Neil Boorman is getting a lot of press coverage at the moment for his plan to burn all the brands he owns and start life afresh. And a fair bit of cynicism as well, it should be added. He is an experienced media player, as some have pointed out, and has a book deal in place already, so it could all be a publicity stunt.
All the same, his blog does seem to suggest some genuine integrity and soul searching, as does this article he wrote for the BBC. And from that BBC piece, I found the closing paragraphs particularly heart wrenching...
"Being the gullible fool that I am, I believed in the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive, more successful, more happy for buying their stuff. However, the highs of consumerism have been accompanied by a continual, dull ache, growing slowly as the years have gone by; a melancholy that until recently I could not understand.
I now realise that it's these damn brands that are the source of the pain. For every new status symbol I acquire, for every new extension to my identity that I buy, I lose a piece of myself to the brands. I placed my trust, even some love with these companies, and what have I had in return for my loyalty and my faith? Absolutely nothing. How could they, they're just brands.
So, this is why I am burning all my stuff. To find real happiness, to find the real me, I must get rid of it all and start again, a brand-free life, if that is indeed possible. Perhaps if I consume on the basis of need instead of want, on utility instead of status, I might start to value material things for the right reasons. For the time being, I can only hope."
Sadly though, whilst Neil may find momentary release in burning his brands, I'm not sure he will find lasting peace. Clearly we live in a world that is suffering from an excess of materialism, consumerism and status consciousness, with all the personal ,social and environmental issues these bring. And brands (or more truthfully, the businesses behind them) do play their part in this.
But, as a person of faith (Christianity in my case), I would have to say that I don't think brands themselves are the root of the problem, and the angst Neil is feeling (I couldn't do my job if I thought that).
They are a symptom not the cause; a misplaced, ineffective solution to a bigger problem - the desire and search for purpose and meaning; the sense that "there must be more" which we all have within us. And yes, brands do often promise to fill this hole (which IS something I struggle with). But the simple fact is they can't, only exacerbating the wanting and emptiness we feel.
So burning brands won't solve anything. And I must say I have huge reservations about its merits on a socially responsible, environmentally friendly front as well. If you want to get rid of stuff, give it to people who need it, or sell everything and give the money away. The burning bit is the one thing that does smack of self gratification (and self publicity).
Now I hope it will not be the case, but I really do doubt that Neil will find the happiness he craves in his newly non-branded world. He is still putting his faith in 'stuff', just 'stuff' without a logo...which is arguably just another kind of brand and a statement in its own right. The meaning and purpose he seeks will probably allude him, as it does all of us, until we connect with something bigger and more transcendent; something more significant than basic ego needs, that satisfies the emptiness we feel.
What that is will be different for different people (if you put me on the spot, I would tell you what I have found the answer to be). But paradoxically, it is probably only in realising that the 'stuff' of materialism and consumerism can never really satisfy our deepest needs, and in finding that deeper meaning elsewhere, that we become free to enjoy brands for what they are (and I do love many brands), rather be in thrall to what they seem to promise but never fully deliver.
And I do recognise the irony of working for an ad agency!