Should Brand Matter?

by Katy on July 28, 2010 · 31 comments

Yesterday’s Non-Consumer Mish-Mash column received a thought provoking reply to my mention that the 50¢ tank top I picked up at a garage sale was Old Navy brand.

“Why can’t it just be a great black tank top? Why does it have to be Old Navy?”

The reader went to on to write that:

“Because it sounds like we are buying these by BRAND and not because we like them. How does OLD NAVY black tank top describe a tank top any better? How does describing coffee mugs or underwear change how it looks by mentioning the brand name?”

This comment did not surprise me because the same commenter had earlier questioned why the brand of my garbage picked Crate and Barrel Christmas mugs mattered? I had not addressed the question at the time, (lord knows what what going on in my day when I published that piece) but the question had certainly been ruminating with me.

Does brand matter, or is it a completely irrelevant detail?

I think the answer is both yes and no. Brand is not important in terms of status. But some brands are better made than others, and certain brands are more cleverly designed. In the best case scenario, these two occurrences collide.

Take for example Garnet Hill, which one of my favorite brands. Garnet Hill is a mostly catalog based business that sells expensive clothing, housewares and kid stuff; but their star products is their bedding. Oh my God, the bedding! It’s extremely high quality and the graphics are fantastic. When I garbage picked a flannel duvet cover in their classic clouds pattern I was over the moon. Had that same duvet cover been a Target brand, I would have been less likely to bring it home and put the work into mending all the tears.

So yes, brand mattered in this case.

When I picked up the 50¢ Old Navy tank top at a garage sale, my thinking was not along the lines of “Wowie-zowie, it’s Old Navy!” but more along the lines of “This tank top looks functional. I already have a blue one that I also bought for 50¢ at a garage sale last summer, so I know it’ll work for me.”

And no, brand did not matter in this case.

In an ideal world, all consumer goods would be high quality and equally worthy, but such is not the case. Some brands are simply better than others, while stores like Target run the gamut from poor to fantastic quality. (My mother swears by their towels for her rental cottages.)

I describe myself as a “Non-Consumer” but that doesn’t mean that I am immune to brand awareness. It is simply more satisfying to score a $2 pair of Goodwill Levi’s instead of Wal Mart brand. I am not looking to fill my home with designer goods, instead I look for high quality goods that will not fall apart before they should. And if I can get three of four seasons out of that tank top, then I’ll feel pretty good.

How do you weigh in on this issue? Is favoring some brands more than others bowing down to Madison Avenue? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

lucy July 28, 2010 at 10:22 am

Well, when I read your post yesterday, I took the “Old Navy” reference to be a simple descriptor. It helped me understand what kind of tank top you scored. When I read “Old Navy,” I understood that you got a simply styled, probably 100% cotton, fairly functional and prosaic tank top. I didn’t take it to mean that you were particularly excited that it was from Old Navy, or that you are in any way promoting the brand. You were telling me–in “brand shorthand”–that your new shirt is NOT vintage; NOT made of high-tech material; NOT particularly sexy (no offense). If you had written that you scored a Patagonia tank top, or a 1980s Lacoste (alligator) tank top, I would have gotten a different mental picture of your shirt. You’ve got nothing to apologize for because of writing “Old Navy.” The Old Navy corporation probably has a lot to apologize for in terms of its environmental and labor practices. And that’s why you’re not buying new!

Great blog, by the way!

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Tracy Balazy July 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm

That’s a great way of putting it, Lucy!!!!

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Laura July 28, 2010 at 10:43 am

I think the trap with brands these days is that we get lulled into thinking with certain brands we are getting or buying quality, but that’s not always the case any more. We bought our kitchen appliances based on brand reputation and have been very disappointed in the quality. I’ve actually gotten a couple of schlocky items from Garnet Hill in the past that I returned because the quality was so disappointing. What matters more to me than the name these days is how the company responds when the quality isn’t as promised, whether that’s Old Navy, Garnet Hill, Target, Tiffany’s (for the record, I’ve never bought or received anything from Tiffany’s!) or whomever.

If a 50 cent Old Navy tank fits, looks and feels better to me than a more expensive or similarly priced J. Crew tank, so much the better. The brand only matters if I plan to wear the label on the outside or I want to tell everyone I bought my name-brand item at a ridiculously low price (and sometimes I do, but usually not).

