My Favorite Things: Are Favorite Things Getting More Powerful?

Posted inCreative Voices

If you had to choose one, which would be your favorite?:

  • Tesla or F-150?
  • Apple or Android?
  • Dunkin’ or Starbucks?

Chances are each of us will be able to make our choices pretty quickly. Even if you’re not a coffee drinker or in the market for a new vehicle, you’d probably be able to choose the one you’d be more likely to buy.

That’s because brands are becoming more deeply integrated expressions of our identities than ever before. “Brand as signal” is growing stronger all the time. There are three options on the list above that I would never even consider buying. They’re “not for me.”


Probably the same. Most of us have become affiliated with brands that we experience as sharing some important traits and characteristics with our own. Over the last couple of decades we’ve become accustomed to seeing the US portrayed in this fashion.

Red states and Blue states. Of course there are people and areas within every state that vote for candidates opposite to the predominant party within that state…we call those areas “purple” zones.

Similarly, there are what might be called Red brands and Blue brands. Quick, what’s the political affiliation of the F-150 owner? How about Apple fans? I didn’t want to present beer brands, of which the now-famous Bud Light dustup is an iconic example. Too obvious.

The point is, brands see (and their employees live within) the sharp cultural divisions in America. Brands then speak to those who are most likely to desire to be identified with their cultural group preference by using a brand’s signals: language, design elements, pricing, store environments, spokespersons…all of the ways that brands communicate what their objects mean in the modern world.

Some product categories are traditionally culturally neutral; “purple.” But even those can turn deep shades of red or blue in a moment. Most of us were fairly agnostic about breakfast cereals until Kellogg ran a modified classical conditioning-rooted ad to get consumers to associate the word “dinner” with “cereal” instead of “chicken.” Sounds innocuous enough; the ad ran for almost two years without much fuss.

Then, perhaps as a function of inflation and a heightened culturally-sensitized context, people started seeing the ad as a symbol of corporate greed — “greedflation” — leading to a boycott of all Kellogg’s products. A website, “Let Them Eat Cereal” became a center for boycott information. It doesn’t take a sophisticated political analyst to speculate on the Red or Blue signals being sent there. Breakfast cereal: purple no more.

In an increasingly interconnected society, messages about group affiliation move at Internet speed. One day it’s fine to eat chicken from a fast food chain, or buy craft supplies from a big box retailer; the next day, it’s traitorous!

And, our AI tools know the score, too. I asked ChatGPT to generate images of two vehicle owners: one a Tesla, the other a Ford F-150. The results are up there at the top of this post. We’ve trained AIs on our cultural meaning structures and it will gladly feed back to us what we all already know about brands.

Image by Tom Guarriello and ChatGPT

We attribute personality traits and lifestyle characteristics to owners of branded objects even more strongly today than we have in the past. It’s part of a bigger cultural moment, and we need to find a way out of this knee-jerk divisiveness before it leads to some even more serious consequences than stereotyping others who buy different cars, smartphones, or coffee than we do.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash.