The End of Trends?
by Charity Ijiomah
In today’s culture, advertisers attract consumers with promises that their product will improve their lives. The presidential election proved that this strategy works. James Grant discusses the way designers and corporations create and sell happiness in “Against Branding: Part 2 — Design and Happiness.” He states, “The happiness created by corporate design doesn’t relieve the paralyzing tragedy and misery of the world; it just ignores or denies it.”(1) Consumers up until now have continued to participate in this denial. It is debatable, however, whether this branding strategy will continue to work on consumers. The political climate has caused a shift in public attitude; things are changing on a scale that we can’t continue to ignore. As anthropologist Grant McCracken states in Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, “We pay dearly if we don’t respond to culture, and we pay dearly when we don’t respond to change.”(2) Designers have a powerful influence over culture, and how we manage that power shapes the way people interact with their environments and each other. In order to create sustained well-being, we need to move towards a consumer culture that doesn’t rely on short-term convenience for momentary happiness.
I say happiness, but what we feel when we make purchases isn’t “real” happiness. Advertisers in our current culture use false promises of success and fulfillment to get consumers to buy their products. There are two ways that they do this. This first is by making claims that the product they’re selling will improve the consumer’s life. This method can be easy to identify — think beauty products and performance drinks — but is also difficult to resist because it relies on our insecurities. The second method is a little more nuanced, but is connected to the first. When we make purchases, we feel satisfaction. But that feeling is temporary, because what we really crave is the fulfillment of human connection. Brands make consumers believe they will find that connection through their products. Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign is a great example of this. By printing names on the packaging and prompting consumers to share with each other, Coca-Cola positioned itself as a people-focused brand interested in human connection. You can even get customized cans with your own name printed on them. Needless to say the campaign was extremely successful — spreading to 80 countries and credited with a 4% increase in sales. The campaign was especially effective on young people. Coca-Cola saw a 7% increase in young adult consumption due to the campaign.(3) Despite all of their talk of connection and emotion, it’s plain to see that the main goal of this campaign was to sell more product. But when a brand reaches the scale of Coca-Cola, it shouldn’t need to focus on selling product. They already do that well enough. The greed of corporations is a huge factor in overconsumption, and if we continue to support brands whose only mission is to “sell more product,” culture won’t change.
Another huge component of consumer culture is trends. One trend is quickly replaced by another, and constant tech upgrades force prior iterations to obsolescence. It’s no secret that fashion and technology brands plan their products’ expiration. We have become accustomed to this rapid pace of consumption, but it’s extremely unhealthy behavior for both us and the environment. Author and cultural critic, Daniel Pink, describes how we can get stuck in this pace hedonic treadmill.” He explains that “if you’re always looking to validate yourself and get satisfaction from buying stuff or having a bigger house, then you’re on an endless, addictive treadmill. There’s no enduring satisfaction to this.”(4) Consumers are starting to realize this. A new phone comes out every year; fashion trends come and go with the seasons. What about what get’s left behind? Design anthropologist, Dori Tunstall, suggests that we have become exhausted in our excess. This, she declares, is because “the environment is in peril in a way that we can now see. We can visualize the destruction of what we’re doing in a way that we couldn’t before.”(5) It has become clear that the way we treat resources and waste cannot continue. Now that we can see the problem, what’s left is to fix it.
That’s where the designer comes in. Designers play an important role in informing the consumer and instructing consumer culture. We choose how ideas are communicated to consumers. What we need to change the world is honesty, human connection, and empathy — not only for other people, but for the entire planet. In order to create connection, brands and designers need to communicate with transparency. Their beliefs need to be clearly conveyed through their practices. That means not relying on gimmicks and trends to sell product quickly. James Grant believes that designers can actively empower human relationships. He urges designers to “side with happiness by responding to the real needs of the environment, communities, and individuals, rather than the priorities of privilege. Design can enable, rather than counterfeit and exploit human relationships. Designers can promote connection, not just consumption, so that the possibilities of happiness are not stylishly and systematically assaulted in the endless mire of mass representation.”(6) If the focus is no longer to sell stuff, our energies are spent instead on bettering the product, the experience, and the positive changes we make in the world. By focusing on the craft of the product and mission of the brand, trends become irrelevant. There’s no need to make short-lived products if you have a loyal consumer base.
But what’s most important in this process is how we act as consumers. If we continue to desperately follow shallow trends and remain ignorant about what we buy, it goes without saying that nothing will change. Find out about the brands you shop from and look for their mission. Then do some more digging. If you find that their mission or practices don’t align with your values, consider divesting from them (if you can). Then find a brand that’s driven by a mission that you align with and put your money to better use. Malcolm Gladwell advises consumers to get informed about the choices we make in Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. He emphasizes the importance of the choices we make, insisting that “our material choices as consumers are no longer trivial. They are now amongst the most important choices we make. They have consequences well beyond our own selves — they have global consequences.” Despite his ominous tone, he seems optimistic about the power that consumers hold to direct culture. By affiliating yourself with brands that are mission-driven, you openly declare your values. He claims that “the declarative value of consumer choices and the public statements made by consumers in their brand choices are an enormously powerful tool.”(6) Our choices seem small and individualistic, but when consumers come together in their choices, it has an enormous effect on culture. Public opinion can make or break a brand, which is why it’s so important to make considered choices.
It’s okay to start slow. But it’s important that we take advantage of the widespread discontent with current culture. Start by learning about corporations, politics, and the purchases you make. Then decide where to put your money and when to use your voice. Consumers should invest time and money into relationships and experiences, rather than material goods. Designers can spread awareness and side with brands and consumers who are focused on a better world. Successful brands will demonstrate their ability to connect with their audience, not through ad campaigns, but through their practices. Long-term happiness and sustained well being, Daniel Pink says, “is about having personal relationships, believing in something larger than [ourselves], and doing something meaningful that [we] enjoy.”(8) If we can first focus on changing culture, we will find ourselves happier in the long-term.
(1) James Grant, “Against Branding: Part 2 — Design and Happiness,” http://designobserver.com/feature/against-branding-part-2--design-and-happiness/39445, (December 7, 2016)
(2) Millman, Debbie, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (New York: Allworth Press, 2011), 39
(3) Ogilvy, “Share A Coke,” http://ogilvy.com.au/our-work/share-coke
(4) Millman, Brand thinking and other noble pursuits, 235
(5) Millman, Brand thinking and other noble pursuits, 71
(6) James Grant, “Against Branding: Part 2 — Design and Happiness,”
(7) Millman, Brand thinking and other noble pursuits, 315–316
(8) Millman, Brand thinking and other noble pursuits, 235