Branding and the critical consumer

The “Symbolic Turn” has made consumers´ relationships to brands very complex. This calls for an enlargement of the traditional marketing toolbox with instruments from different research areas.



Once upon time a product was simply a product. And the purpose of branding was to create security around this product for a consistent (preferably also high) quality and make sure the product was easy to recognize among other products in the store. However, those days are long gone.

We got the boom, we got technology development, we got welfare beyond all widths – and we got massproduced products, which were just as good and capable of doing the same. From now on it does not make sense to differentiate products on their physical qualities and features. The first to “coin” these new challenges within branding was Professor Sidney Levy in his legendary articles “The Product and the Brand” (1955) and “Symbols for Sale” (1959). Here he stated that the purpose of branding is about what symbolic values you can link to a product in order to make it attractive. It is no longer a question of functionality, but about values that contribute with significance in the consumers’ lives. This “symbolic turn” made consumers´ relations to brands much more complex.

 

To be able to analyze these emotional and value based relations it has been necessary to expand the traditional marketing toolbox with instruments that are developed within completely different research areas. One of them is semiotics, which studies how meaning is created by the use of signs. According to one of the founders of semiotics, Charles Sanders Pierce, a sign is “something (and it can be everything from, a word, a picture, an action, a ritual etc.) that stands for something else for somebody”, for instance, when the letters b-e-a-r means an animal or a crisis at the stock exchange, when a rose stands for love, a gesture means bye, or the intake of a dry cracker means that you believe in God. Thus, a brand has always been a sign in a semiotic sense. In the beginning, it accounted for the product or the manufacturer but with the “symbolic turn” brands now “stand for” a lot of different meanings: class, wisdom, sex, elegance, care, humor…. and even anti-consumption.

 

The same – only different

Our day’s consumer society is way beyond the stage where the purpose of branding is limited to create recognition and signal security for the consumer. Both are still central elements in a brand, though. It is not that branding has become something completely different than it was originally – but new dimensions have been added to what the phenomenon branding “stands for”. Therefore, it is not enough just to focus on either brand equity, brand relations, storytelling, etc. they are all different aspects of the conglomerate of meanings of what branding is today, and all these dimensions are rummaging in the back of the consumers’ minds when they buy or consume a brand. The post-modern consumer is perfectly aware of what branding is!

 

A lot of pertinacious attempts have been made in order to define what characterizes the consumption of brands today, just as several fancy names and buzzwords have been fastened on to the post-modern consumer as a type. However, the essential new characterization of today´s consumers is that they have “the knowledge of brands” - they have brand literacy and are not as naive as consumers from the childhood of branding. They are completely on track with branding’s “tricks of the trade ” – they are actually using them themselves, since they are walking around and branding their personality all the time.

Therefore, the consumer today also sees through the architecture of the brand and takes an active and conscious position to all dimensions about the brand. This new – slightly more challenging - consumer type has been labeled “The Reflexive Consumer” and is characterized by constantly reflecting on all aspects of the branding architecture when (s)he buys or consumes a brand. Nothing is unintended.

The reflexive consumer as a typology expresses a new critical consumer awareness, which sets more strict demands on how brand management can address consumers – but at the same time, also gives a scope for the creative development of new branding strategies.

 

The reflexive consumer in the Black Box

Critical reflection is the essence of character traits of the Reflexive Consumer – this is often paired with some negativity towards a specific brand, a specific advertisement or consumerism, and branding in general. The Reflexive Consumer typology manifests itself in, for instance, an anti-branding Guru like Naomi Klein and her bestseller “No Logo” (www.naomiklein.org/no-logo) or in the NGO Adbusters (https://www.adbusters.org/) that, for many years now, have published a monthly magazine that criticizes the consumer society and advertising and branding. These anti-users and anti-branding movements stem from, and are identification points to the Reflexive Consumer.

 

The Reflexive Consumer lives in and with a constant existential paradox (that, in many ways, is the postmodern consumer society’s own fundamental dilemma):

The Reflexive Consumer is a critical anti-consumer and at the same time, (s)he is also a very inveterate consumer. It is not the case that the Reflexive Consumer is not to have anything, because then there would not be a problem. No, the Reflexive Consumer is extremely dependent on brands, which (s)he can use to differentiate him/herself from the mainstream consumers who buy everything the mainstream companies try to palm upon them.

 

In other words, the Reflexive Consumers are Feinschmeckers and like all other consumers – or maybe even more energetically – these consumers also signal identity through their consumption. Thus the Reflexive Consumer is caught in the consumer society’s Catch 22: Anti-consumption can only be practiced and signaled through consumption. We have, in other words, to do with a contradictory compound that is strung between, on one side to be attracted to brands, which can function as pieces in an identity construction, and on the other side to be an opponent of advertisement and branding:

 

Figure 1: The Reflexive Consumer’s Dilemma

Branding

Anti-Branding

The Reflexive Consumer

 

Branding

Anti-Branding

The Reflexive Consumer

 

Thus, the Reflexive Consumer is an interesting consumer type full of contradictions – and at the same time a quite lucrative market. So, there is plenty to work with both for the theorist and the practician!

