Our Brands, Our Selves

The story of our stuff

In 1772, a French philosopher was grappling with an identity crisis. Or, more specifically, a couture crisis. A friend had gifted him a new dressing gown, which was beautiful, ornate, and luxurious. It seemed to be a generous gift. The problem? It didn’t feel like him

In an essay, “Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A notice to those who have more taste than fortune,” Denis Diderot wrote an ode to his old gown:

“It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded all the folds of my body without inhibiting it; I was picturesque and handsome. The other one is stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy...I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am.”

Put simply, the new robe was nice but, well, it was too nice. It sounds like an eighteenth-century episode of Seinfeld, but Diderot’s point is that the things we own become representations of ourselves.

Our stuff tells a story, and that story becomes part of our identity. We buy Mrs. Meyer’s soap because it makes us feel socially conscious. We drive a Ford truck because it signals our patriotism. These narratives extend beyond the things we buy. The TV shows we watch, the politicians we follow, and the podcasts we enjoy (ahem) all have stories to tell. They say something about our cultural capital: the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that reveal our social status. “Yoga, breastfeeding, buying organic food, attending farmers markets, listening to NPR, reading the books on the New York Times best-seller list — these are all physical manifestations of your cultural capital,” says researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett.

“Branding is not inherently good or bad,” says Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania. A company can use its branding to manipulate consumers, sure, but branding can also encourage consumers to exercise more, donate to charity, or educate themselves.

The problem with branding is, like Diderot, we can feel badly about ourselves when the products we own don’t fit our identity. Researchers from Boston College and Harvard Business School looked at the relationship between identity and luxury consumption. Surprisingly, they found that luxury items made many participants feel less authentic. The researchers called the effect “Impostor Syndrome from Luxury Consumption,” and suggested that it could make us feel less confident or less powerful.

There are ways we can make the relationship between brand identity and personal identity healthier. Think twice about the products you buy. Learn to look at your purchases more objectively by tracking your spending. A recent study found we tend to buy utilitarian products when we’re stressed — like toilet paper during a pandemic. By writing down your spending, the way you would when keeping a food journal, you can get a sense of how your emotions and impulses influence your choices. 

And if, heaven forbid, someone gifts you a dressing gown that doesn’t fit your identity? Ask for a gift receipt.


January 18: The products we buy tell a story. This week, we revisit a 2019 conversation with Americus Reed, who studies how companies use branding to influence consumer behavior.

January 25: Around the world, the pandemic has created a heightened sense of risk. How do our minds process that risk, and why do some of us process it so differently? In this episode, we look at the disconnect between our own assessments of risk and the dangers we face in our everyday lives.





Bernie Sanders at the presidential inauguration has major Denis Diderot energy.

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