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What brands ‘mean’…and what they don’t

March 28, 2011

A quick post in response to James Harkin who has been quite active recently in support of his new book  – ‘Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours The Mainstream’ (published by Little, Brown).

In his article in the Independent James takes a not entirely original view of the ‘cult of Apple’ asking why people are  so enamored of the brand and if HBO has taken a similar track. The article presents an interesting question about the real nature of brand marketing which, I would argue, often has very little to do with marketing as such. I don’t have time to develop the full argument here (but I hope to in a forthcoming journal paper).

Here is James’ article and here’s my response (with someApple and religion? hyperlinks).

Hi James,
There is some truth in what you say, but I think we need to be careful about perpetuating the idea that brands are simply social badges – conspicuous consumption – or in any way simply to communicate with others. There are two problems with this.
1) The personal/psychological benefits of consumption of product such as these often come about through the material performance of products (as Tim Bourne recently pointed out in his Talkonomics report [no link available]). So things that don’t work create dissatisfaction, though I accept that the definition, as it were, of a think ‘working’ is hugely influence by the attitudes the consumer brings to the product or brand. Apple acolytes are far more forgiving of such things as short battery life than the agnostic.
2) The social dimension is hugely more complex. Consumers don’t simply signal to the world their personality or taste, they construct it and it is constructed for them. People consume a brand for many reasons. One may be to do with availability which can be economic but can also be social and cultural – what brands are “good to think” (to paraphrase Mary Douglas“)? People working in creative industries find that a pretty much essential part of their positioning is to use Apple products but that’s not to say that they are in any way conscious of this nor that it is overly ‘strategic’. It’s just the obvious choice.
But the product also makes the ‘man’.
When designers use Apple products, they are adapting themselves to the technology as much as the reverse. Indeed, the whole history of human technology is the naturalisation of new ways of working for putative benefits (an effect the sociologist Peter Golding has observed).
This reflexivity – the mutually constitutive nature – of consumption practices and consumers is a realistic portrait of social action as it interacts with the material world – it’s what anthropologists from Marvin Harris and Pierre Bourdieu in the last century to Daniel Miller most recently have explored in various (and compelling) ways for decades.
Miller has written elegantly about the absolute integration of, what seems to be, material and apparently value-less in people’s lives – without the loss of humanity that consumption is often accused of precipitating.
The mystic power of brands is, perhaps, a smokescreen. If one was concerned about the effect of corporate interests on our personal lives one would have to accept that Apple is a rather minor player. Think of the hidden power of Microsoft and, more generally, the openly accessible data now on social networking sites. Perhaps the most dangerous cult is the one we lend support to without even knowing.
As Bourdieu once said “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need for words and ask no more than complicitous silence”

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