Thursday, September 23, 2021

Brand-Name Poor

Oddly enough, the poor are more likely to buy brand-name products than the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Strivers - the folks who want to have the appearance or feeling of wealth, but never achieve real wealth.  They view wealth as a series of purchases you make - not the money you keep.  And if you buy the right brands, you can be wealthy, or at least appear to be so.

These are folks who define their lives by the brands they choose.  And you can't blame them for that, as the television - the ultimate propaganda and brainwashing machine - tells them so.  You are what soft drink you choose, what brand of car you swear loyalty to, what brand of crappy liquor sold to the youth market you swear by.  And by combining these selections, you can kid yourself you've come up with a unique combination of brands that uniquely identify you as a person.

You think I am kidding.  I am not.  We recently were at a trailer park and there was a "shot party" at one of the trailers.  "The Jäger Boys are putting on a party!" which was good news for the trailer park owners, as he didn't have to entertain his guests - his guests entertained each other!  The "boys" were very generous, pouring trays of shots of Jägermeister as well as other aperitifs, such as the peanut-butter  flavored "Screwball" for everyone to consume.  Their trailer was adorned with promo items for Jägermeister - light-up signs, banners, posters, and whatnot.  The local liquor distributor must love them!

I tried some - it tasted like Crest toothpaste. But I thanked them nevertheless, as it was generous of them to throw a party for everyone.  But it struck me as odd that these two fellows decided to identify themselves by a brand name of liquor - to the point they had a sign professionally made up to advertise their trailer as the home of "The Jäger Boys."   People do this all the time, though - particularly men - pledging undying loyalty to a brand of pickup truck, a flavor of lite beer, a sports team, a porno magazine, or ISIS.

I kid about that last one, but it is probably the same concept.  A young man in the Arab world is radicalized, and thinks, "Hmmm..... should I pledge loyalty to Al Qaeda, or to ISIS?  And if Al Qaeda, which one?  Don't want to pick the wrong terrorist group to join!  Maybe I'll just join Hamas instead!" But of course, which group he picks depends on whether he is Sunni or Shi'ite, another choice and another brand to swear loyalty to.

Lest you think I am attacking Islam, all religions are about the same this way.  I mentioned before how my Dad, raised a Catholic, decided to change teams in order to get ahead in life.  Not many Catholics in the board room of major corporations, back in 1948, so he went with the winning team instead.  And during my lifetime, my parents switched churches several times - dabbling in Unitarianism at one time, in order to get in with the right social set.  When we moved to New York, the "in crowd" went to a liberal Presbyterian church - so we went there.  As you can see, they had deep religious convictions - no deeper than most - which is probably a good thing.

The weird thing is, when I shop at Walmart, it seems to me that the folks who are the poorest have the most brand-name products in their carts.  When we are shopping for something, whether it is tomato sauce or mayonnaise or whatever, we read the ingredients, look a the prices - particularly the price-per-unit - and then chose the product that we feel has the best quality and best price.  For example, Walmart-brand tomato sauce has no high-fructose corn syrup or even sugar (check the label to be sure - some varieties may have it!) but the heavily advertised "brand name" kind, with the fancy label, is loaded with sugar (usually the third ingredient after water and tomatoes) or worse - high fructose corn syrup.

We agonize over which to buy, but the person who pulled up behind us in the parking lot in the clapped-out 1996 Impala with bling rims is buying the brand name Prego sauce and not even looking at the label or prices.  Retailers love customers like that!

And back in the day, I used to buy things without looking at prices, and thought it was a sign of class and wealth that I could.  Only poor people read labels and checked prices!  But I was wrong - I was working-class poor, because I bought things without checking prices and labels.  But I learned later on that it was the smart people who made the smart choices, the poor people who made poor choices.

I learned my behavior, in a way, from my parents. I have mocked my Mother's cooking abilities before.  The poor thing - she was ill-suited for the role of housewife, and worse yet, her Mother had a bachelor's degree in home economics.  Mother lived in fear of a visit from her Mother - who would put on white gloves and run her fingers along the top of the door and window trim and tsk-tsk at all the dust.

It was perhaps, a generational thing.  Mark's Grandmother - a dear old lady when I knew her - would torture Mark's Mother with similar antics.  "Barbara, you haven't changed the shelf paper since I was last here!" she would say.  "Yes I did, Mother!" Barbara would reply.  Mark's Grandmother would peel pack the corner of the shelf paper in the nearest cabinet and say, "Don't lie to me, Barbara!  See, I wrote my initials in the corner here, along with the date!"

