Marketers get to us in more ways

It's marketing mayhem out there. It's subtle. It's subversive. And it's murky, says journalist Rob Walker, who writes the weekly "Consumed" column for The New York Times Magazine. And murky is a stealthy way to sell, he reveals in his new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.

Most people say that brands and logos mean nothing to them. They say they buy things based on a handful of factors — experience, recommendations from friends, price, convenience, quality and pleasure. And sometimes, for ethical reasons.

Walker isn't buying it. "There are probably more pretty good products being sold in America now than at any time in history. This is a tribute to progress, but it both complicates our decision making as consumers," he writes, and makes it difficult for one product to stand out.

As a result, people are creating their own brands and participating in marketing campaigns for their favorite products. Motivated consumers are even creating Internet video ads and becoming loyal word-of-mouth agents for their brand du jour.

"Everybody sees right through traditional advertising. You'd have to be an idiot not to recognize that you're being pitched to when watching a 30-second commercial," Walker writes.

The rise of 'murketing'

But contrary to the belief that today's short-attention-span consumer is impervious to marketing, and that big brands no longer matter, Walker argues that marketing methods are stronger than ever, just harder to spot.

It's what he calls "murketing," and it's omnipresent.

"We live in a world defined by more commercial messages, not fewer." They range from deals to place products and brand mentions in movies, computer games, comic books and cult online Web video shows. Dunkin' Donuts recruits teens to wear temporary tattoos of its logo on their foreheads. Toyota bankrolls underground club parties. And so on.

Walker fills his richly reported book with insights from cutting-edge marketers, entrepreneurs and artists. He clearly has clocked some time delving into case studies of resurging old brands such as Timberland and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, as well as hot-selling energy drink Red Bull and Lance Armstrong's Livestrong bracelet.

Walker packs in so many voices and products that at times it is hard to keep track. Nonetheless, be patient. His thinking is provocative, and that is worth the sometimes confusing read.

Walker's task is to dissect why now more than ever consumers are what they buy and vice versa. How can tossing back a can of Red Bull, for instance, do just that for a sorority girl and an extreme sports nut at the same time?

Easy. Symbols aren't defined by rational rules. They are open to individual interpretations.

For sorority sisters at Tulane University, it's a fashionable drink that says something like, "Look, I can afford to pay three bucks for this ridiculous drink," he proffers. For others, "It is perceived as a drink that improves performance … which some people take to mean sexual performance."

Red Bull's approach

Red Bull's vibe didn't just happen, he explains. The company invested in an array of projects from sponsoring extreme sports to running break-dance competitions to installing ads in nightclubs. "There was something oddly unfocused and inconsistent about the Red Bull message. … The company really never offered any rational explanation of what the stuff was all about and who was supposed to drink it," Walker writes. "It never sent a clear message to the masses."

That might just be the ticket. By cobbling together small niche audiences, Red Bull has built a mass audience. "Each group simply thinks Red Bull is something for them, partly because they have never been told otherwise," he writes.

For Red Bull, it turns out murky is not only OK, it's the whole point. Red Bull's makers didn't want a "unified, top-down centrally defined meaning."

"Murky is why rumors are not a corporate headache — they help," according to Walker. One of the drink's ingredients, taurine, an amino acid, is rumored to be bull semen, bull testosterone, an aphrodisiac and so on. The company laughs it off, creating a certain mystique to the brand.

Walker's epiphany: It isn't the brand that defines you. You define the brand. It's always been that way.

"The significance of the material things and symbols that mean the most has always flowed from us to the object, not the other way around," he concludes. We give meaning and values to symbols. "You surround yourself with who you are.

"It's not just about what a product is made of or what it's supposed to do," Walker writes. "Nor is it just about a brand image invented by experts and foisted on the masses, who swallow it whole. Any product or brand that catches on in the marketplace does so because of us: Because enough of us decided that it had value or meaning and chose to participate."

That's "the dialogue between consumer and consumed." And there's nothing subtle about that.

Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.