The Company You Keep

Why does it suddenly feel like brands are becoming our best friends? As Features writer Nakia Stephens notes, this is exactly how they want us to feel. But if that’s the case, why shouldn’t consumers be able to ask for respect from these brands in the same way they would expect from their friends?

I saw the movie Her a couple of years ago (mainly for the appeal of seeing Joaquin Phoenix, not gonna lie), and my initial reaction was confusion. Who willingly falls in love with an artificially intelligent computer program? How can that even happen? I sat on my couch for hours trying to figure out this film, and then I began to think about how this happens every day, and to a certain extent, to everyone.

People claim that they are not attached to a certain brand or a certain aesthetic, and I think that’s consciously accurate. But, how many people who don’t claim brand loyalty faithfully shop at Goodwill looking for “vintage” and “simple” clothing to wear, and then brag about how cheap it was later? Sorry to tell you, but you’re still plugged into the corporate machine that is based on separations of socioeconomic status.  

What is even more fascinating is that brands definitely haven’t always been this way. All brands have sold variations of a very similar product and marketed themselves in the same places using similar methods. It wasn’t until recently, with increasingly intimate social media platforms, that we’ve seen brands try to characterize themselves as friendly, non-aggressive entities. 

Let’s take a gander at our resident cool-girl brand, Glossier. Glossier is a particularly intriguing animal because social media has been their sole marketing tool. Colourpop is another brand that seems to have capitalized off of the “self-made” aesthetic. This effect is specifically unique to social media, simply because of the fact that there were only templates for websites beforehand. No one broke out of that mold. Now, there are feeds and profiles that are carefully curated by people whose sole job it is to seem like your friend. Neither Glossier nor Colourpop were carried in physical stores until the past year or so, but both brands have large followings and have made millions. According to Bloomberg, Glossier made a whopping $100 million in revenue in 2018. Let that sink in. Cosmetic companies like Maybelline, Revlon, Covergirl and Almay are still making bank, don’t get me wrong, but they reek of old money. Some of these brands have been around since literally 1915. Millenials are moving towards brands that mirror their own struggles to make it in society. We no longer touch up in powder rooms, or settle for five shade foundation.   

Certainly, none of these brands are completely run off of artificial intelligence, and there are actual people behind them that help to craft a certain image. I double tap on Instagram and smile when a company writes a funny caption as I scroll through their perfectly-cultivated feeds. These relationships have been building upon little, sacred, almost-intimate moments between the 

brand and I. It’s no wonder I feel bamboozled when a company acts up. There’s a camaraderie I feel with certain brands (what can I say? They just…get me), who are surely looking out for their bottom line and not my best interest. 

Now we’ve come full circle. The same emotions that allowed Joaquin Phoenix to fall in love with Scarlett Johansson’s voice in Her, are the same ones that are played on by large corporations to get you to fall in love with their product. Brands use specific terminology and methods of outreach to connect with people to make themselves seem empathetic. They make posts to ask us how we are. They pander to our own feelings of solitude and isolation by ensuring that our feed is full of ethereal pictures of coffee, tea and books that mirror our lives at home. More than ever, companies are paying attention to our interests in “intersectionality” and “diversity” because they generate big business. Their main consumer base consists of Gen Z and millenials; even though we make the least money, we  are the most willing to spend it. 

These brands have created digital personas reflecting what they’d be like if you knew them, if they existed outside of the Internet or our wildest fashion fantasies. Glossier, Milk Makeup, and Colourpop are reminiscent of that trio of friends that win all of the cool superlatives in high school. Madewell and Free People are trying to figure out if their last couple of bad days have been because Mercury is in retrograde or if it’s just their lives spiraling. Which medium of art do they prefer; Oil or fresco? Watercolor or pastels? 

Once you become aware of your part in all of this, it doesn’t take away from the fun of engaging with specific brands, or preferring certain ones over others. It puts you in a stronger position as a consumer, because once you realize how much a company relies on word-of-mouth and fabricated friendships, then you can capitalize on that. You’ve got all the power in this relationship, so why not hold these companies accountable like you would a friend?

You’ve got all the power in this relationship, so why not hold these companies accountable like you would a friend?

Even companies that still remain in our collective conscious have been outed in the fashion industry for their abominable practices (we see you Forever21, D&G and Kylie Cosmetics pre-Fenty release, you ain’t slick). There’s at least been a collective effort by both consumers and the media to hold brands, and the corporations behind them, accountable for their mistakes. I don’t think many brands have made any substantial changes, but we should keep this momentum going. We have the power to push companies toward change, including improved working conditions and higher wages in their factories, more eco-friendly production methods, and increased social awareness.  

It’s a combination of one of the most basic tenets of interpersonal relationships and a fundamental element in creating lasting friendships: respect and reciprocity. 

If corporations are going to put up a facade of who they really are, and appeal to innate human instinct to form connections and build relationships, then we’re situated perfectly in this power dynamic to ask them for respect. We’ve got moral obligations to fulfill and they’ve got a social responsibility to do and be better. Demand it.    

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