Adbusters - who themselves are the Reflexive Consumer’s right hand - has, to satisfy this segment, developed their own “subversive” brand within the sneakers category: Blackspot Shoes. On Adbusters’ website you can read the mission statement behind this alternative sneaker:

 

”[ ]After spending so many years railing against the practices of mega corporations like McDonalds, Starbucks and Nike, we wanted to prove that running an ethical business is possible. [ ] Blackspot is about more than marketing a brand or deconstructing the meaning of cool – it's about changing the way the world does business.”

With Blackspot – which of course is an environmentally correct, fair-trade, open-source brand – Adbusters are going to change the world by producing a brand that goes against everything traditional brands and brands traditionally stand for. Thus, as a manufacturer Adbusters are a reflection of the Reflexive Consumers’ position, and - as we are going to see later - Adbusters also reproduce the Reflexive Consumers’ dilemma only in a “producer version”. Just like the Reflexive Consumer is a consumer as everyone else – an alternative producer like Blackspot is utterly also a producer like everyone else.

 

Branding

Anti-Branding

 

Non Anti-Branding

 

Blackspots Sneakers’ solution on the Reflexive Consumers’ Dilemma

 

Adbusters

 

Branding

Anti-Branding

 

Non Anti-Branding

 

Blackspots Sneakers’ solution on the Reflexive Consumers’ Dilemma

 

Adbusters

 

Figure 2

Figure 2 is a mapping of the solution Blackspot Sneakers offer to satisfy the Reflexive Consumers’ dilemma. The figure is based on the fact that the Reflexive Consumer is an opponent of brands and simultaneously has a huge need for brands for identity construction purposes. With their values and their indie-culture, Blackspot offers the Reflexive Consumer segment a brand with symbolic values that appear as a genuine anti-branding attitude. However, as the figure shows, Blackspot, as a producer, reproduces the reflexive consumer’s dilemma. The grim logic, which strikes the alternative brand, is namely: to become a brand Blackspot has to discard their Anti-Branding position and occupy the non-Anti-Branding position shown in the figure’s lower left corner. Exactly like the anti-consumer is dependent of brands to be able to construct an identity as “anti-consumer”, the alternative brand also has to live with this paradox. It must enter the branding system to become an “alternative brand”. This contradictory maneuver is one way to carry out an “Anti-Branding” branding.

 

Anti-Branding branding is an immensely interesting market, since the segment of Reflexive Consumers with knowledge of brands, is growing in the western consumer society. However, if you are a traditional profit based manufacturer, you will probably find it difficult to push yourself forward as an alternative brand in the same way as Blackspot and Adbusters do, without the critical consumers judging it as a completely unreliable adveretising stunt and let hell loose over your head.

We have, in a previous article, described a case where a fully traditional company chose to carry out the opposite movement to reach the Reflexive Consumer segment. A couple of years ago, the Danish tobacco company Mac Baren developed a roll-your-own tobacco named “Roll your own American Blend for people who don’t need a brand to tell other people who they are”. With this product, Mac Baren, who otherwise holds a fully traditional branding position, carried out a strategy which made it possible also to have a brand in the portfolio that takes exception to branding (www.donttellmewhoiam.com ). Mac Baren’s path to the Reflexive Consumer’s heart can be depicted as in figure 3 below.

 

Branding

Anti-Branding

 

NonBranding

 

Mac Barens’ solution to the Reflexive Consumer

 

Mac Baren

Branding

Anti-Branding

 

NonBranding

 

Mac Barens’ solution to the Reflexive Consumer

 

Mac Baren

 

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows how an ordinary commercial company can dismantle its traditional branding position by means of reflexive market communication. A creative and “alternative” branding strategy can help a profit-oriented company to occupy a non-Branding position, which then can be used as a starting point for Anti-Branding branding. This was what Mac Baren did, when they launched ”Roll your own American Blend for people who don’t need a brand to tell other people who they are” on the market without a logo or a name – only with an explicit anti-branding statement designed as the mandatory warning against using the product. With this creative and reflexive advertising, one of the country’s most traditional companies created an ironic Anti-branding attitude and a perfect match to the postmodern Reflexive Consumer attitude.

 

Two ways to the heart of the reflexive consumer

Together the two halves constitute a semiotic square*, which shows that the alternative company (Adbuster) applies fully traditional branding tools (that is, doing non-reflexive branding), while the traditional company (Mac Baren) makes use of more sophisticated branding tools in order to address the Reflexive Consumer (that is, doing reflexive branding).

 

Figure 4:

Branding

Anti-Branding

Reflexive branding

Not reflexive branding

Non Anti-Branding

 

Anti-branding branding

(fx Blackspot Sneakers)

Nonbranding

 

Don’t tell me….