Women are so cruel to each other - particularly Mothers and Daughters.  I don't understand why they do this to each other - or why they crave acceptance from one another, either. Just move on and move away and tell Mom that you don't even use shelf paper (gasp!) and worse yet, sometimes not even underwear!

Just kidding.  I digress.

Anyway, my Mom, who couldn't boil water on a good day, had weird brand preferences.  She always bought Land-O-Lakes lightly salted butter.  Her explanation was that Dad once brought home some "oleomargarine" as a cost-cutting measure when they were first married.  Mom put her foot down.  "As God as my witness!" she cried, "I will never eat oleomargarine again!"

Of course, why she fixated on a brand-name of butter, I do not know. Store -brand butter is just as good, and in fact, unsalted butter is even better, I have learned.  I agree with her that real butter is better than any fake kind (much of which had trans-fats in it, which actually caused heart disease) but buying brand-name?  Maybe that was her way of punishing Dad.  They had a weird relationship.

Being brand-loyal has a lot of disadvantages.  To being with, you end up paying more for products than you would if you shopped around on price and quality.  Not only that, but brands are just labels - the underlying product can change over time.  Some venture capitalist buys out an old-line company with a loyal brand following and then proceeds to gut the content of the product, knowing full well that the brain-dead brand-loyal customers will keep buying for a long time before they get wise - if they ever do.  In the meantime, he shows wild profits, which isn't hard to do, when you cut quality to the bone.  He does an IPO and sells the company and doubles his money.  Years later, it all comes crashing down as even the most brain-dead brand-loyal customer admits the products are now crap.  I've seen this happen several times, in my lifetime.  It is a common "business plan" these days.

In addition, being brand-loyal blinds you to new opportunities.  When Japanese cars first became a thing, many Americans refused to even consider them, claiming they were "junk" without even bothering to investigate.  Oddly enough, the American car companies of that era (late 1970's) were the ones pushing real junk - shoddy engineering, crappy gas mileage, atrocious assembly quality, rust problems - you name it!  But a Toyota?  Crap, right?

I hear the same thing today about KIA and Hyundai - making some of the best values around, in terms of price and quality.  Some yahoo in a 2016 Impala tells me knowingly that Korean cars are crap.  Then I ask him why they don't make Impalas anymore.  Deafening silence.

Of course some people have since branded themselves to new brands.  Today there are people who pledge their livers to Toyota or Nissan or Honda - even though they may have, at one time, denounced those brands as "crap." But products change over time, and brands, like I said, are just labels. Trademark law was created so people could identify products and determine quality by a brand name.  But today, brands are bought and sold, and many products, such as clothing and accessories, are little more than brand labels attached to inferior goods - and people will pay through the nose to have the right brand attached to their product!

Some of the poorest people I know "have to have" an Apple phone, because being seen without that logo on your phone (or a starbucks logo on your coffee cup) would be akin to being seen naked in public.  And the poorer they are, the more they are obsessed by brand-name consciousness.  And appearance as well - I see the very poor spend more money on hair care, manicures, designer clothes and designer bags, than the middle-class.

Maybe there is a method to this madness. Knowing that they will never be wealthy, they can at least have some of the trappings of wealth, and thus play at pretend wealth and project status - at least among their peers.  And in days gone by, this was the case, too.  Back in the day, you didn't leave the house without wearing a suit and tie and hat - for men, or a nice dress, high-heel shoes, stockings, and of course a nice hat - for women.  Rich or poor, you had these standards of appearance. Today, well, maybe it is global warming or something, but we run around dressed in what back then would be considered pajamas as best - or underwear at worst.  You would probably be arrested back in 1940 for wearing what we consider "normal" clothing today.

But a lot has changed since then.   Back in the day,  you went to work for a company, pledged your life to them, and then you collected a gold watch at age 65 - presuming you lived that long - and had a modest "pension" which paid out over the three or so years you lived past retirement age.   The idea of a long, luxurious retirement in a golf community or on the water somewhere was alien to most Americans.  Only the very rich lived that way - or lived that long.

