Generic is so Generic

I grew up on generic brands. Tastee-Os, Crisp Rice, and Corn Squares (usually in a bag instead of a box) were a regular part of our breakfast repertoire. Rarely was my mom ever frivolous enough to buy us soda, but when she did it was always something akin to Dr. Thunder or Mountain Lightening. It was a hollow existence.

I understand the chief rationale behind generics. It’s one my mom trumpeted time and again; and it’s probably true that in blind taste tests you really “can’t tell the difference.” But then, that’s really beside the point. We don’t consume things in blind taste tests. We look at the packaging as we take it off the shelf, we read, we open, we pour. What’s more, before we ever even buy the product, we have often been exposed to parts of its brand story. Brand names have context that helps us think about them a certain way. They summon imagery and emotion that generics do not. Those elements may be summoned through decades of advertising, or it might just be built into the packaging itself.

The point is, branding takes products beyond mere commodity and turns them into an experience. When I open a box of Kodiak Cakes pancake mix, I feel like a mountain man making a hearty meal to survive; and when I pour Heinz Ketchup from its classic glass bottle, I’m taking in a bit of burger joint Americana. There’s a reason Apple doesn’t ship their products in any old box filled with bubble wrap. Part of the experience, the art, and the excitement is in the opening of the package – it feels important.

Now, having said all this, I believe generics have their place. For some products, I don’t care about the experience. I personally don’t have any emotional connection to headache medicine, or dish soap, or table salt. And generics can be a great way for college students and budget conscious families to save money. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that brand names do not matter. They are a part of the narrative of our daily lives, and they heighten the experience every time we interact with them. They’re also are a major reason I do what I do for a living.