Let's hit them one at a time: an item is an item. It's generic, no frills, like pancake batter. A book bag with no markings on it. A plastic bowl. It is what it is, and it serves a purpose. No disrespect to the folks who are out there making these items, and hustling, and trying to get ahead. They fill a need, and a lot of times they fill it well. And no disrespect to the folks who are out there buying these generic items, either. Maybe they're on a budget, or maybe they have an immediate need and they're out to fill it as best they can, as quickly as they can. Or maybe they just don't care about labels and lifestyles or any of that stuff. Maybe that's just not who they are.
A label is one step up from a basic item. It's something people are buying, but they don't really care what it is. It's price sensitive, like a t-shirt blank, an off-brand MP-3 player, or a flannel shirt you grab at Target or CostCo for five dollars. There's a label tucked away in there, you can figure out who the manufacturer is, but you don't care because it's not a name you know. It doesn't mean anything. It's not a name you'll reach for a second time. It's not a name you'll even remember. It's just a name. You're buying the item because of the price, because of the convenience, the look, the color, the feel . . . or simply because it fills a particular need at a particular time.
A brand is one step up from a label. It's where most labels want to be, at the brand level--only it takes a certain something on the advertising and marketing fronts for labels to get there. (That certain something, by the way, comes at a price, which of course gets passed on to the consumer.) A bought-and-paid-for brand is something that's immediately recognizable to a good amount of people. It's got The Four Stages of Product Evolution 45 an identifiable logo, a particular look, a trademark style. Here it can be about the price and the convenience, but it's also about a level of quality. A branded product is a known commodity, and whenever you wear it or drink it or drive it or plug it in, it says something about the kind of person you are--or the person you want to be. It satisfies whatever it is you need, but at the same time it helps you make an important statement. And this above all: a brand is a promise. It's a commitment, really; a seal of approval. When a customer buys into a brand, he can expect a certain level of quality, integrity, and value. It's something you can rely on, every time out.
After that, you're buying into a lifestyle. There's a promise here, too. There's that same level of trust and value and all those good things, but now it cuts across a whole line of products, goods, and services. Now you reach for a product that says even more about you because you identify with what it says about everyone else. Here again, it's a name you know and trust, reflecting a style or sensibility you want to claim as your own, but now it's bled into other areas of your life as well, beyond the initial area of perceived need. Eddie Bauer, that's a lifestyle. Nike. Tiffany. Club Med. These are companies and product lines and service organizations that start out as one thing and grow into a much bigger thing, and underneath that bigger thing is the name that started it all.
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