We engage with brands in order to reflect some aspect of ourselves — at least, that’s the conventional idea. What we choose to wear, where we choose to work and what we choose to eat becomes a matter of expressing who we are. We project ourselves into the brands we buy and allow them to define us.
For instance, when we spot someone sporting a Canada Goose jacket here at Yale, we immediately feel as if we know who they are. Depending on how cynical we are that day, we know that the Canada Goose-wearer has an independent laundry service clean their clothes, is a slacktivist and definitely wants your empathy.
On the flip side, engaging with a brand immediately boxes oneself into that brand’s particular narrative, removing individual agency. Wearing a Canada Goose jacket, for instance, prevents an individual from expressing who they are. The wearer becomes another constituent of the Canada Goose brand — representing the company’s narrative rather than their own.
This tension between allowing brands to represent us and allowing them to strip us of our individuality, then, becomes central to how we develop and express our individualism.
But branding isn’t always as explicit as one’s designer jacket, if one is so inclined.
Part of what’s so important about our college experience is that we come to have a better understanding of who we are, what we believe and how we want to spend the rest of our lives. In recent months, I’ve watched friends make these exact kinds of life decisions — to the tune of “I got an offer from McKinsey!” or “Thank God! J.P. Morgan wants me this summer!” In the process, however, I’m afraid that too many people are measuring their personal success by their entrance into yet another league of elite brands (like McKinsey and Company, or J.P. Morgan). For whatever reason, hordes of Yalies are measuring their individual success by their acceptances into groups in which individualism is trampled underfoot.
I’m not saying that everyone who works for a big name brand is a cog in some grand corporate machine. I’m sure that there are plenty of honest people who don’t check their souls at the door when they go to work each morning. But when the Office of Career Strategy reported that roughly a quarter of Yale’s class of 2017 entered into the fields of consulting and finance, there’s something else at work. In this case, I believe that it’s the allure of brands — an allure that silences the self reflection that should be prerequisite to entering any field of work, the kind of self-reflection that we came to Yale to pursue.
The companies that hired a plurality of Yale students from the class of 2017 were some of the biggest brands in the world: Morgan Stanley, Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and Company, Goldman Sachs — you get the picture. It’s easy to forget what we’re interested in when faced with a glitzy company that markets itself as a definitive step for post-collegiate success. And, with the ever-present consulting proviso that “I’m just staying two years for the skills. Then I’m out!” it’s clear that those who are engaging with these brands are aware that their engagement will be unfulfilling, should they stick around.
But Canada Goose, and even McKinsey, are still smaller-scale brands than institutional brands. Yale, for instance, is also a brand — it is just as easy to become subsumed by the cultural narratives that Yale’s brand connotes as it is to conflate our ideas of success with what McKinsey tells us it is.
Buying brands, whether a clothing piece or an education, gives us the illusion of being able to choose how we express ourselves as individuals. But in reality, buying into brands merely enters us into small tribes of people who have bought the same brands we have. In the end, we all become pieces of the cultural narratives those brands convey.
Arguing that we should wholly reject institutional brands is a steep order. Although we inevitably chip away at our individuality by buying into brands like Yale, I do think that we can ethically engage with the Yale brand in ways that preserve our agency. Engaging with Yale’s brand, for instance, puts us in a cultural narrative of the elite. In light of this, holding on to who we are requires that we don’t conflate our goals and desires with those conventionally associated with the elite. After all, if we truly care about the preservation of our individuality, we must reject the illusion of comfort that brands provide and pursue fulfillment on our terms.
Sammy Landino is a sophomore in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .