Recently, Isaac Mizrahi had some choice words for those who look down on him for creating an apparel line for the big-box retail chain Target. Such critics aren't merely snobs, he declared, they are "brand racists." Well, that seems a bit much. For one thing, Mizrahi's once moribund couture business was basically resurrected by his association with Target and the attendant buzz. For another, the implication that status is still organized in a strict top-to-bottom hierarchy seems a little out of touch with the more chaotic marketplace of today, where the right limited-edition sneakers bestow more prestige in the eyes of some consumers than any self-styled "luxury" ever could. That said, it's precisely this chaos that makes brand bigotry a concept worth pausing over. Marketers pay a lot of attention to brand loyalty and cult-dom and devotion. But what about its opposite number—the brands you simply refuse to consider consuming?
Sometimes brand bigotry is simply the flip side of loyalty. The Harley cultist sees all rival brands as inherently inferior; the Adidas devotee buys a T-shirt with that brand's three-stripe logo, but rejects an identical T with a swoosh. And certainly some brands and products, from traditional luxuries to those limited-edition sneakers, appeal precisely because they draw lines between the haves and have-nots—because they're "exclusive."
But sometimes the issue is a little more complicated. Preppy Polo and hip-hoppish Sean John don't really compete, but you probably know immediately which one you'd associate with and which you'd avoid. Even those of us who claim not to pay attention to logos tend to have very strong feelings about the ones we would never, ever wear. And department stores know this. That's why they don't group all the sweaters in one area and all the pants in another. Instead, they segregate by brand.
Possibly the marketplace is so crowded that the consumer simply needs to exercise a little brand bigotry to make shopping comprehensible. But maybe there's a deeper factor too. If brands are tied up in identity, as marketers often argue, then surely that works both ways: Someone who wears only Levi's jeans makes a statement00but someone who would never wear them makes one, too, indirectly. Substitute "premium denim" for Levi's, and you get the same kind of statements, from different consumers.
A study published last year in the journal Personal Relationships on how friendships form found that mutual dislike was an important factor. "We enjoy meeting people who dislike the same people," explained Jennifer Bosson, a social psychologist and coauthor of the study, titled "Interpersonal Chemistry Through Negativity." It's easy to imagine a parallel in the brand world. Surely the consumers who cluster around Web sites that attack, say,
In some cases, of course, we may discriminate against a brand for a reason we can articulate—an ethical concern like environmental impact, or an aesthetic factor like style. But even when we can't, we usually find some way to assure ourselves that our biases are based on rationality, not prejudice. Then again, bigots always do.
Rob Walker discusses marketing and consumer culture at murketing.com/journal; he also writes the "Consumed" column for The New York Times Magazine
A version of this article appeared in the December 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.