Friday, November 16, 2012

Being Brand Agnostic

A few months ago I wrote an article about being brand agnostic.  It can be found here.  Dan from, published a response on EdgeObserver, found here.  After some reflection (and a few months of thinking about the issues), I have formulated my response.

My Position

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 Position

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.

My Response

 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
S30V steel
Frame lock

Your interested right?

Here are some more specs:

Titanium Handle
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.    


  1. Interesting article. I just read your first post on brand, Dan's response and this article as well, and first and foremost, this is a great discussion.

    I would like to make three points as it relates to brand:

    1. Brand is but one feature of the mental calculus that I use to make a purchasing decision.

    2. Brands have equity associated with them - value - that ebbs and flows based on how well the corporation that owns the brand executes against its brand promise.

    3. You state the value of one being an informed consumer - I think this has a spectrum associated with it. I feel I am VERY informed when it comes to purchasing decisions in areas I am particularly passionate about - EDC, audio gear, car racing equipment etc. I tend to move from this informed point in the spectrum down to less informed for things I am interested in, but not passionate, for example - we all need shoes, we want them to have certain capabilities or features (comfort, fit, etc.) but I am only so interested in shoes, so I tend to rely on a couple of brands, and therefore the brand in those cases carries more weight in the purchasing calculus I reference above... Assuming that #2 has held true - that the brand equity/value is high, and has consistently delivered a particular experience for me.

    For #1, and this largely has to do with the fact that with EDC gear in particular, I cannot usually touch and feel the gear or test the gear before purchasing it - so therefore, as an informed consumer who is passionate about this marketplace - I lean on blogs like yours, videos of reviews, an analysis of what I need the gear/tool to do for me, my own experiences with similar items, and to some extent, the brand, and my assignment of value against that brand, or what I have come to expect from a particular brand. A timely example, I too have been anti-Gerber due to some bad experiences with their products. Your recent review of the Dime has me second guessing that perception, and I am willing to make a $20 bet to try the brand again, and I may look at Gerber a little differently from now on - as their brand equity/value has now been raised in my purchasing calculus.

    In summary? Brand for me carries different weight, along a spectrum of value and "interest" in my purchasing calculus and is far from a black and white factor in the majority of my decisions. But, it does indeed play a role. I will probably be a Ray Bans customer for life - they have delighted me with their products and their post-purchase support more often than not. Same with Apple, Ecco, LL Bean, Brooks Brothers, Leatherman, Benchmade, and Spyderco - and a few others. Have those brands stumbled at times? Sure - but their brands absolutely carry some weight in the decisions I make in spending my hard earned dollars. Not ALL the weight, but certainly a proportion of it.

  2. Don't get me wrong, I completely agree that people willing to buy something purely for the sake of it's branded a certain way is bad news, but is this really such a widespread problem... or is it just the (very) vocal minority on knife/gear forums, and a few diehard fans with access to a video camera?

    What differentiates the "fanboys"/other blind shoppers and the rest of us is willingness to research. Starting your research, however limited in it's scope, for a new item with a brand is often the easiest and most effective way to get your foot in the door to begin sifting through the sometimes limitless possibilities.

    Here's an example: let's say you are in the market for a new pocket knife. Are you...
    A) buying it purely because your brand just released it?
    B) buying it for someone else, but have absolutely no clue about knives and a complete unwillingness to learn?
    C) standing in the hunting section at Wally World, a deer in the back of your truck waiting to be dressed, but you somehow lost/forgot your knife?
    D) killing a couple minutes at the local knife shop while your better half is getting her hair done?
    E) sitting at the computer, on a mission to fine "The One?"

    A and B, in most cases, simply can't be helped.

    C, D and E each have a couple of things in common. First is the ability and willingness to do a little research. 'C' is certainly a little more pressed for time than the others, so his research might begin and end with which knife in front of him he thinks will get the job done. 'D' might not necessarily feel the need to pull the trigger that day, but is afforded the ability to handle a few new knives and see a much broader selection. 'E' has access to spec sheets, reviews, countless dealers and so on, and could easily spend many an hour on his quest (and, let's face it, never find it.)

    Second, they each need a place to start. In each case, brand is likely the first thing they will look at. 'C' will have the least scope for his search, but being an outdoorsman, he has likely owned a Buck or Gerber in his life, or knows someone who has. 'D' has access to a more vast selection, but it isn't at his first rodeo either, and probably has a few staples in his EDC rotation that have served him well for months, or even years. If he has some specifics in mind, it's likely that he will see if any of his brands have something to suit his needs. 'E' might have the most monumental task of all; sorting through every brand under the sun to find the knife that not only meets his stringent requirements, but ... actually finding the knife that meets his stringent requirements. Branding offers him a way to quickly eliminate swaths of options at a time.

  3. Well said, Tony. I suspect branding will still play a role for most consumers in the purchasing process, but you have this down to a science and you raise some good points. Studying something purely on the merits is the way to go if you can ignore the buzz of hype and marketing that comes packaged with everything these days. Thanks for the great discussion, I agree that it is a fascinating topic.