a problem with brands

You may not like to think of yourself as so easily reflected by the stores you shop at, but chances are that frequenting a certain store reflects that you’re among a certain demographic. Take Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Depending on where you’re from, these two stores may seem quite different in who they appeal to — or, from outside a particular range of neighborhoods, they may seem like slight variations on the same healthy kind of brand. Trader Joe’s offers foods that are both healthy and affordable, which is a rare combination that disenfranchised/low-income communities could certainly benefit from. While it may not be as remotely upscale as Whole Foods, I don’t think of Trader Joe’s as a place that one would find in a neighborhood not considered desirable — whether that be because it’s considered an acceptable standard to those who are upwardly mobile enough, or because it’s gentrifying to that.  What Trader Joe’s lacks in an upscale experience, it seems to make up for with a whimsical name that alludes to a bygone entity. This has the same appeal vinyl holds to some people.

I recently read a post that mentioned the Portland African American Leadership Forum’s campaign against a Trader Joe’s moving into a primarily black, low-income neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. There’ve been many pieces lambasting that forum, but this one amounted to the way that just a Trader Joe’s, in and of itself (minus accompaniment by upwardly mobile-friendly development projects) could be good for a lower-income neighborhood. I think the problem is that store brands generally aspire to offer the same experience, specifically to appeal to a reliable customer base. So, any one brand that appeals to people who are upwardly mobile is synonymous with such. Think Starbucks.

If brands weren’t such a single-minded entity, then perhaps they could be tailored to low-income communities — with the obvious benchmark being that any variation on their stores all upheld the same standards. It would be easy to hire the majority of a store’s staff from that specific neighborhood, and let the uniqueness of that store be defined by the community that already exists there. The benefits of a brand’s resources could go a long way, even without their usual logos.

As far as wanting to keep Trader Joe’s out of that particular lower-income neighborhood in Portland goes —  it seems unfair to mention this without mentioning the statistical demographics of Portland (both historically and more presently).  Its reputation attracts the kind of upwardly mobile, primarily white people not so funnily lampooned in that dumb TV show — the kind who are generally thought of as being for diversity.  From what I can tell from Wikipedia and the Portland, Oregon section’s sources, the relatively small African-American communities the area has had seem to have been displaced even more exponentially than most.


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