I want a Petzl Summit climber’s axe, but I don’t climb. I just kinda want to put it up on my wall: Is that wrong?

Ferraris are almost never involved in accidents (at least not on open public roadways). The same goes for Porsches, Lamborghinis, and other high performance automotive brands. And when these vehicles are involved in accidents it is usually the driver of the other vehicle that has caused the collision. That is not because high performance vehicles are markedly safer or because their drivers are markedly better. Of course, it’s true that high performance vehicles handle better and sports car enthusiasts tend to focus more and train more for their driving than does the average driver; but that hardly balances out the much greater speed and power that these vehicles possess. In truth, the small number of accidents involving high performance vehicles is the result of the fact that owners of those autos tend to drive their little prize possessions rather slowly and conservatively.

Photo: Tim Damon

Still, the public safety record of high performance automobiles is surprising, given that the whole point of owning a high performance vehicle would seem to be for the purposes of using the vehicle’s high performance – that is, their much greater power and speed. This brings us straight to the point: a brand’s high performance is not the principal reason for purchasing most high performance consumer brands. The principal reason for purchasing most recognized high performance brands is the way a consumer feels their purchase makes them look to themselves and to others – that is, for the aspirational value or for the sense of status that the purchaser feels the purchase confers.

In a societal moment where the march towards specialization has become irreversible not only in our vocations but in our vacations, many in the consumer market place seek out “exceptional” products not so that they can “do” something exceptionally but rather so that they can bathe in the light of exceptionalism with which performance products glow. As they come of age, some performance manufacturers enter a lifestyle cycle by appealing to those segments of the public seduced by the voyeurism rather than the action. It is ironic that Nike, one of the brands which has been most-successful in capitalizing on the culture of appearing to be like one of their numerous high performing athletic spokespersons, long ago adopted the self-reflective motto “Just Do It.” I deeply admire the complexity, elegance, and ambiguity of this campaign, which, despite its irony, was inarguably wildly successful. The truth is, very few of us who wear these products can do anything particularly exceptional, but we all aspire to.

In 1867, Karl Marx observed that in modern society we specialize to the point where very few of us make anything that stands alone; instead, we collaborate in such a way where each of us makes a small specialized contribution to a jointly created and assembled work. Marx believed that the individual’s separation from the identifiable product meant that the individual was “alienated” from his or her work, and that such alienation represented the end of the market system, and the harbinger of communism. I think it is ironic that on the sesquicentennial of the publication of Das Kapital the opposite is true.

What Marx failed to see – but what marketers see very clearly – is that collaborative work doesn’t alienate us from society, but, rather, that it joins us to our community freeing us from an identity specified by what we do 9 to 5. It gives us the freedom, unburdened by the constraints of what we do every day – of what we can do well or perhaps even what we can do at all – to instead select our identity from our larger community; to express ourselves as what we aspire to do and, for some, as what we aspire to do exceptionally.

The closer a tool gets to a true artisan’s art, the less likely that tool is bought off the shelf. Branding is always about lifestyle. Performance brands don’t sell performance: Like all lifestyle brands, they sell aspiration. Performance brands sell performance-flavored aspiration. Some brands sell aspirational “cool,” some sell “caring,” others sell “fun.” Every brand must look inside and decide the flavor of the yearnings they wish to sell.

As for me:  I think I’m going to skip the Petzl axe, and buy a guitar – maybe a Gibson. I like the look of them … more than the look of an axe, anyway.