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Stefanie July 28, 2010 at 10:58 am

I’ve always taken your brand references to be more encouragement to shop second hand. I buy a lot of my daughter’s clothes at thrift stores and I always go for the Carter’s, Gymboree and Children’s Place items I find because I know I will like the style and fit and longevity of what I find. I also like finding something that I know would have cost me $15 or more in the store for as little as 25 cents. I think despite all of our best efforts, we still prefer exclusive brand names over anything else. But I don’t think it means we’re shallow brand snobs. In saying you were happy to have found an Old Navy tank for 50 cents, to me you said you know what you like, care what you wear and how you look, but also that you know there are more important things in life than spending $10 on a new shirt.

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Kris-ND July 28, 2010 at 8:29 pm

I was thinking the same thing. When you have someone who is reluctant to shop second hand because they think everything is goodwill 70’s polyester pants, it is often helpful to say “I got these Nike shoes in excellent condition for 3.00 at the Goodwill. I picked up this Old Navy T-shirt for .50 cents at the thrift store” It shows the person, like I was years ago, who is very leery of thrift stores that, yes Virginia, there is a good deal to be had buying second hand.

When a person thinks they can’t get quality from a second hand store, you need to specifically point out brands to make your point, and yes, sometimes you are so excited about finding something you would never spend the money on new at a thrift store that you want to jump around shouting it out….”I scored……. for…… CAN. YOU. BELIVE.IT??!!”

If I tell you I got a great pair of tennis shoes for a dollar or I tell you I got a pair of Nike Air tennis shoes in mint condition for a dollar, which one conveys the point of the great deal better? Nike is a brand, whether you are a brand person or not, and people have a rough idea what a pair of Nike shoes run, so mentioning the brand shows exactly the kind of deal you got, and, again, when you know someone is struggling with shopping at a thrift store for whatever reason that is exactly the kind of description you want to be able to show.

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Lisa Whipple July 28, 2010 at 11:43 am

I shop Goodwill (& other thrift stores), garage sales, and consignment shops because I love the thrill of the hunt, finding fashion gold for pennies on the dollar, and because I like to find quality clothing that fits MY style, not what everyone else is wearing. So, to that end, knowledge about brands and designers is very helpful to me. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t buy something at Goodwill that I recognize to be from Target, say, because I know that the quality is only so-so and that I am likely paying close to what I might pay for the garment new.

Conversely, Goodwill, Value Village, et. al. have become more savvy about Big Names and charge accordingly, so knowing something about high-quality lesser-known designers and brands has helped me score some amazing finds. I’ve snagged a Nanette Lepore cashmere sweater for $8, a pair of Repetto shoes for $6, a Sigrid Oleson leather handbag for $5, and multiple pairs of Lucky jeans for >$10 apiece. Each of these items originally retailed for hundreds of dollars, a fact which makes the dealmaker in me happy, but ultimately falls second to being confident that the items are high quality. AND, it’s not like I snap up anything that is a deal like that–my friend Ed once said to me, “Buy it because you love it, not because it is cheap.”

All that said, I took the “Old Navy” descriptor exactly as Lucy above did–as shorthand. And if I needed a basic tank top and found one at a garage sale for 50 cents, I’d totally go for it, regardless of the label.

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Anne Marie @ Married to the Empire July 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

When bloggers tell the brands they picked up for a song, I’ve always taken it as encouragement to shop secondhand. The common belief is that secondhand means junk. This dispels that belief.

When I found a brand-new Le Creuset 2-quart casserole for a mere $11 at a thrift store, you’d better believe I was telling everyone about it! To get such an expensive and high-quality product for so little was a very exciting moment for me!

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Tracy Balazy July 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I agree! When I got a pair of Sorrell winter boots at a garage sale last year, new, too, for $10 (high for a garage sale, but not for new Sorrells), I was so pleased, I’m sure I told several people about it. They’re well-made, and $10 beats the $120 I would have (not) spent at a retail store!

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Elizabeth B July 30, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I am now so very amazingly jealous. 😉

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Kimberly in So Cal July 28, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I see both sides to this; on the one hand referencing brands lets your readers know that there might be decent items to be purchased second-hand, on the other it can also reinforce brand associations. If I was blogging my second hand purchases I might choose to reference the some brands, such as vintage Pyrex or a Singer sewing machine, but when it comes to clothing I’d probably offer more generic descriptions ~ cotton, vintage, hemp, new, organic, fairly-traded, sustainably produced, well-made, tailored, etc. I might even use the label “brand-name” without advertising the brand.

