Sunday, 30 August 2009

The branding of mothering.

This month, my local Borders closed. No longer will I be able to go and buy my Starbucks Chai Latte and sit musing over a book whilst the children nap comfortably in the Phil and Teds buggy- let along pick up a copy of Interweave Knits or Mothering magazine. Ironically enough, in their inspiringly excellent closing down sale, I picked up a copy of Bonfire of the Brands, by Neil Boorman- and also Consumer Kids, which looks very promising.

As yet, I'm only on -109 days to the bonfire, but something he wrote struck a chord with me. On day -110, he visited Jim, one of those clever people who uses psychographic research (whatever the fuck that might be) to make us do things that we don't know we want to do. (The oversimplistic explanation is mine, all mine. Please, just read the book.) Neil asks why he has such a strong loyalty to Adidas
"over any number of lifestyle-defining sports brands.
'If you're so loyal to Adidas, you've probably been anchored when you were in a highly suggestible state. Brands are an external stimulus that trigger internal reactions. When you hear a certain piece of music, you will instantly remember a time or an event in the past associated with a strong emotion. Brands anchor themselves to a particular moment in your life and act as a trigger in the same way as music. Every time you see the brand, it triggers an emotion. Tell me about your earliest memories connected to Adidas.'
I recount memories from pop videos, watching Olympic athletes on TV, secretly falling in love with an older girl at school who had an Adidas tracksuit: none of these experiences seem to make sense. Then I remember the first day at school, being ostracised from the playground gang for not having the right gear; they were all wearing Adidas.
'That's it! Adidas is anchored to the feelings you felt that day. You were highly suggestive, you had a need for external connection and you saw the brand as a means to personal growth. When you see Adidas, you remember how it feels to be rejected, and it offers the possibility of acceptance. To you, Adidas is acceptance and love'" (p74)- my bolding.

I've been posting on internet parenting forums and communities for almost a decade now, from the UK homebirth yahoo group and Radical Mothers, to Hipmama (the brand extension for a magazine that I STILL haven't read, which I bitterly regret), mamatron and currently MDC. I'm a regular on one of the most exciting new brands to hit the internet, Ravelry- and yet, right now I have misgivings about my commitment. In particular, I'm having reservations about the time I have spent, over the years, supporting publications and doing their marketing for them, strengthening their brand image.

New mothers are often very suggestive. Often, we spend hours reading everything that we can access about birth, breastfeeding, the care and feeding of the magickal creature, the human newborn. So much of this is only normal, surely? One of the things that hits me again and again, though, is how frequently I see my compatriots in the trenches using brands to describe their daily life. The baby is carried in the Moby, naps in the Amby (or the Pack and Play), wears a FB or a BG on their bottom- unless of course, they're EC'ed, in which case mum probably has not only a potty, but a Baby Bjorn Little Potty. Let's not go into the jealousy I feel over Hanna Anderson, a brand that isn't available here. It feels, truly, as if the messages about baby stuff have been internalised- that the modern mother accepts that stuff is necessary, but selects her brands carefully for the statement that they make. A mother who uses Fuzzi Bunz on her infant- or my personal object of desire, the Blueberry- is making a very different statement than the mother who buys 60cm terry squares and folds them differently according to whether the child is a newborn or a toddler. In reading a single forum on MDC earlier today, I came across 100 brand references in 17 minutes- and by accepting the other brands, it strengthens the acceptance of the parent brand, the magazine hosting the discussion.

