Branding Melville: Shame On We

young woman looking into a mirror

There’s a new clothing brand vying for a place in teen girls’ closets, and it’s causing quite an outrage. Brandy Melville, the store that only sells one size: Small. And teens? They love it, of course.

The first I heard of this store was yesterday, scrolling through my Huffington Post news feed. I was immediately appalled — appalled by the genius of it. Evil genius? Maybe, but genius none the less. Brandy Melville is aspirational branding to the extreme.

There are many people blaming the brand for sending a toxic message, that one is not worthy unless they are a size 0 or 2 (the “small” Brandy Melville equivalent). News flash: the success of this brand isn’t because it is creating some new monster. No, it is simply feeding a monster that already exists. It has simply identified a very real human truth and decided to capitalize on it. And isn’t that what marketing is all about? It is from our industry’s standpoint, at least — taking consumer insights and using them to guide profitable business strategy. Are brands obligated to only capitalize on positive consumer insights and human truths, ones that allow us to become our most self-actualized selves? We’d have far less tickers on the stock exchanges, that’s for sure. And even in such a utopian brand environment, I don’t believe the “toxic messages” would go away. Successful brands simply hold up a mirror to the markets they serve, allowing consumers to play out their already inherent biases and aspirations.

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And it’s not just size-shaming that exists in our culture. We hear about and experience mommy-shaming, LGBT-shaming, slut-shaming — you name it, and someone is getting or feeling shamed for it. “But Brandy Melville is marketing to impressionable teens!” you say? Shame is unfortunately taught from a very early age, long before brands enter a child’s reality. Shame is used by many parents to gain control over their young children. And in a bigger picture sense, there’s a very real “shame culture” in play that allows society to maintain social order by way of the threat of ostracism. Even the parents who don’t explicitly shame their children would be hard-pressed to say they’re not in some way teaching their children to strive to “fit in” and avoid ostracism. It starts with a natural concern for achieving developmental milestones on time and continues on through wanting a child to avoid being bullied in school and then get into a good college. It’s a benign inclination, one that happens unaware of the confounding self-worth problems that may later arise.

So what’s the solution? It’s obviously not a simple one because at the end of the day, this isn’t just someone else’s problem. Society and culture includes all of us, you and me alike. No one is exempt. So if nothing else, it’s time we stop blaming the symptoms and let’s start having real conversations about the true disease. These conversations are far more interesting and constructive. Only by taking ownership of the problem and shining a light on it will we get to a place where we’re no longer outraged by the reflection in the brand mirrors surrounding us.

Heather McEneany

Heather McEneany

Vice President at watchLAB
Want to compare notes about the best camp sites in California or how to build an Adirondack chair with just a mitre saw and 2x4s? Give Heather a call. She loves meeting new people and learning about their experiences and ideas (even better if it’s with a craft beer in hand).
Heather McEneany

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