In the case of your blog post, Old Navy really only made me think of okay quality, most likely sweatshop-produced clothing. Yes, purchasing it second hand gives it another life and is outside of the consumer lifestyle, but promoting the brand isn’t something I would do.

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Caroline July 30, 2010 at 2:36 am

I absolutely agree with you Kimberly, information can easily be conveyed without using a brand name.

Is it necessary or even desirable to advertise brands (Old Navy for instance, that is known to use sweatshops) on a blog promoting non consumption and the reduction of environmental impact, when you can simply refer to the item in descriptive terms and let the reader draw their own conclusions?

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Kristen@TheFrugalGirl July 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I think there are much bigger things to worry about in life than whether or not someone mentions a name brand in their blog posting, personally. And as I said yesterday, I do this all the time, whether it’s a cheap brand or an expensive brand. I count it the same as mentioning the color. 😉

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jenniwaka July 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Not that this has much to do with using brand names when blogging, but it IS helpful to be familiar with brands you’re buying at a garage sale, etc. because you can’t exactly try it on. Even plain old cotton tank tops can be cut very differently if the brand is aimed at a younger or older audience.

Also, sometimes it’s great to pick up brand-name items really cheap if you’re planning on giving them to someone who DOES care about that sort of thing. Teenagers come to mind, especially after I just gave a secondhand brand-name purse to each of my 17 year old sisters. I also once received a Tiffany gift that I didn’t think I’d use so I regifted it to someone who would be impressed by the blue box.

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Mamie July 28, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Commenter #1, Lucy, wrote exactly what I was thinking, almost word-for-word. I took “Old Navy” as basically a descriptor – like Lucy, I then knew exactly what sort of item the 50-cent tank top is. I *didn’t* take “Old Navy” as a value statement, endorsement, “brag,” or anything else.

You blog is GREAT – one of my favorites!!!

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Ann July 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I don’t know…I’m not into brands for the sake of brands, but girl, if you found a pair of Manolo Blanik shoes or Jimmy Choo’s at Goodwill for $5 you would KNOW you had a bargain. There has to be something for that. If you can go to Sears and buy a dozen wife-beaters for $5 – why would you pay $.99 for one at Goodwill. It is part of the joy of bargain hunting, no? I didn’t think you were bragging at all. Call me if you find a Kate Spade wallet at your favorite thrift shop!!

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Tracy Balazy July 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I did that last year — bought a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo pumps at the Council for the Blind Thrift Store (in metro Detroit) for $8. I sometimes wonder if they’re knockoffs, although, they ARE used shoes, which should bring down the price. I do see Kate Spade bags from time to time at Value World, and I always wonder how to tell a knockoff, because I can’t believe they’re priced at $4 and $5!

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Rebecca July 30, 2010 at 6:18 am

I have a Kate Spade purse I found last year, for $9. It needs to be cleaned, but thats all. I also recently saw a D&G bag (genuine) there for $5. If you wonder if it is a knock off, check the lining and labels inside, and there are lots of websites to help you see the difference. The hardware and the stiching on the purses tell a lot. If its a KO, you will see the poor construction, sloppy stitching etc. But if it is a good KO, I still wouldn’t mind it. I didn’t get the D&G because it wasn’t my style, but the deals are there. I also often see what I call High Mid brands of shoes at Goodwill. Stuff you see at Macy’s, sells for $70 to $100 a pair. Not Choo’s or anything, but nice shoes. Unfortunately I have size 10 barges, so I need almost an 11 in heels. But if you are a 8 or 8.5 you can totally score.

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Dairy State Girl August 2, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Please don’t use the phrase “wife-beater”! I know you don’t mean anything by it, but it’s incredibly offensive to any woman who has been hit by her husband.

It’s right up there with “baby killer”.

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Kariann July 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm

I like when bloggers mention the brand name of the item. It helps me to picture said item.

I love your blog!

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Jennifer July 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm

As some of the other commenters already mentioned, I took the “Old Navy” description as meaning a better quality garment than one of the “throw away” brands that seem to be abounding at the moment. With three girls, I have always tried to keep my eyes out for name brand apparel at the second hand stores, not for the brand name, but for the quality. I know that by buying a second hand name brand item, I can almost guarentee that it would survive my trio. Now that they are older, I don’t worry about it as much, because handme downs don’t really work any more. Now it is more important to have them come along to pick something out so that I know that they will wear it.

