Brand names are tricky, tricky, tricky. Here be shark-infested waters, y’all!
The following are guidelines to help eliminate common problems with brand names in contemporary romance. Usually I think rules can be broken for good reasons, but with brand names it’s the rare author who can use them wisely, and the rare book that merits heavy-handed displays of Lladro figurines on top of Chippendale hutches resting on Aubusson carpets. Unless someone needs target practice.
· Readers all have different views on brands. One person’s fashion forward is another person’s tacky is another person’s never-heard-of-it. Some brands are so established, they’re safe because it’s clear what they signify. Chanel means “rich old urban sophisticate” (it’s practically in the dictionary). But does Philippe Patel watch mean new money? Status conscious? Rich dad? Old money? Recent promotion? Concern about punctuality? Who the heck knows, especially if I haven’t made it clear with other character tells.
· Brands date your work. Yesterday’s Hugo Boss is today’s Marc Jacobs. Another reason to use established brands with clear meaning, if at all.
· Using brands to telegraph upper class can backfire on you. Oddly, a fascination with brands is more a sign of middle class than upper class. Sure the hyper rich buy top brands, but they don’t think about brands the way a middle-class person does.
An Old Money Hero is unlikely to talk about brands in his head. But a newly-minted CEO Hero who grew up poor and just put his first million in the bank? You betcha in his POV he is going to note that there’s a Mercedes S-class and not a C-class in his garage.
Old Money Hero thinks, “Oh, there’s the car. Right where the driver left it.”
· Use brands sparingly and with good reason. Just like the CEO Hero with his S-class, only a certain type of person references brands in their POV. Littering a book with brand names will lose their significance. Even if you limit it one character, it should have meaning for them. Unless handled well, and if it’s a character you want readers to like, it can mean the person is status conscious and a wee bit insecure.
If a character references a lot of brands but you don’t mean for her to appear shallow, there should be a good reason she’s doing it. Why is she getting a new Dooney-Burke bag every week, proud of her Mercedes minivan and asking for jewelry from Tiffany? Sounds like a housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown or pawning items.
· Do research. It’s easy. Say I’m going to write about a playboy billionaire in need of the love of a good woman. Since the number of playboy billionaire I know is limited (okay, zero), my perceptions of what playboy billionaires wear is probably different from what playboy billionaires actually wear. Whether you go the sociological route and read about social class from academics, or read about lives of actual billionaires, figure out what the brands really are that work for the setting, income, and social class of your characters. Again, brands can signal more about your than your character, and that’s distracting to readers.
A fascinating documentary I watched some time ago by one of the Johnson & Johnson heirs confirmed that I really had no idea how billionaires live. For the record, they seem very uninteresting and I’m mostly felt sorry for them. But then, I’m middle class.. I feel sorry for everyone, because I listen to public radio.
· Be honest – if the brands don’t work, change class or setting. Being upper-middle class is just as awesome as being upper-upper class -- at least, this is what I hear.
Think about flying. Business class is so much better than coach that really, the fact you aren’t in First Class doesn’t matter. Either way, there’s hot food and leg room. If you’re relying on brands to sell a setting or character that you don’t in your bones feel you can pull off, don’t! Turn the billionaire into a plain old millionaire and downsize the pied-a-terre. The emotional truth of your story will still ring true.