Tuesday, May 17, 2016
The Two Faces Of Branding
A couple of months ago I read Eddie Huang's book Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir. If you haven't read it, it's about his life growing up as an Asian-American in the US and doing all kinds of different high-intensity activities like getting into fights, going to law school, and opening a restaurant. The book was the origin of the TV sitcom with the same name, though as I understand it the book and the show are quite different.
Of the many interesting and funny things in the book, one topic that really got me thinking had to do with brands. Brands are a big deal in this book. As a kid, Huang discovers that hip-hop culture, and the clothing associated with it, give him a way to challenge Asian-American stereotyping and racism.
Huang grows up in Florida, where his social experiences are constantly reminding him of the fact that he is seen as Asian and thus seen as being a certain kind of person with certain kinds of qualities -- many of them qualities he does not have or want. He talks about how in American movies Asian men never get the girl, and how Asians are stereotyped as deferential and non-assertive.
The racial stereotyping take many different forms, many of them social and peer-oriented, some of them professional. When he expresses his dream to become a sportscaster on ESPN, his father says, "They'll never let someone with a face like you on television." Huang thinks his father doesn't know what he's talking about. But later he has an interview with a newspaper, to do sports journalism, and the "big white guy" doing the hiring takes one look at him and says, "Oh, wow, that face ..." which turns out to mean that no athletes are going to talk to him with "that face" because he looks "... so young." He doesn't get the job.
Huang is a wound-up aggressive guy who likes to scrap with other guys, get into people's faces, and get into all kinds of trouble, and at one point he realizes that his being that way is a big problem for people. He says, "I was a loud-mouthed, brash, broken Asian how had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn't Asian either."
Early on, Huang gravitates toward hip-hop music, style and culture, and as he grows up and learns things, he comes to realize that connecting with black American culture allows him a way into a mode that is both embracing genuine identity -- not trying to be white -- and also outspoken and non-apologetic.
And wearing clothing brands associated with hip hop culture is a big part of that: it allows him to connect with people he wants to connect with and also show people he's not the stereotype they are putting on him.
That, of course, is part of what branding is all about. I mean, if you ever read the business section of the paper and you get a glimpse in to what companies are doing when they talk about "creating and and maintaining brands," that is exactly the kind of concepts they use. The idea is to create a set of feelings and ideas around your brand so that consumers will connect with it and see the brand as representing who they are.
Somehow, when I read about branding strategy from the corporate perspective, it usually seems so dumb. I mean, the idea that some company is going to use fashion models and ad guys to link up their brand of car or vodka or shirt or whatever with some set of impressions and feelings, and the idea that you would then use those brands to express yourself -- it all seems so cynical and ridiculous, like one of those debased aspects of consumer culture that is too stupid to enter into and yet in some ways unavoidable.
But then when I read Huang's book, using brands to express yourself didn't seem stupid -- it seemed clever and interesting. Of course, part of that is because what he's using brands to do is clever and interesting, and isn't your run-of-the-mill I-have-more-money-than-you. Still, the basic concept is the same.
I guess in a way it's not surprising that you can use the tools of capitalism to sometimes do cool things. After all, sometimes the tools of capitalism are the only tools we have.