A curious alignment of events a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about brands. One was our guest blog about Generation X and Instagram, and the other a strange yet absorbing Sunday newspaper supplement entitled An Insight into Some of Britain’s Coolest Brands. Inside the latter was a list of the top 20 coolest of the cool, which Mr Verity set me the challenge of guessing. I got a few – Apple, MAC cosmetics, Nike – but hadn’t heard of Sonos, and would have thought that not enough people could actually achieve ownership of an Aston Martin to make it a cool brand.
Nostalgia alert! This all set me musing about my own resolutely unbranded youth (or was it?) It’s hard not to feel sorry for the kid who is ostracised for wearing the wrong trainers when you can look back to the days when all it took to be the coolest girl in the school was to turn up with an egg whisk from the family kitchen round your neck. (I should add that the dames went to an obligingly uniform-free school.) The challenge was to find things that no one else would have. Where was the creativity in wearing something with a label, however high-end, when you could be sporting a cardigan first bought by a librarian in Bexhill c. 1933 that had somehow arrived at a jumble sale near you? And yet . . . and yet, how desirable to have Biba boots to wear with it, for only they were high enough, tight enough, with the subtlety of colour and the graceful curve of the heel. But I would argue that it was these specific features rather than the brand per se that made them so covetable.
Now the tables seem to be turned. In my recent hunt for a suitable small handbag to take to a wedding (my usual outsize sack full of receipts and old tissues clearly wasn’t going to cut it) I found it well-nigh impossible to locate anything that wasn’t defaced with a logo – and moreover a logo in a colour that wouldn’t go with the rest of what I was wearing. In most cases these were just plain old bag-oid bags, without any heart-stoppingly original aesthetic features that the company might want to lay claim to.
A piece of branding that I really resent is the way supermarkets have ditched the names of different varieties of citrus fruits in favour of the catch-all ‘easy peelers’ – another sign of the infantilisation of the consumer. Are we supposed no longer to care about the difference between a satsuma and a tangerine, as long as we can get it into our gobs quickly? (And while I’m on the subject, where are the minneolas of yesteryear?) Looking back, it seems to have been supermarkets that spawned the ubiquity of the brand with their distinctive carrier bags. A cynical male friend of mine used to claim that they ought to pay him for the free publicity he was giving them by walking around with one of their bags.
I accept that there are times when a brand is a guarantee of quality and the presence of certain features that have not successfully been duplicated elsewhere. As my Le Creuset frying pan nears its 40th birthday, I’d have to endorse that brand as one of substance, one that justifies its expense. But what do you do when the item that does the things you need it to do and looks better is not from the manufacturer with the reputation?
Back to the ‘coolest brands’ report. The long list at the back makes for fascinating reading. Most of the usual suspects are there – Converse, Alessi, Sennheiser – but Kallo? (Stock cubes and rice crackers – surely it takes more than nice design to generate cool?) And Livia’s Crumbles? How can anything with ‘crumbles’ in its name be cool?