The birth of the lifestyle brand – one perspective

Patagonia is one of those quinetessential lifestyle brands that attempts to embody the values and aspirations of people who love the outdoors, and who want to enjoy and preserve the environment.  Patagonia consumers feel an emotional bond with the brand because it supports these personal aspirations. Why does Patagonia, a company that uses cutting edge technology to enable an experience need to be so invested in their consumer's lifestyles?  Shouldn't the fact that they make the best moisture-wicking jackets and the warmest fleeces be enough?  'Lifestyle' has been one of those ambiguously utlized words around the office these days, and I wanted to get to the bottom of this concept.  Luckily I stumbled upon a great article by Lucy Suchman that answered some of my questions about lifestyle brand, which also delighted me by outlining its parallel history with the growing conciousness of corporate anthropology.

Suchman argues, in her article Anthropology as 'Brand': Reflections on corporate anthropology that a sudden awareness in corporate anthropology emerged as a reaction to a rise in the concept of 'lifestyle brand.'  Suchman says that in the late 80s and early 90s there was a "rapid rise of the 'virtual' corporation, aimed at outsourcing production to various export processing zones around the globe, then attaching an image to the resulting assemblage of parts."  That image being the brand. Internal work at corporations became about marketing not manufacturing; more and more large corporations at that time were focusing on buying up companies and branding existing products as opposed to creating products themselves. 

The first instances of producing images to create some meaningful level of differentiation between products was in the late 19th century with the emergence of mass produced and packaged products.  These images, essentially the brand, restored consumers' confidence in a product, much like a local shopkeeper would "scooping generic dry goods for individual customers out of a large bin."  These earliest brand images were naturally personifications, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben for example, but by the 1940s, the brand image became a corporate identifier rather than simply a face or a slogan.  A major moment in branding history, which is often considered the archetypal demonstration of its importance, occurred in 1988 when Philip Morris purchased Kraft for $12.6 billion, primarily for the word "Kraft." 

Suchman continues with the story in 1991:  brand falls on tough times.  A non-branded "bargain basement" option hits the scene to which some of the biggest brand powerhouses such as Nike, Apple, Disney, and Gap reacted by spending more and more on branding efforts.  And here is where we see the emergence of the 'lifestyle' brand.  In redoubling their branding initiatives, these corporations became fascinated with their consumers in the more abstract sense:  not simply the consumer products and their makeup, but consumer experiences and what "brands mean to culture and to people's lives."  The anti-brand campaign demonstrated that consumers really didn't believe there was a difference between products, but there is meaningful differentiation in brand. 

Consumers were no longer seen simply as "rational buyers" but as a "social/cultural actors in contemporary economic and marketing imaginaries." Suchman doesn't argue that this is when corporate anthropology was born.  She is simply arguing that this is when a general interest in coporate anthropology emerged.  Hokey article titles that alluded to anthropology's history of promising access to "others" came out around this time, and has yet to relent.  In a sense, she argues, anthropology in the corporate world has helped better understand brand, but in itself has become an element of brand.  Anthropologists are tasked with revealing lifestyle needs from these now "exotic" consumers to help define, perpetuate, modify, and nullify brand attributes.

I wonder how accurate her statements are with all brands.  In Patagonia's case, I see their lifestyle disposition as having organically grown from Yvon Chouinard's personal aspirations.  However, she does seem to focus primarily on large corporations.  I was always of the belief that a lifestyle brand develops over time and is awarded that status by the consumer.  It was interesting to read anthropology's role in helping support a term that was developed as resulting from the idea that humans are in fact in existence within a greater reality, not just within rational consumerism.