After meeting her through a friend from graduate school, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar invited me to give a talk at the magazine headquarters. It was my first experience presenting at a fashion magazine and I suspect it may have been their first experience hosting an academic speaker. They were very gracious and interested (or at least they appeared to be), and they laughed where I hoped they would and asked thoughtful questions.
As a thank-you gift, they gave me a Prada overnight bag. Now, Apple products are the closest I have ever come to owning anything from a highly recognized brand, so acquiring this bit of couture was an interesting experience for me. As I made my way through JFK, I tried to decide whether I should hold the bag so that the triangular Prada logo was visible to other travelers or if I should keep it facing towards me. I quickly decided to keep the logo facing me, and began thinking about the role of brands in people’s lives.
We usually think of brands as signaling something to others. We drive Priuses to show that we are environmentally conscious or wear Nike to show that we’re athletic. In this case I didn’t want to send a signal to the world, but nevertheless I felt different, as if I were signaling something to myself—telling myself something about me and as a result of carrying the Prada bag.
Maybe this is the attraction of branded underwear. They are basically a private consumption experience, but my guess is that if I put on a pair of Ferrari underwear, even if nobody saw them, they would still make me feel differently somehow (Perhaps more masculine? Wealthier? Faster?).
The thing is, I realized I couldn’t just try to make myself feel better by imagining myself wearing Ferrari underwear. I would have to actually wear them in order to feel differently.
So brands communicate in two directions: they help us tell other people something about ourselves, but they also help us form ideas about who we are.