On Branding: Merchandise and Lifestyle Porn

When I picked up my mail on the way in this morning, a JJill catalogue fell out of my mailbox into my arms (err, along with a WaMu credit card offer, ahem!). On my way up the stairs, I thumbed through the catalogue, and it is so beautiful. The front cover shows a pan-ethnic woman in an ivory cashmere sweater with an adorable little toddler on her lap while she ties a ribbon on a JJill package. They sit on a Radio Flyer wagon. The ground looks like it might have snow on it. It could be Christmas morning, or sometime during The Holidays. She — looking a little like Pocahontas — is dressed wholly in white.

jjill-cover1

Oh, what a beautiful, fantastic image this is. And by fantastic, I mean just that — pure fantasy. Where the hell are their coats?? I love snow, yes I do, but I would be wearing a scarf. (I love how all the whiteness emphasizes the purity of the fantasy. Awesome.)

Flipping through this JJill catalogue, what comes through so clearly is just how aspirational it is. Our nation is in the midst of a huge financial crisis, we have a major election next week where the eyes of the world are upon us. I got laid off eight days ago, my father is employed but has no definite job beyond the end of the year. This is such an uncertain time — my main worry is how I will pay my rent come November 1st. The nearly pornographic images of fuzzy cashmere sweaters and women in my mother’s age bracket who appear to live a fabulous, affluent, independent lifestyle — they are so comforting, they are so gentle, they are so seductive. These are the images that make it so easy to get out your credit card: if you buy these adorably perfect shoes, this incredibly soft and flattering sweater, you will get a job, your mother will be well, you will go to dinner parties where you drink wine beforehand and laugh and look cute like they do in these pictures.

What makes JJill and other similar retailers so successful is that their marketing is not so far off from the lives we do lead. My father has been dating a wonderful woman, Nicole, for the last two and a half years; she is smart and independent and successful. She runs her own lifestyle and furniture boutique in Ballard, and on top of having a great sense of style, is also kind and generous and loving. Nic has a close-knit group of girlfriends, but she also has a broad circle of friends and business partners; she picks up new friends among her neighbors walking her elderly golden lab, and throws casual dinner parties whenever a good occasion arises. She and my father have bought a house together this year in Ballard and have recently gotten engaged. I live less than a mile from their new place, so I spend time there frequently. (Last night was spaghetti and pumpkin carving: I sliced up a mean pirate pumpkin. Yarrrgh.) Nicole is my “successful everywoman” — she is the person that I imagine into every shot of these catalogues; but she is also their core target market. I am, I am discovering, their aspirational target market — especially as my career and homeownership goals become firmer. I may not buy their clothes frequently now, but they want to make sure that they have my business in five years. Well-defined catalogues become an important extension of brand identity, as the catalogue — sitting casually on an end-table in the living room — will allow a potential future shopper to become acquainted with a retailer without any commitment, as well as convince current shoppers to return.

These marketing efforts are so effective and so tailored that catalogues are almost more insidious than fashion magazines for propagating lifestyle stereotypes, precisely because they present ideal images for exactly the stores — and clothes — that consumers encounter when they go to buy slacks or bras at the mall. Not to pick on JJill exclusively, but looking at their catalogue you might guess that the average JJill consumer is female between 35-55, financially stable with some disposable income, probably works in a relaxed corporate environment or maybe runs her own business; she is an independent woman who has close female friendships; she is probably described as being both pragmatic and classy; she is the kind of woman who is many things to many people. The JJill catalogue in particular targets the Real Simple/Martha Stewart demographic, the women who think they can do everything — the clothes are meant to be effortless and to convey a casual and elegant ease.

When faced with racks of actual clothing, in the real store, a woman faces her body, her pocketbook, and the reality of the vast marketing efforts that she has encountered so far — which even include, most importantly, all of the visual details of the store she is standing in: the size of the mannequins, the wall colors, the display tables, the quality of the light, even the scent in the air. The process of trying on clothes becomes an extension of literally trying on the brand’s lifestyle and the identity of this “perfect everywoman”; when clothes are out of budget or, more disheartening, simply don’t fit, the cognitive dissonance can be a little overwhelming. The heartbreak is even worse when one of these contingent variables is present, but the other isn’t: to fit the clothes, but be unable to afford them is only adds fuel to the fantasy lifestyle; to afford the clothes but to find that they don’t zip, gnaws a little bit more at the totemic shining image of Martha Stewart-like perfection that such brands make seem attainable.

As my life has been going through major changes lately, I have been trying to keep myself from temptation: I have avoided reading magazines or catalogues, or visiting malls. All of these activities increase the WANT factor, and I haven’t any extra pennies to spend. The last week has been difficult, and today has made me pause and really take note of the full force of the marketing efforts that companies will be throwing at me over the coming two months. Two days ago I visited a mall to buy a doohickey for my modem, my first mall excursion in some two months. I nearly went home with a two hundred dollar Ann Taylor coat. (Thank God I put it on hold and walked out.) The Gap also had some super cute wool sweaters that I’m sure would have pilled nearly instantaneously. The image of a perfect me, though, this is what is hard to shake: the image of me looking adorable and hip and dressed just so, as if I have my life totally enviably together. Plastic credit cards and beautiful images perfectly gloss over cracks in the facade, and allow us to forget, just for a few moments that I am unemployed and don’t yet know how I will pay rent or my student loans in a month. Move over a little, I can’t see myself in that mirror.

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~ by ecp on October 30, 2008.

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