Makes No Difference

Today's big companies brew individualism in big, big vats. Do consumers really buy it?
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This story appears in the September 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The world loves an individual, which explains Gateway computers' slogan, "People rule," and Burger King's promise, "Have it your way."

But what if your way is everybody else's way? Teens may think they're coolly clothed in T-shirts from Old Navy, while adults proudly display "unique" purchases from Pier 1. In reality, an "individual" in Massachusetts likely owns the same stuff as a like-minded person in Texas. Should we be disturbed by mass-produced individualism? Are people being brainwashed to believe where they shop makes them special? And how do entrepreneurs fit into a conformist/individualist culture?

Naomi Klein's bestseller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador USA), bemoans that brand names have become our culture-Abercrombie & Fitch has a magazine; Volkswagen, a festival. Then there's the argument that independent, say, coffeehouses have to mimic the Starbucks that customers expect.

Such attitudes may be a case of crying Armageddon too soon. Sure, consumers' tastes may be mass-produced, but it typically starts with an individual's dream, says Michael Morris, director of the Thomas C. Page Center for Entrepreneurship at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Take IKEA, the wildly popular furniture retailer that has become the poster child of the conformist/individual movement. "IKEA, like Starbucks, broke every rule in the book," says Morris. "An entrepreneur comes on the scene and changes the equation . . . and is highly effective. That's not a negative."

Edition: July 2017

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