Our thinking about Brand Culture has raised some big questions, both internally and out there in the world. New employees especially are concerned about some of the apparent implications of our new model of branding.
Fundamentally, they’re asking: does the theory of Brand Culture say that humans today are so shallow that brands and consumption are the font of our spiritual and ethical beliefs? Are we suggesting that brands have usurped religion and morality as the ultimate source and authority in people’s lives?
Whoa, scary thought! Glad you asked, we reply, because the answer is no. But the answer is far more complex than just no.
First, if there is one fundamental belief driving everything we do, it’s that people are not shallow. They are anything but shallow. And we will neither hire employees nor work with clients who believe people are shallow.
Quite the opposite. The theory of Brand Culture comes from a belief that people are fantastically complex, rich, baffling, compelling, aspirational, and brilliant creatures.
We believe people are driven by a hunger for meaning. Provided, of course, as Maslow pointed out a long time ago, they’re not madly trying to avoid being eaten by a bear.
Here’s a provocative quote from one of our favorite anthropological articles from the book, Brand Culture.
“A brand may be viewed not solely as a sign added to products to differentiate them from competing goods, but as a semiotic engine whose function is to constantly produce meaning and values.” –Heilbrunn
If we assume that people are hungry for meaning, as evidenced in everything humankind ever builds, from towering Mayan ruins and gothic cathedrals to the elaborate ornamentation of everyday objects such as a Haida spoon, then doesn’t it make sense that the act of consumption itself would be a meaningful act?
Doesn’t it make sense that if our houses and our clothing and our jewelry and our canoes and our baskets and our body ornamentation have always, since time immemorial, been expressions of our values and our beliefs, that this would carry forward to the production and consumption of such things today?
Here’s another good quote from a different article in the same book:
“In a consumer culture people no longer consume for merely functional satisfaction, but consumption becomes meaning-based, and brands are often used as symbolic resources for the construction and maintenance of identity.” –Elliott & Davies
What Elliot and Davies are calling attention to is the change that’s occurred over all these millennia. And that involves the source of the meaning. Because an anthropologist will tell you that the culture a person was born into used to be the source of meaning. The culture used to give us our ethos (an understanding of how to act in the world) and our worldview (a picture of how the world really is). But in the post-modern era, fewer and fewer of us are given an ethos and worldview, and more and more of us are left to compose our own.
What do people compose their ethos and worldview out of? Well, it can be a combination of many symbolic systems. It can be the values we learned from our parents and family, plus the insights we choose from various religions and spiritual practices, and maybe some philosophy courses we took in college. And maybe from the novels we read, the music we listen to, the art we see, the friends we keep, the places around the world we visit, the careers we work in, the movies we watch.
These are all potential sources for composing our own ethos and worldview, and our own sense of identity. Included in that mix, today, are brands. That’s all we’re saying. Brands are just one possible source of meaning.
Which leads to a third quote, this time from a paper called . “Brands as Symbolic Resources for the Construction of Identity.”
“ The self is conceptualized in postmodernity not as a given product of a social system nor as a fixed entity which the individual can simply adopt, but as something the person actively creates, partially through consumption.” –Elliott & Wattanasuwan
So our theory of brand culture proposes that today, in this current smorgassbord of beliefs and values, where people are shopping for both their values and their identity (sometimes quite literally), brands can step up and be a source of meaning. And when a person chooses to have a relationship with a brand, they are using that brand as a symbolic representation of themselves. They are using that brand to represent their own ethos and worldview.
In place of the concept of “empty consumption,” we propose that today the act of consumption is loaded with meaning and significance for people. And brands, rather than trying to manipulate people to buy their products and services, need to give people something far richer and more substantive than they have in the past.
Brands, and the experiences they provide, need to be just as meaningful as art, music, fashion, architecture, literature, religion, family, careers, friends, and all the other symbolic systems which people are using to both compose and express their values and their sense of self.
If anything, it’s brands that have been shallow, not people.
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