When I was at school, Wrangler was the jeans brand we aspired to. To sport a pair of Wrangler jeans, with its distinctive leather patch on the backside, was the height of cool.
Such was the status a pair of Wranglers conferred, that the school bullies regulated who was allowed to wear them.
While the ‘day boys’ were free to wear what they wished when they got home, if you were a boarder, you lived by the rules of the jungle – and those rules were set for you. If you did not pass the ‘coolness’ test, there was no way you would be allowed to wear your Wranglers in public.
I had to wait until I got to university before I had my first pair of Wranglers. I didn’t have to run the bullies’ gauntlet, my clothing choices were dictated by a mother impervious to designer chic.
If she could get a cheaper pair – that’s what I had to put up with. Maxwells of Union Street in Lurgan was her outlet of choice. “The stuff is all Marks and Spencer,” she used to say – forgetting to mention they specialised in seconds.
Why she expected that to cut any ice with a self-conscious 16-year-old is anyone’s guess.
The school bullies were far-sighted – they understood how easily brands can be undermined. A generation later, sales of jeans slumped because they came to be associated with Tony Blair in dress-down mode, and motor-mouth Jeremy Clarkson.
Now with teenagers of my own, I long for those days when a mid-price pair of jeans was the ‘must-have’ item of clothing. They covet richer fare.
Children today are born with an innate lust for brands. I am convinced consumerism is the modern-day original sin.
Brands do all they can to hook them young. My son could recognise a Macdonald’s sign from a mile off when he was two – and at that stage, he’d never even been in one.
Now, having consumed enough chicken nuggets to reach from here to the moon, he focuses his desires on hi-tech kit. As a gadget freak myself, I sympathise. But I resent shelling out hard cash for better stuff than I would buy for myself. Nothing but the best is acceptable to him.
My 13-year-old daughter has an unerring ability to pick the most expensive item – whatever she is shopping for. Harvey Nicks is her favourite store.
According to my wife, our daughter has spent more on eyeliner than she has spent on make-up during the entire 30 years of our marriage.
I have yet to discover my wife’s vices, but I know designer labels are not among them. (And I say that as a would-be metrosexual who is the owner of a Paul Smith designer man-bag.)
Is the desire for branded items just the manifestation of affluence? I suspect it is something deeper. It is evidence of our insecurity as a species. We are defined, and define ourselves, by what or who we wear, where we shop, what we eat and drink.
My Nike trainers evoke Federer, Ronaldo and McIlroy; my Omega Sea Master watch is the model worn by James Bond in Casino Royale; my underwear has graced the tattooed manliness of David Beckham. Yes, you’ve got it in one – I am overweight, balding and middle-aged.
Like individuals, organisations have their insecurities too. Rebranding exercises are one of the manifestations. The University of Ulster has just gone for a designer make-over.
Ulster University, as it is now to be called, didn’t shell out millions for its latest revamp. But why should a university be spending money on branding at all? You might well ask.
Having been involved in a few branding exercises myself, I know the arguments. Universities are large businesses, competing internationally for students. They need to stand out. Distinctiveness is their holy grail.
Though quite how UU’s new logo makes it distinctive is a moot point. Is it really going to be the deciding factor for a prospective student in India, China, or Cullybackey, for that matter? Does a half-hearted U speak of academic excellence?
And you have to wonder what subliminal message this deconstructed capital U sends out? To me it resembles a grounded bird whose wings have flown off without it?
Brands that succeed, are those which are true to themselves, and are trusted by their customers. They are rooted in authenticity.
As my therapist might tell me – if I were cool enough to have one – ‘be yourself, don’t waste your money on designer gear.’
* This column first appeared in The Irish News on November 11 2014