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Tracy Balazy July 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Katy, I feel, too, that the brand is as much a part of the description as the color and cut. For example, I’ve found Tommy Hilfiger clothing to be well-made, and I never would have known this had I not found Tommy items at thrift stores. I’ve had good luck with Ann Taylor and Talbot’s items, as well as Liz Claiborne, and they abound at my local thrift stores!

A couple of months ago, at a church garage sale, I bought a European-made Crate & Barrel crystal ice bucket for $3 new in the box (undoubtedly a wedding present someone never used; unused wedding gifts are a great source of resale items!), and it’s elegant and catches the light so beautifully. I think you’re right in mentioning brand in your thrift finds!

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Jana July 28, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I agree…if I’m going to buy second hand I’m going to go for the good brands that are better quality.
Jana

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Raffaella July 29, 2010 at 2:03 am

I agree, it’s not about status but brands you already know to be of good quality (and design). Having favorite brands is not a crime anyway – going “no logo” to death can be as snobbish as being brand freaks! Just… buy what you want?!

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Happy Mum July 29, 2010 at 2:16 am

Thanks to your reader for raising the question of brand names, and to you for following up in this piece — thought-provoking issue, as you say. And branding/marketing/advertising does affect people’s consumption of resources (even non-consumer-y people) — so definitely worth some discussion and reflection.

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WilliamB July 29, 2010 at 4:45 am

A brand name conveys information, just as material and color do. It tells us something about the quality, cut, style, target market, durability, manufacturing and labor practices relating to the item. You’d judge the clothes (and perhaps me) differently depending on I bought an Armani, a J. Press or a Kmart suit. Some consumers value a brand name just for the brand name or the rarity or the cost of the item, others use it to judge the underlying characteristics.

In Katy’s case, I think we can predict she’s in the second category.

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Mary Ann July 29, 2010 at 5:27 am

I’m not into brands. Since I sew, I look for quality – the way it’s made and the quality of the fabric. And I think it’s really funny that this discussion would come up because you mentioned “Old Navy”. I think Old Navy clothes are some of the poorest quality out there. But for $0.50, go for it.

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Lisa July 29, 2010 at 11:39 am

I agree completely with you! I’m far from being a snob about brand names but get a shopper’s high whenever I find anything well made at a ridiculously low price…especially when it’s an item I need. Case in point, one time I was wearing a pair of tennis shoes that were WAY past their prime and found a pair in like new condition for 50 cents. They were my size so I pounced on them…only later noticing that they were made by New Balance. My friend had just bought a pair identical to them except new and paid over $60. So heck yeah, that was sweet.

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Lisa L. July 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I’m a little bit of a brand whore simply because I have the idea that brand name products (some of them, anyway) are higher quality than others. Also, less honorable but still legitimate, is the reaction that other people have to your brand name merchandise. When I got a Talbots suit (for $5 from Goodwill) for a job interview, my future boss recognized it as Talbots and said, “Ooh, I’m a Talbots shopper, too!” I’m not saying it got me the job, but it didn’t hurt…

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Kayla K July 30, 2010 at 7:11 am

I used to struggle to find jeans that fit, but am now brand-loyal to Gap. When I am sorting through clothes at Goodwill I definitely gravitate towards Gap clothing because I have found their jeans to fit well and last. I even buy Gap new… sometimes.

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Jenny July 30, 2010 at 9:22 am

I spent part of yesterday in a Goodwill (in a rich town) with a friend who looks specifically for brands that her daughter’s friends would buy at the Mall. Right now it’s a big deal for 7 year olds in that town to have Justice, Limited 2, and Gap clothing. It bugs me but I’m glad she’s at least being smart about spending her money at a thrift store. All of the name brand (ie mall) clothing she bought was $2 apiece.
I care about brands too though and mostly just for the quality factor. I won’t go near WonderKids (Kmart) brand because I know it’s poor quality and shrinks. I don’t buy Faded Glory or Route 66 used either because my Mom can buy that stuff on clearance for the same price (and often does).
After reading your comments, I went online to check if my Prada wallet was a knock off. I bought it at a garage sale for a quarter last summer. Well, 24 cents if you consider that I found a penny in the change part. It is a knock off but I’m not going to quit using it. It functions quite nicely and for a quarter I’ll keep it

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