Gentrification, branded

In 2012 I landed at San Francisco International Airport with one suitcase and a carry-on. Henceforth I was one among 800,000 others living in this spirited, weird, warmhearted city. In time I would come to acknowledge that I was unwittingly joining the ranks of what some call the “tech elite”, a blanket classification used to typecast any person working at a company that makes software. In 2012, though, I was wide-eyed and awash with awe to be in the midst of such talent and innovation. San Francisco, after all, was founded on this very spirit of innovation. I threw myself headlong into the world of startups.

Shortly after moving to the city I attended my first tech meetup, an event called Protonight. The premise of Protonight is this: you arrive and elect to be cast as an idea person or an engineer. Subsequently you are randomly paired with one person of the opposite role, and spend two hours working together on whatever you wish. It was a fun night, and with free beer and food at the door, who could complain?

I received something else that night, the only takeaway relevant to the piece you are currently reading.

I received my first piece of swag.

It was a t-shirt, the logo of the meetup’s sponsor splashed over the back in bright blue. For the uninitiated, “swag” is a term used to describe free, promotional handouts. When I attended Warped Tour in high school, record labels handed out free stickers: swag. On orientation weekend during freshman year of college, I received a free sling bag, the school’s crest screen-printed on the front: also swag. The dentist I saw as a child gave out free Crest toothbrushes after a routine cleaning: in a weird way, also swag. Swag is based wholly on the principle that people love free things, and that if those people use or wear those free things, it is effectively free marketing for the company.

It was not long before I too was indoctrinated in the ways of San Francisco swag acquisition. It goes like this:

  • Get hired: get swag.
  • Attend a tech talk: get swag.
  • Company has a good quarter: get swag.
  • Attend a conference: get swag from seven companies you don’t know.
  • Company rebrands: get swag.
  • Apply to a new company: get swag after interviewing.
  • Get hired again: get more swag.

After three years in San Francisco, I have more freely acquired t-shirts stacked in my bureau than I’ve purchased on my own in the same period. I have hoodies from each of the companies I’ve worked for. Socks. Sweaters. Scarves, even (for those terribly frigid 55**° **nights?). Should I care to, I could skip around the city fully clad in branded apparel, a veritable walking billboard, all without having put forth a cent.

But I don’t.** Because in a city undergoing rapid change and nearly unfettered gentrification of certain neighborhoods, walking around bearing the logos of tech companies seems, to me, akin to branding gentrification. *For want of brand recognition and cheap marketing, tech companies are creating a subtle exclusionary tactic that proclaims the very stereotype we aim to disprove: *we are the tech elite, and you are not. We belong to these companies, and you don’t.

I am not defined by the companies I work for. If anything, I identify with the city, one which preaches love, inclusion, and uniqueness… not the companies that call it their home. If we support any businesses via branded clothing, it should be the small ones: companies that give back to San Francisco’s spirit of diversity, ones that have called the Bay home for far longer than any venture-funded startup.

For your consideration.