Debadging June 2020

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had this unusual obsession with debadging things. It’s mostly a term used for cars, where you remove the logo and model type from the outside of the car. The goal differs, but it’s generally to make the aesthetic simpler and not muddy it with branding. The idea is similar I think for clothes and other items. I find I like clean and simple aesthetics more over time, they seem more durable than ornate or obvious approaches to design. I think it’s an exercise in essentialism: how many elements can be removed before the only thing left is value.

Over time I also tend to cut tags out of clothing, especially the ones that have branding on them. Jess asked recently why I do this, and that I seem to be doing it more as I get older, and I don’t think I have a good answer to either other than something feels right about things without tags. I think it may trick my mind into valuing the item more than I would otherwise when it seems like it’s homemade. The concept of Brandless the company to me is sound, but they sort of tried too hard to be a brand. The idea that you can have a reputation without identity is nice in theory.

I think the old concept of focusing on quality and letting the product speak for itself is a hard truth. It’s clear in business that marketing also matters, but that could simply mean making things of superior quality, and then sharing that information with people in the way they like it. It’s interesting to see products made by companies historically, because the branding tends to be much less prominent, and there tended to be much more of a focus on quality and reputation. One would never ship a subpar product under their own name (or at all). Contrast with today, where the goal is to build a brand and increase quality (or decrease it) completely independently. It’s not a story about quality, it’s manipulation focused on avoiding expense. It’s fundamentally cheaper to seem like you make quality products than it is to make them.

I had a conversation with someone about manufacturing, and how it compares in China and Canada. It genuinely sounds like there’s almost no ability to make things left in Canada at this point. China is more automated, and more skilled, so the category this person operates in has to decide whether to pay 10x as much for a less reliable source of materials locally, or save 10x the money and get a consistent supply in the amount they need. If we did decide to reshore manufacturing, we may also have to accept we’re vastly less competent and organized. We may also have to accept that we simply can’t do that and meet our ever friendly labour laws. Another interesting example of how empathy for local workers leads to exploitation of workers in another place: all to reduce the cost of goods, to enable more consumption in the local place.

I’m not sure if this ended up being an essay about debadging or about quality, but it does suggest that we have a long and painful road to regain leadership in technological progress. We can’t keep assuming that increasingly wealthy and hostile countries will supply our goods. And we can’t keep relying on ever more complex growth hacks to take the place of quality. These problems probably have to be solved together at once, by creating new brands, that make useful things of high quality near where they are used. No other path has a future.