A few months ago I wrote an article about being brand agnostic. It can be found here. Dan from BladeReviews.com, published a response on EdgeObserver, found here. After some reflection (and a few months of thinking about the issues), I have formulated my response.
Here is a quick summary of my position. Brands are a marketing tool used by companies to help sell their products. They engender a sort of following that sometimes gives rise to consumers identifying with a particular brand to the exclusion of other brands. There are endless numbers of threads on gear and knife forums revolving around the idea of one brand versus another, Spyderco v. Benchmade, for example. This form of fanboyism is essentially people providing free advertising for these companies, doing their marketing work for them. I advocate a different position. Instead of one brand versus another, it should be consumers v. producers. Simply put: don't sell me your logo, your "brand philosophy", or your image. Sell me quality items at a good price. I refuse to identify with a brand. I want quality and value.
Dan's response was a very well thought out argument, and hopefully I will summarize it correctly. Dan didn't have issue with the silly notion of being a fanboy. But he wasn't sure a radical rejection of all branding is necessary or even a good thing. According to Dan's argument, branding helps consumers wade through the tide of millions of products. Branding operates as a shorthand, a cue or a signal, for consumers and helps them choose things intelligently. Dan brings home his point by giving us an example. Imagine if you had to choose cereal from an aisle in a big box store without any branding or logos. Dan's point is that doing so would be difficult and, absent the signaling that brands send us, you'd only get the right thing, the thing you want by luck.
Dan's notion of brands as signals and shorthand is true. Furthermore, Dan's point about helping us wade through an ever-increasing tide of products is also true. Standing in a big box store, like our newly opened Super Wal Mart, and picking a cereal without the aid of branding would be impossible and unpleasant. It would make the shopping experience drag on forever and the chance that you get want you want would be very small.
But simply because branding works in cereal purchases, doesn't necessarily mean that we should use it when making decisions about gear. The thing that I am so adamantly opposed to is this idea of brand being the central motivation to buy something. The idea that just because a knife has a Spyderco, Benchmade, or Strider logo on it automatically makes it worthwhile is ludicrous to me. Some of the contortions and justifications that people go through to satisfy themselves with purchasing a product of their favorite brand is insane.
Let me show you a symptom of the disease. Strider has (or more accurately has had) a fit and finish problem that has dogged their knives for a long time. Don't believe me? Here is a quote from Plaza Cutlery's Strider page:
Strider knives are meant to be
used & are not perfect. Most knives have a few marks, nicks, but that is the way it is.
Also the knife has to be broken in possibly if it is a folder. "Each has it's own personality", as some of you have said!
If you want a perfect "looking" knife, do not buy a Strider! If you want a
tool you can use hard and not worry, buy a Strider. No credit or sympathy
will be given because "for $400 it should be perfect looking!" That is not
what these knives are meant for. There are other knives that are better
for a "safe queen". Strider is not one!
The idea that a dealer selling these knives has to include a warning that they might not be up to the standards one would expect when paying $400 for a knife is silly. As consumers, as opposed brand fanboys, we should not tolerate this horseshit. How about a knife that is both hard use AND well made? But the Strider brand seems to entrance people, persuade them somehow that you only get one or the other.
Here's the even weirder thing about this whole brand loyalty blindness. While all of this justification is going on by Strider fanboys, Strider, the company, recognizes this problem and is doing quite a bit to improve their knives. They altered the pivots on some models, not once, but twice (the PT for example). They changed the geometry of the lockbar interface on the tang of their blades. They introduced new designs with improved fit and finish (the SJ75 and SJ75 Mini). They know there is or was a problem. The dealers know it as well (as is evidenced by the quote above). Yet, for whatever reason, Strider fanboys still flock to forums espousing this idea that their knives are so hard use, so bad ass that you should expect defects. No. No you shouldn't. Strider, the company, doesn't. And neither should you. Why? Out of some sense of loyalty to what? A brand? An idea some marketing guy made up to part you from your money more easily? No thanks.
This idea of signaling is true, but pernicious. Shorthand leads to short circuit. People default to a brand because of what they think it stands for or what it was in the past. There are very few reasons for consumers, who are trying to maximize their dollar, to be lured in by signaling and brands, especially when what your shopping for is something you are deeply interested in. More on that in a minute.