The Reflexive Consumer

Adbusters

Mac Baren

Branding

Anti-Branding

Reflexive branding

Not reflexive branding

Non Anti-Branding

 

Anti-branding branding

(fx Blackspot Sneakers)

Nonbranding

 

Don’t tell me….

The Reflexive Consumer

Adbusters

Mac Baren

 

It appears from the semiotic square that the dilemma between branding and anti-branding, which the Reflexive Consumer is “born” with so to say, apparently offers two strategies for brand management. Adbusters follow the fully traditional branding strategy that requires an alternative company, which can make use of its identity and corporate image to do ‘Anti-Branding branding’. The message is “alternative” by virtue of the company’s mission statement, but the communication strategy and branding techniques are not at all “different” – on the contrary, we are talking about true old fashion branding of the most traditional kind, where the company praises itself to the skies.

 

A traditional company, which just like Mac Baren, carries the burden of being “part of the system”, is on the other hand obliged to come up with alternative ideas and develop new, creative communication strategies, which can dissolve the mainstream branding universe and orthodoxy. However, if it is capable of doing so, then there is a clear road to be a player also on the alternative market.

 

The two cases say a whole lot about how branding as a phenomenon, permeates our culture. There is no getting away from branding if you want to be on the market – no matter what you call it and who you are.

There is the bit subtle curl on it all that, while the branding strategy applied by Adbusters, the postmodern “company, is really old school and completely traditional (non-reflexive), Mac Barens’ branding is, with its playful irony, a typical postmodern form that is much more in agreement with the Reflexive Consumers’ attitude: Mac Baren is marketing a brand, which does not want to be a brand to consumers who do not want to be consumers – and is, in that way, addressing the Reflexive Consumers’ dilemma in a more subtle way than Adbusters’ Blackspot sneakers, which take everything very literally and seriously just as people did in the old days.

 

Find someone who revolts against something

 

Anti-consumption-gurus and protest movements can make it shiver down the marketing people’s backs. However, since the sixties such rebels have, in reality, been the most important incentive in a constant accelerating consumer society. Because it is them who, more than anybody else, make sure that new markets and new possibilities to differentiate products constantly arise. Therefore, it is paradoxically the inveterate anti-consumers who keep the consumer spiral going.

 

The background for the conception of there being anything rebellious in practicing another consumer culture than the conventional, is described in the book “The Rebel Sell” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. The two authors see the philosophy behind the youth rebellion in the 68’s as a turning point in the consumer society’s development. The rebellious 68’s was built on the theory that capitalism has expropriated all the individuals’ real emotions and needs, to be able to sell them back to us as commodities by the help of advertisements and mass media. We therefore live in a totally ideologized and fake world – alienated from our true nature and victims to constant new needs, which the capitalistic system forces down on us. The consequence of this notion is that the conventional mainstream-society is perceived as something hostile, which has to be fought against, and that “doing something different” in itself becomes an ultimate rebellious act. In this way the youth rebellion has been a saline injection to the consumer society, because while (‘conspicuous’) consumption earlier just had to signal status, it should since the 68’s rather signal “difference” – and there are infinite possibilities for differentiating and thereby also for consumption.

The understanding of the human being in the consumer society as a manipulated victim has spread deep into the mainstream-society and caused a widespread praise of individualism and contempt for conformity. Thus, to be a rebel has become a quite popular – and not to say mainstream – ambition, at least to the extent the revolt can be lived out through consumption. And that it can in surprisingly many instances!

 

 

 

(BOX)

The roll-your-own tobacco from Mac Baren has neither a name or a logo but instead it is equipped with the following comprehensive manifesto: ”Roll your own American Blend for people who don’t need a brand to tell other people who they are”.

The tobacco was launched in Italy and Switzerland in 06 and during 07 in the rest of Europe. Mac Baren did not work out any specific demographic profile, which the product had to match. Instead, the target group was defined attitudinal as “smokers who do not need a brand to tell other people who they are” – and this was what the tobacco was named.

(BOX)

 

The Semiotic Square

The Semiotic Square is a structuralist model for analysis that shows how logical oppositions are interacting with each other in a given construction of meaning. Structural semiotics is built on the assumption that meaning is constituted by oppositions. Meaning is, according to this understanding, a dynamic construction, which is constantly vibrating between different poles.

 

Literature:

54 articles by Sidney J. Levy are gathered in the book Research: Sidney J. Levy on Marketing, edited by Dennis Rook, published by Sage Publications, London 1999

 

The Rebel Sell

By: Joseph Heath og Andrew Potter, Capstone, 2005

 

Structural Semantics: An Attempt at Method

By: Algirdas Julius Greimas, University of Nebraska Press, 1983

 

Links:

www.adbusters.org/cultureshop/blackspot/sneaker

www.donttellmewhoiam.com