Last weekend I had some time to myself, so I pulled out my Criterion Collection Confessions of a Shopaholic and sat back for some good ol’ cinema and social commentary. Among its many merits, the high point of that movie, in my opinion, has traditionally been where the Isla Fisher character gets in a catfight with another shopper over a pair of gaudy Gucci boots at a super designer warehouse sale. It was movie magic until the seventh viewing, when my keen eye detected that her opponent was a good head taller, and couldn’t possibly have worn the same size shoe! For some time I fretted that P.J. Hogan, one of the great auteurs of our time, had made an obvious blunder, sacrificing continuity for a cheap site gag. But as I pondered, it became apparent just how truly brilliant this moment was!

How like our trivial, superficial society to come to blows over some overpriced clown boots that you could only wear once in your entire life. This initial connection was easy, but the depth of the matter struck me like a Black Friday Allstar’s hip bone when I realized that the height disparity had actually been intentional, that not only did the silly boots cost, at half price, about forty dollars an hour, but that one of the combatants, if not both, wouldn’t even be able to wear them! This example, though fictional, mirrors equally ludicrous frenzies that occur in the real world, and it all comes back to that mystical, wonderful concept: Gucci. It’s the brand.

I’ve often engaged in small talk with people describing the advantages of shopping at designer outlets, and if they’re able to rattle off five or six mildly-exotic sounding names one can find written on the nametags at these outlets, they feel like they’ve really made their point about the great stuff there. This always brings to mind a case study we discussed in college about a mix-up at a Malaysian sweat shop, wherein child laborers had inadvertently branded a batch of “designer” polo shirts (we’ll call them Ralph Lawrence shirts) with tags belonging to a certain World’s Largest Retailer store brand. It was an honest mixup, because apparently they were all the same shirts, just with different labels and different retail prices. Well, the shirts got all the way to market before anyone noticed, and a bunch of consumers got angry because all this time they’d though that Ralph Lawrence was exploiting much more talented child labor than the non-designers, and here they were with sub-par labels on par shirts. Anyway, I don’t bring this up to suggest that money can’t get you extra quality – I’m just saying that it usually doesn’t. I think most of us have figured this out, but all the logic in our consumer-driven minds doesn’t trump the incomprehensible power of a good branding campaign.

I’ve been working on a little branding study of my own (independent of what we’re doing at Melaroo) for the past four years. My dog, Monty, is probably about the best dog in the world, and that’s not just on the inside. He came to us as a stray, so we don’t have any idea about his “pedigree”, but he’s athletic, well-proportioned, obedient as a marine and as smart as your average high school graduate (which, when you consider the average dog is no more intelligent than a sixth grader, is really saying something). He’s got a confident gait and is friendly with everyone. So, needless to say, passers-by take an interest in my dog. He’s usually greeted with “What a beautiful dog! And so well-mannered.” And unlike with humans of indeterminate ethnic origin, it’s okay for the first question you ask about a dog to be “what kind of dog is that?”

My research has consisted of responding with one of three standard statements, and noting the person’s reaction. Regardless of the individual’s background, the reactions are right on every time.

  1. “He’s a mutt.” This is probably true, and the response is invariably to nod the head politely and move away, as if I’d said “he’s the kind that makes your neighbors peer through the blinds and shake their heads at you”, or “we bought a used Saturn”.
  2. “He’s a Rottweiler.” He’s smaller and leaner, but he can pass. People take comfort with this well-known and respectable brand of dog. They feel validated that they had suspected him to be a Rottweiler, and typically even feel a little proud to be walking in the same park, like when your uncle owns a BMW.
  3. “He’s a Flemish Walloon.” Okay, so there’s no such thing. I came up with it because the Flemish and the Walloons are, respectively, the Dutch and French inhabitants of Belgium, and Rottweilers come from that part of the world, I think. But pull out a fancy name like that and inquisitive dog-lovers are struck into an awed silence. On occasion, they’ll admit that they’ve never heard of that particular brand, but they’ll say “he’s beautiful” and attribute their unfamiliarity to their own lack of knowledge. Frequently they’ll say that those are very expensive dogs, owing to their rarity, and I’ll say that that’s all relative, or something to that effect, and then they’ll say yes it is, that dogs are so wonderful. And they’ll reverently watch my dog sit in the dirt licking his designer private parts, then they’ll leave feeling like they got to sit in someone’s Ferrari.

It’s often commented upon that humanity so oddly goes about naming everything we see. Obviously this behavior originated so that one hunter-gatherer could tell another that the Jibberjub fruit was poisonous, so watch out. We still use this mechanism today to tell each other that the Wazibab jeans are tacky, the Himalakapow car has a good maintenance record, and that Zibberslub carpet cleaning gets your carpet the cleanest and their trained technicians won’t break your stuff. On that note, what does ‘trained technician’ mean, anyway? They call them that to make you think “Wow. I could never do the technical things these guys do. They have the training.” Well, once I watched a trained technician repair a leak in the freon lines in my freezer, and if I couldn’t do what thay guy did, but five times better, I would eat my shoe. It’s all in the branding. Does anyone think that Chanel No. 5 is still No. 1 because nobody’s come up with anything that smells better in 88 years?

The happy truth is that, barring innovation, which does manage to get someone ahead every now and then, it just doesn’t matter what you’re offering. Because as long as humanity looks at your logo and sees quality, you’ve got a winner. So treat your brand like it’s your favorite child and you actually know how to raise one. Or have Melaroo do it for you.