Current statistics are suggesting that new mothers spend a minimum of 3 hours a day on the internet- some suggest as much as 6 hours spent surfing parenting forums. That's a large amount of brand loyalty up for grabs. This comes back to the bolded up above- the brand, the Mothering brand in particular, offers external connection. It offers a means to personal growth- to a group of individuals who are at a highly suggestive time of their lives. Motherhood is hard. It is undervalued, and underrespected, there is no positive appraisal system and a lot of self-doubt. And into this, we have the brand.
MDC, in some ways, is an inspiring thing. The Holiday Helper community is awesome, and the FYT board has taken many a mother from geographic isolation to part of a RL community. It comes at a cost, though. The cost is loyalty, and perhaps the loss of our autonomy. There are posters who are savage in their condemnation of anyone who is not sufficiently loyal to the twin brands of Mothering and Attachment Parenting- because of course, judgement is not always wrong.
Recently, I've seen too many instances that make me worry that we are becoming loyal to the brand, rather than to our children. The mother who omits to mention her c-section, or the parent who accepts reassurance that a poor weight gain IS normal and chooses not to investigate further. Stories of midwives (unlicensed, sometimes) making outrageous suggestions completely unrelated to evidence based care. There's others. People talk laughingly of "drinking the koolaid"- but the fact is that brand loyalty in other areas of our life can interfere with our instincts and our ability to think for ourself. In fact, this is what it's designed to do. Why, then, should our loyalty to the Mothering brand be any different?

I'm interested in other people's opinions on this one. Am I being ridiculous, and reading too much into this? Or not enough?


  1. Very well written and insightful post. If my brains were not mush right now, I'd have something more coherent to say - but it is definitely a great deal of food for thought.

  2. I've been thinking a little bit about it, and for me with parenting message boards it wasn't as much the brands as the ideas. Say anything with the subtext (implied or otherwise), "You aren't a good mother unless you do THIS" to a new mom and you'll get an idea planted so deep its nigh impossible to shake. I have knee jerk reactions about things like breastfeeding and birth interventions/surgical birth that I know don't hold true and know so because I lived them, yet I still have to beat down the ugly jump to judgement despite knowing much, much better. It's an awful combination of mommy wars, bootstrapping, and vestiges of the kool-aid - because no matter how much you might think you were completely above the kool-aid, it has a way of sneaking in and changing your views in subtle but sometimes very meaningful ways.

    I think the toughest time I'm going to have of it will be protecting my kids from the ubiquitous branding all around them. I try my hardest to avoid commercial TV with Michael because he turns into the perfect little consumer whenever he sees an ad. I want to say it doesn't seem to sink in, but I'm sure they are getting their hooks into him just the same.

  3. I think you're right on the money here, Helen. (har har)

    It's all about power, when it comes down to it. Brand-name marketing uses persuasion and subtle (or not-so-subtle) nudges to build brand loyalty - power exercised for the purpose of making money, and wielding more power in different venues. The kind of branding that you're talking about bypasses the intermediary step of money and goes directly to power. If you can convince more people to think the same way that you do, that gives you more power - more influence over the "converted", AND more credence among the unconverted, since we stil persist in the notion that if 1000 people believe something it is more likely to be true than if only 10 people believe it. Power isn't just about getting other people to do your bidding, it's about being able to live with the reasonable assurance that others will not attack you. In our modern lives, attacks are usually on ideas and behaviour rather than physically - and you build your power by surroundng yourself with individuals who share your ideas and behaviours, and who are thus not likely to attack yours.

    If you wnat to taunt your brain further, there is a completely fantastic radio series here about marketing that you should listen to. Fortunately it's available for download: The episode on brand loyalty is especially illuminating. (I think they should play this program for high school kids. A lot.)

  4. That's a really, really interesting post. I honestly hadn't though about it before. I'm off to have a ponder.....

  5. Hi, Helen. Thanks so much for commenting on my blog so that I could find yours! This is a fabulous post as I am doing my best to avoid 'branding' with my children. We are a waldorf inspired family and therfore avoid most media with the children at their young ages. I try to buy clothing without visible brands and occasionally make articles for them. I'm very interested in the bonfire and will be following your blog to hear more.

    I also agree about mothering. I try to stay away from the posts that are heading in a negative direction. I think that there are ways to geniunely offer help and then there are ways to pass judgement and be downright rude. If a poster doesn't have the time to offer some insight to their opinion, then it may be better for the poster to not submit their post at all.

  6. Oh, and I can empathize with your loss of the lovely chai latte. Those are my favorite for much of the year until pumpkin spice comes out to play. :D (speaking of brand loyalty, lol)


I hear voices in my head, they talk to me, they talk to me, they understand. Save me from the voices and leave a comment already, huh?