read further, here’s where I’ll let the non-marketers take a peek behind the curtain. High end brands like Toms and Anthropologie aren’t high end brand because they’re selling great products; they’re high end because they’re selling great stories to the right people. Bobos (like me), have long ago moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of purchasing needs. We’re in the fortunate position of not having to worry about how our basic survival needs will be met. We now get to demand self-actualization capacity of all our purchases like the locally sourced, organic, free-range chicken eggs we buy at the farmer’s market or that green plastic jacket we buy online.
That’s where I’m conflicted. On the one hand, the brand positioning and audience-segment awareness Anthropologie and Toms have employed is nothing short of genius. As a marketer, I can certainly admire what they have done. Not only that, but I have offered and will continue to offer find-the-good-story advice to my clients. On the other hand, I also feel that, as a global citizen who has seen parents around the world struggle to provide for their families, the purchase-for-story is just so damn self-indulgent and privileged to me. I wonder when I became unmoored…at least, that is, during the moments when I’m not lusting after another Anthropologie sweater.
What do you think? Post your thoughts and personal conflicts below.
Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation
Seasoned Marketing Strategist