And now to the heart of the rebuttal--when you are an informed and engaged consumer you should ignore brands. Brands are important for two different kinds of people--unengaged consumers and engaged consumers. But they have very limited utility for engaged consumers like we are about our gear.
Brands are useful for unengaged consumers. For example, when you are buying something you really don't care about like cereal. You want cereal you like to eat and is healthy for you (or one or the other). You don't really care if the wheat and oats are naturally sourced or from Wisconsin. It doesn't really matter that much, unless you are some kind of cereal aficionado. And yes, there are cereal aficionados. Brands might also be useful to you when you are buying for someone else, a gift for your significant other, for example. If you are like me you are just trying to avoid disaster and your not 100% sure what makes this purse or pair of shoes all that much better than another. So you go to the brands you know.
There are two very limited reasons brands should be something engaged consumers pay
attention to--when the brand's policies benefit the consumer and when
the brand's specifications or hallmarks benefit the consumer. Both of
these exceptions are oriented at what the brand DOES and not how it is
marketed or what it "stands for" (because in the end brands stand for
one thing--making money).
An example of a brand with a beneficial policy is L.L. Bean. Their brand
wide free shipping and anytime no-hassle returns are prefect examples of
when a brand and its policy means something beneficial to consumers.
In that regard brands are fine, but note that it is the policy that does the heavy lifting here, not the brand. Then there is the brand that is
synonymous with something specific--Subaru's near-universal requirement
that its vehicles have All Wheel Drive is a good example. Here the
brand is a logo, a ridiculous slogan ("Love is what makes a Subaru a
Subaru" has to be one of the WORST slogans in advertising history;
esepcially because it is more accurate to say: "All Wheel Drive is what
makes a Subaru a Subaru"), a design aesthetic and a very specific and
nice feature--All Wheel Drive. I'd throw in Lotus's relentless weight
shaving and Spyderco's Spyderhole in this same category. Here the brand doesn't just function as a
signal in the marketplace, it is a signal of features. Brand X means
you get Feature Y. But these examples are few and far between. Their existence as an exception does not invalidate the general rule--brands are useless for
the informed and engaged consumer.
In the end, engaged consumers don't need the information that brand signaling provides. They know what they want and why they want it. You could give me a list of specs, including price, and assuming that the fit and finish is up to snuff, I could tell you whether I want the piece of gear or not, regardless of brand. Play along. I am going to give you specs or features of a piece of gear. Note when you become interested and then keep reading.
Approximately 3 inch blade
Your interested right?
Here are some more specs:
Deep carry pocket clip
Under 4 ounces
Based on those specs alone, I am sure you can tell whether your interested or not. Those specs fit a lot of knives--the Spyderco Sage 2, the Bradley Alias II, and the Small Sebenza--all excellent and sought after knives. The point is simple: when dealing with engaged consumers, especially gear buyers, brands mean very little. I guess if you are a pure collector, like a sneakerhead, brands remain crucial part of the equation. That is because, in essence, you are collecting a brand. For gear geeks though, its what a piece of gear does and how it does it that matters.
The signaling side of brands not only is unnecessary for the engaged consumer of gear, it can lead to problems. Brands have been known to spread themselves too thin, entering market and product niches they shouldn't (who, exactly, made the flashlight and multitool in this Benchmade HK kit?). Brand loyalty could lead you astray--you see the Benchmade name, all of the signaling that Dan referenced happens, and you end up with a clunky multitool, a cheap flashlight, and an okay knife, when if you had ignored the brand you could get the same gear at a much better price with probably equal or superior quality.
The point is, if you are an engaged consumer, brands don't have much utility. You can weed through the hype and the bullshit on your own and arrive at gear that is worth purchasing regardless of brand. It took me a lot of work to evaluate the excellent Gerber Dime, in part because I was not as brand agnostic as I should be. If I hadn't stuck to it, I would have missed a truly great and affordable piece of gear.
Ignore brands. Look at specs and see how something works and feels when you use it. Leave the signaling to stop lights.