Today?  Even with the pandemic, you might live to be 80, 90, or more.  In fact, if you make it to 60, there is a good chance you will live well into your 80's - defying the actuarial tables.  And today, it is likely you will be forced out of your job by age 55 or so, and forced to seek a new career.  So you may have this 30+ year time in your life where you are not working and cannot work, but still need to survive.  And no, there are no pensions anymore, except for some government workers.  You have to save your own money.

I saw a "meme" the other day which said something like, "The idea of working for 40 years and saving money so you can live for a few short years before you die is just wrong!  We need guaranteed annual income!"   From a 20-something perspective, it seems like that, I guess - you work forever and then retire only to be measured for a coffin, with maybe two years of hobbling around in a walker.  So you might as well spend it all now, right?  Buy that Tide detergent - and that Land-O-Lakes butter!

But of course, that is a false view of what life is like today. Your retirement years may exceed your working years.  On the other extreme are the "FIRE" people, who have similar "memes" about retiring at age 40 on $7000 a year.  This is just as asinine a proposition as the idea that "I'll work until I'm 70!" or "Retirement is a joke for our generation!" or "I'll never be able to afford a house!"   The latter is what I thought, at age 25.  By age 35, I owned four houses.  Things change quickly in life, particularly if you work at it.

The trick isn't to win big in the "Stonk" market, or to follow some get-rich-quick guru.  Nor is it a matter of turning off lights in the room when you leave, or  knitting your own sweaters from pocket lint you saved from the dryer. Extreme get-rich-quick schemes are just as false as extreme "stingy" schemes.

The answer - for me, anyway - is to accumulate wealth over time, a little every day.  And one way to do this is to cut back on spending.  In fact, it is the only way to do this.  Saving $5 a day might not seem like much, and it isn't hard to do.  Just drink the coffee in the break room (which is free) instead of going to Starbucks with your brain-dead friends.  Just buy a cheap phone instead of an Apple one.  Just buy store brand rather than national brand (they are often made in the same factory).  Buy a used car instead of leasing a brand-new one.  A few dollars here, and there, and it adds up.  And you have to cut spending in order to save.

As I noted before, the worst thing to do (and we all do it) is to pledge an inordinate amount of money to savings (say, in a 401(k)) without cutting spending.  What ends up happening is you run out of money at the end of the pay period and put things on a credit card - which never gets paid off.  And speaking of which, most of these "brand-conscious" people (who are unconscious most of the time) are carrying a credit card balance and paying interest to a bank, every month.  And yea, they pledge allegiance to a brand-name credit card, too!  Most Americans have a credit-card crises in their lives at some point.  I did, more than once.  Dumb!

But of course, this advice falls on deaf ears.  I know when I was younger, I would have rejected it, too. "I'm not buying some crappy store brand!" I would have said, "I want the good stuff!" - never mind that the store brand is often better or at the worst the same damn thing.  I worried more about what other people thought of me - including people I didn't even know.  It is a human thing - we all want to project status, and the younger you are, I think this is more the case.  Watch two five-year-olds fight over a toy sometime, you'll see what I mean.  Gumme!  Mine!

Am I brand-loyal?  Yes, up to a point.  I look for products I have had good experiences with, at a reasonable price.  But I have learned, over time, that sometimes products change, and often prices go up when a product becomes popular.  Years ago, Mark and I shared a bottle of "Toasted Head" Chardonnay and we liked it.  So we bought it pretty regularly for a few years.  But as it got more popular, the price went up - from $7 a bottle to nearly $20.  And maybe my tastes changed, or maybe they changed the product to seek a greater market share, but it seemed to be sweeter over time.   We moved on to other things.  Funny thing, it seems to have re-appeared on the market again, at a lower price.

I used to love Japanese cars, but they have changed over time - becoming more like their American counterparts, and that is not a good thing.  Maybe this increased their market share among Buick buyers in the midwest, but for folks who waned a Japanese car, it was something less.  And BMWs?  As the ultimate driving machine, I think they peaked in 1992 with the last iteration of the E30 M3.  Today, they are just overwrought, complex, expensive cars sold to people craving status - people who often don't even know how to drive.

Brands have their uses, but increasingly, I think, they are less and less useful, particularly as people buy brands just to have the brand - the status.  If you can look beyond that - look beyond the herd mentality, you can get ahead in life.  Act rationally in an irrational world.  The center of the herd is a safe place to be, but the grass is all trampled down and pooped upon.  And brand-loyalty is the ultimate pooped-on grass.