Brands polarize. We all know how pervasive
branding has become, but we also know that not all brands are
created equal. Different brands identify with different groups,
especially here on campus. K-mart and Prada separate the poor from
the rich, Brooks Brothers and FUBU cut a line through white and
black, Old Spice and Mary Kay draw a wedge between male and female.
However, there is one branded product that has shattered barriers,
broken down walls and brought the University together under one
corporate logo: the omnipresent Nalgene bottle.

Elliott Mallen

Given the massively diverse student population here at our
University, it is impossible to define something resembling a
student uniform. The Nalgene bottle is the one item that could
truly be a part of a student uniform. The athletes like them
because they can measure their water intake to the nearest ten
milliliters, the Greeks like them because it makes them look
athletic, outdoorsy people like them for their durability and the
activists like them because it makes them look outdoorsy.
It’s a branding success story. Nobody refers to one as
“my water bottle,” it’s always “my
Nalgene.”

One of the most surprising aspects of the Nalgene’s
success is its penetration into one of the most impenetrable of
markets — the political activists. These are people who get
their clothing from thrift stores, eat organic food and decry the
labor and environmental practices of just about every fashionable
or popular brand. Surprisingly, this group seems to be among the
most likely to use Nalgene water bottles. True, they are decorated
with stickers proclaiming the virtue of every leftist cause
imaginable, but that doesn’t diminish the glory of the
Nalgene name. The traditional activist tenets of buying generic
brands or secondhand are cast aside for the sake of the
Nalgene.

Nalgene markets itself as socially responsible, which surely
scores it points with this crowd. Its website speaks volumes about
the environmental friendliness of plastic, claiming it emits few
noxious chemicals once it gets to landfills and that there is
currently more paper waste than plastic waste in landfills. Maybe
evening the plastic to paper ratio in landfills will bring about
some form of environmentally-friendly equilibrium, but I’m
still not so sure using more plastic is the answer. The website
also says that plastic bottles are better than glass bottles
because they’re lighter, saving semi trucks gasoline. Never
mind that plastic is an oil derivative.

This guise of environmental awareness is a clever technique used
by a wide range of brands to attract those normally averse to
conspicuous consumption. If a company can make it seem as if buying
their product will make the world a better place, how could anyone
dislike it? It’s capitalistic fulfillment: the more you
consume, the more you’re improving the world, and thus the
better you are as a person. Grocery chain Whole Foods is notorious
for using this strategy, making its customers feel environmentally
and socially responsible for buying organic food while
simultaneously paying workers substandard wages, crushing local
grocery stores and inducing sprawl with its expansion
strategies.

Nalgene bottles are also portrayed as being durable containers
for the true outdoorsman. When you’re hiking through
wastelands of Mongolia or climbing the staggering Andes, you know
your Nalgene will be there to replenish your lost fluids. Its thick
shell will prevent it from breaking when you’re wrestling
gorillas in Zaire, and its watertight lid will prevent any
contamination when you’re swimming across the Amazon. The
rugged, exotic lifestyle associated with the bottles is the same
adventurous romanticism used to sell SUVs. It’s convincing
people to buy items they don’t really need: Just as we people
using their Navigators to brave the dangerous, uncivilized passes
of I-94, there are countless students with Nalgenes who would never
even consider climbing into a canoe or strapping on hiking
boots.

The Nalgene bottle is a branding success story here on campus,
appealing to people from all walks of life by portraying itself as
being rugged, environmentally friendly and athletic all at once.
Whether it makes anyone rugged, environmentally friendly or
athletic is another story.

Mallen can be reached at
“mailto:emmallen@umich.edu”>emmallen@umich.edu.

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