Brand Management: Polo and the Cross
This fall I will be a senior at Wake Forest University—a private school located in Winston-Salem, NC, which is characterized by beautiful people, pretty clothes, stunning architecture, and high tuition. Looking around at the majority of the students, a newcomer will no doubt recognize the upper middle class clothing that appears on the student body; Sperrys, button downs, khaki shorts, sun dresses, and the brands of Southern Tide, Brooks Brothers, Vineyard Vines, Nike, and Polo.
In reality, this seeming unanimity of dress is not so pervasive as described. However, the above portrait does describe the feel of Wake Forest, the dominant paradigm of the body that has a pull to the ones within the school community. After having finished my Freshman year, I realized that this sensibility had pulled me to purchase some ten button downs, t-shirts, and long sleeve shirts that all had Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand icon (which, at base, is simply a man on top of a horse embroidered on the chest).
In this article I want us to ask ourselves to look closely at these symbols, these brands that cover so much of what we own. These “swooshes” and men-on-top-of-horses, what do they do? What do they reflect? And why do we feel such a pull by them within the communities of which we are a part? I want to argue that these symbols serve to reflect one’s incorporation into a community, a community which then calls us into certain practices and sensibilities. Ultimately, I want to argue that the symbol of the cross within the community of the Body of Christ functions in the same way, though reflecting a different community, with different practices than that offered in the symbol of Ralph Lauren Polo.
I used to work at a local grocery store, Harris Teeter. It was a pretty normal high school position: bagging groceries, ringing people up at the register, “is plastic okay?,” the whole deal. I remember seeing one customer in line wearing a light blue collared shirt, the same color I and my fellow employees wear. Imagine if that man were to step behind the register and begin attempting to perform the duties of a cashier. The immediate response as to why this would be inappropriate would be the fact that the man had not been incorporated into the community (lacking the hiring, training, and discipline required to be marked off as a Harris Teeter employee). This lack of incorporation would be seen because the man did not have the symbol of Harris Teeter—the bread, fish, and apple—on his shirt.
Another example: imagine you are a spectator at a college basketball game. The two teams are wearing blue and red, with numbers on the back and team names on the front. Caught up in the excitement of the game, you decide to jump into the game, associating yourself with the red team (as you had decided to wear your favorite red shirt that day). Instinctively the arena would recognize that, in fact, you are not a part of the red team, for your shirt lacks the numbers and letters that reflect the ability and teamwork required of a college basketball team.
In these two cases, we see that the symbol reflects one’s incorporation into a community (company, or team), that then shapes the individual into performing certain practices (bagging, or teamwork). Let’s look closely now at the symbol of Ralph Lauren, what does this symbol reflect?
One way to do this would be to enter into a department store which contains different brands side by side. On the left we see Hanes brand t shirts (no symbol), and on the right we see Polo branded t shirts. On the inside we would probably see that the two contain much of the same materials (possibly both made in the same country) yet one has a price tag of $6.991 and the other a price tag of $39.50.2 We may sit and wonder how the two shirts could presumably have the same material and labor costs going into the product, yet the one with a man on a horse is considered more valuable than the one without a symbol. We are then led to the obvious conclusion: the value associated with the Polo brand shirt is constructed to reflect the wealth that sets apart those who can purchase the brand from those who can’t.
Those who spring the extra $333 earn the privilege of being a set apart people. A quick perusal of the Ralph Lauren website reveals that wearing the brand means an incorporation into “style,” “runway looks,” and “timelessness.” Those who adorn the brand symbol are then adopted into an exclusive relationship with what the brand symbol is constructed to represent. This exclusion, unlike the good exclusions for teamwork and company loyalty noted above, is for its own sake. Those who are not able to spend the extra money to have a man-on-a-horse on their shirt are thus outside of “style” and “looks.” Note that I am not making an argument against style and beauty as such, but against “style” and “looks” built upon arbitrarily inflated prices constructed to symbolically distinguish the wealthy from the less so.
Looking again at the Wake Forest University student body, one begins to see the branding of the body as a small part of the widespread (one might argue institutionalized) social segregation found on campus. One sees this in the pockets of social groups that exist outside the dominant paradigm: athletes, minority students, and students on scholarship4 who generally do not have the wealth to incorporate. In sum, we see that the symbols reflect the wealth required to be part of a community (the majority class). This community then calls on those within it to perform certain practices (social segregation).
In contrast to this purely materialistic segregation, the two-blocks-of-wood which symbolize the cross of Christ reflect a different community construction and different practices as a result. Paul in 2 Corinthians explains that, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).4 In the symbol of the cross we are to see the love of God; a God who (in spite of our sin and brokenness, and out of sheer grace) gives us hope, mercy, and victory over the sufferings of this world. Earlier in the chapter, Paul exhorts all to “be reconciled to God,” for the Christ who reconciles us to Himself also gives us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5: 18-19).
How does the symbol of the cross reflect the community of the Church? The cross serves to mark oneself as a part of a community (those who have been reconciled to God), and pull that community into certain practices (ministry of reconciliation to the world, i.e. love for the poor, dying to our own sin, longing for justice in the world). The Cross, in contrast to the exclusion-for-exclusion’s-sake function of Polo, serves to show the radical inclusion and exclusion of the good news—the calling of all to be reconciled to God which realizes that there is no hope for this broken world outside of the righteousness of Christ. To conclude, the symbol of the Cross for the Church and the symbol of Polo for Wake Forest are in serious conflict, with the former reflecting the more beautiful story of a God who calls the body of Christ into His own righteousness and reconciliation of the world, and the latter reflecting the student body’s story of social segregation predicated on a distinction between the haves and the have nots.”
Some implications of this analysis:
- It should radically alter our consumption of products away from a desire to distinguish ourselves with our wealth and into a desire for quality, ethical corporate practices, and yes, beauty. We should ask, “Is this purchase for that same social status which the Cross of Christ calls me away from?”
2. It should mean not condemning those who wear brands typically used to distinguish someone as wealthy. I find this to be a really difficult aspect of the Christian life, engaging/critiquing the world yet loving those within it.
3. It should lead me to ask, “What do I do with my polo shirts?” Well, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I throw/give them away, but I certainly am not to view the symbol as a means of incorporation into a set-apart wealthy class. Certainly going forward the questions for myself are “Is what I am wearing pulling me to not associate with those of a lower class?”
4. It means those that aspire to be business leaders, I believe, should not be a part of companies that serve primarily to distinguish the wealthy from the less so. Marketers especially, have the difficult burden of aspiring truth-telling of information in our symbols, in contrast to the stories constructed by Polo.
5. It should lead me to ask, “How are the communities of which I am a part exclusive?” Certainly this can be a good thing, in the cases above of basketball teams and companies. Certainly this can also be problematic, in the case of social segregation predicated on wealth.
- The irony is that I could go to the outlets and purchase the same t shirt for $20, faking as if I am in this set apart community.
- Another irony is the fact that the symbol cannot be coded as meaning wealthy or desirable unless that student is from a place where it is coded as such. Students not from the South may not view certain brands as meaning wealthy or desirable.
- All scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved. ESV Text Edition: 2011
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