Think about the big consumer brands you grew up with. Kleenex for tissues. Tempur-Pedic for mattresses. Kitchenaid for all things cooking and baking. IKEA for furniture, or maybe the curated stuff from Design Within Reach if you have lots of money. It used to be the case that buying a thing was virtually synonymous with buying a trusted brand, or going to a branded big-box store like Macy’s or Best Buy.

But today is different. Those brands are no longer the only interfaces to high-quality products. We go on Amazon and buy with two-day shipping. There’s no need to go to a store, stand in line, and shlep boxes. We go online, and we buy this:

These are the first-page results if you type “office chair” into This smorgasbord of consumerism leaves only one question: what in God’s name is DAVEJONES?

NEO CHAIR? OFIKA? Furmax? Dowinx? FelixKing? Gabrylly? Seriously, Gabrylly?1 I’ve never heard of any of these brands. The reason is simple: they’re not real brands. They are ghost brands – the ghost kitchens of physical goods. They exist on marketplace websites like Amazon or AliExpress only because a label is required to sell a product. The “brand” is an arbitrary label that allows the manufacturer to put it on the marketplace. The name itself is a postmodern farce.

If you spend any time shopping on Amazon, you’ll have seen these strange, unfamiliar brand names everywhere: from USB cables to sweatpants, the virtual shelves are stocked with thousands upon thousands of varieties of weirdly named generic products shipped straight from China.

Importantly, these generic products are generally surprisingly good. They operate under supercharged free-market competition, rapidly bringing down prices and aggressively copying each others’ innovations. Collectively, they are iterating rapidly toward optimal products for the consumer. I’m sitting in an Aeron knockoff that I bought on Amazon for pennies, and it’s great. The cheapness and ease of delivery means these goods are now disposable, and things like warranties have become unimportant. In the past, a TV breaking would be a major expense and inconvenience. Consumers would be upset and complain to their friends, but today, it’s a fungible good. You just order a new one with Amazon Prime delivery set for tomorrow. In this context, consumer confidence or trust is made irrelevant, a thing of the past.

This is culturally interesting.2 In America, our lives revolve around buying things. Brands play a big role in our personal identities: there’s a lot of subtext in what car you drive, what appliances your house has, or even what boots you wear. But importantly, that’s true only in a universe with few brands. If there are too many, then it’s overwhelmingly difficult to track how these brands compare in quality or social prestige.

In practice, this means that people can tell the differences between upmarket brands of which there are few, but not between downmarket brands where there are too many brands making products that are too similar to keep track. For example, you may know the differences between Ray-Ban and Oliver Peoples sunglasses, but you’ve never heard of 99% of $5 sunglasses brands.

As ghost brands create a large number of new and good alternatives, they make cheap the things we would “spend big” on – in other words, they turn competing upmarket brands into downmarket brands. Office chairs, mattresses, and furniture once were expensive things you bought to last for years. Now they are cheap, disposable, and you don’t need to think much about them. The little brand differentiation that remains is in truly high-end luxury goods, where incumbent brands are simply far more powerful for signaling social status.

What does the future look like?3 Brands will have fewer cultural touchpoints. Today, parents gift their children things from upmarket brands as they step into the world. The father buying his son a Brooks Brothers jacket is a classic scene. But that’s going to be a thing of the past. Even though the overall pace of consumption may increase as goods are ever more disposable and fungible, our society may become less materialistic as these goods become less tied to class signaling.

There will be less brand identity in general. Your office chair? It’s not a Steelcase or an Aeron or an IKEA… it’s just a chair. One of thousands of generic but high-quality brands. Your mattress? Same deal: cheap and just as good as anything else. Your prized steak knives? You guessed it, generic. Virtually all functional items will be inexpensive, widely available, and heavily commoditized.

But the human need to signal social status and demarcate class is profoundly strong. As old domains of signaling (brand identity) subside, new ones will emerge. People will seek ornaments to show status. That might be a good view out the window, or a piece of tasteful art, like a painting… or an NFT.

  1. The list of these names goes on and on. GICLAIN. SUNNOW. OFM ESS. SAMOFU. How they came up with these is inconceivable to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are randomly generated. 

  2. There are a number of other points to be made around homogenization of products, globalization, steadily increasing manufacturing quality in Asia, Amazon’s role as a curator, etc. But those are already mostly apparent. To me, the less obvious and more academically interesting critique is about the changing role of brands in American society. 

  3. There’s one open question that I struggled to fit into the body of this essay: what will be the role of interfaces to products, namely marketplaces such as Amazon? If they take on a curating role, then it is possible for the marketplace to become the leading brand, while the underlying products are commoditized. It would be interesting if consumers stop valuing the underlying brand – it’s all the same – but orient themselves around the brand of the marketplace, e.g. I bought this item on Marketplace XYZ because XYZ has great authenticity and quality guarantees. While this is plausible, it’s also equivalently plausible for marketplaces to commoditize just as much. It is not yet clear to me whether the dominant value in marketplaces of the future will be quality of curation or the scope of available supply.