Quality brands as moribund middlebrow propaganda

In a recent New Yorker column, James Surowiecki argues that retailers are succeeding by eschewing the middlebrow and either making luxury goods or cheap, “good enough” stuff. I had trouble following some of his logic (I didn’t really understand what he was getting at in his point about economies of scale) but I thought this was interesting:

In the past, these companies were able to charge a premium price because their brands were taken as signals of reasonable quality and reliability. Today, consumers don’t need to rely on shorthand: they have Consumer Reports and J. D. Power, CNET and Amazon’s user ratings, and so on, which have made it easier to gauge differences in quality accurately. The result is that brands matter less: a recent Nielsen survey found that more than sixty per cent of consumers think that stores’ generic products are equal in quality to brand-name ones. In effect, the more information people have, the tighter the relationship between quality and price: if you can deliver a product or service that is qualitatively better, you can charge top dollar. But if you can’t deliver the quality you can’t get the price.

It seems like a good thing if people aren’t mistakenly equating brands with merchandise quality. But I wonder whether that has anything to do with information access. It seems like it could reflect an ideological shift, or a shift in the significance of branding.

Surowiecki depicts middlebrow shoppers as dupes who mistook brands for indicators of quality while they bumbled in the marketplace, with no inner resources to draw on to tell what’s what. The brand reassured them they weren’t making a mistake, even if the quality wasn’t there. Paradoxically, the wealth of new information available makes the possibility of making a mistake much higher; there’s more we should have and could have known, and we can quickly confirm our disappointment online if something goes wrong with something we purchase. A form of decisional paralysis may set in as brands are devalued, or at least come to signify qualities other than quality.

But brands have more work to do besides signal quality. They need to be more flexible in what they can mean, what sort of fantasies they can evoke. They need to have richer personalities (ugh). What is precisely middlebrow is the idea that a brand signals only quality, and that idea is perhaps dead. (Surowiecki’s muted nostalgia for it altogether befits the middlebrow magazine he writes for, its own brand an increasingly irrelevant signal of quality as magazines founder.) Instead, the ways in which products denote class distinctions have become more complex; the grammar which retailers and consumers alike must use with products more sophisticated.