A well groomed man sat across from me on the subway today. On his head were a pair of Beats by Dre headphones, and on his feet a pair of Kanye West’s Yeezy sneakers. He wore a quilted Burberry jacket, with the collar popped and a Burberry check print clearly visible. His backpack was Tumi, and as he turned to leave the subway, I got a strong whiff of what was sure to be an expensive designer cologne.
Now, the man was more put together than most people on the subway. But when I looked at him I got a strange sense of pity. The man looked like a slave to the brands he wore. The sheer number of brands the man was wearing made it seem like he did not choose his point of view, but that the brands told him what was right for him. The presence of all those brands made him look like he was missing a sense of identity.
“You’re better than that!” I wanted to tell him. When that thought entered my mind I realized that he and I were both in a strange battle against brands for our identity. Am I myself, or am I succumbing to the proxy that is my Nike shoes and blue bottle coffee?
Of course, I also began to wonder what this war could mean for the future of branding. Unbranded items are cool these days. I’d prefer to wear clothes that look well made, but do not blast everyone with who made it. Like the man on the subway, leaning on a bunch of brands makes you look weak. My identity should be based on what I do, not who I wear (or which labels I can afford). This is potentially good for me, but not too great for brands.
I got an idea. What if, instead of making you look like you need a crutch for your identity, a brand could instead reaffirm your sense of self?
Enter an age of co-created brands.
Brands that listen to people and allow supporters to have a say in what decisions the brands make. Brands where you don’t feel sold to, but a part of. Brands that allow customization beyond color and flavor. Honest, feedback-dependent brands that people can say they had a piece in shaping. Brands that put the tough decisions in the hands of people. Hell, brands that you can only wear IF you put effort into the brand.
Imagine the man on the subway wearing brands he’d helped build and design and influence – he would come off as strong, empowered, and aspirational. I see an eventual end to brands that are expensive and exclusive for the sake of being expensive and exclusive. And a beginning to brands that people want to show off because they make a statement that the wearers themselves helped create.