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Brands and the Self

The brand of the university one attends plays an important role in the matter of branding the self. Friends of mine who have attended elite universities always seem to find ways to mention them in conversations, but there are other aspects of brands that are important when it comes to the branded self. But what is a brand?

In his book, Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, Anthony J. Cortese offers a good description of branding. He writes (2004:4):

What distinguishes similar products is not ingredients but packaging and brand names. Most major shampoos, for example, are made by two or three manufacturers.... The major thrust of advertising is to remind shoppers to seek out and purchase a particular brand. Branding seeks to nullify or compensate for the fact that products are otherwise fundamentally interchangeable. Tests have shown that consumers cannot distinguish between their own brand of soap, beer, cigarette, water, cola, shampoo, gasoline from others. In a sense, advertising is like holding up two identical photographs and persuading you that they are different—in fact, that one is better than the other.

Brands are important to us because they help us form an identity. Just as brands differentiate themselves from other brands for a given shampoo or automobile, we use brands of everything we purchase to differentiate ourselves from other people and to generate images of ourselves to others that we think are positive. We become, in a sense, the sum of our brands. It is the symbolic value of our brands, not the functions of the branded products, that is most important in establishing our identities.

What’s most important about brand-name products is that when we see a person wearing a certain brand of clothes or collection of name brand products, we get a sense of what the person using the brands is like—if, that is, we have seen advertisements for the brand and know something about it. Branded luxury objects function as status symbols and help confer high status upon those who use them.

If a self is a kind of conversation we have with ourselves, what happens when we get tired of certain brands of fragrances or blue jeans and switch to others? Is there a kind of dissociation that occurs as we take on a new self-based on new brands that we now find attractive? What makes us get tired of things we loved before?

In his book Collective Search for Identity, Orrin Klapp offers an interesting catalogue of fashions in the 1960s that, among other things, offers insights into the way people use fashion to help create their identities and the problems that arise from relying on style to fashion an identity. He discusses a number of complications relating to styles (1962:75):

  • (1) the sheer variety of “looks” (types) available to the common man;
  • (2) the explicitness of identity search (for the real you);
  • (3) ego-screaming: the plea “look at me!”;
  • (4) style rebellion (style uses as a means of protest or defiance);
  • (5) theatricalism and masquerading on the street;
  • (6) pose as a way of getting to the social position one wants;
  • (7) dandyism: (living for style, turning away from the Horatio Alger... model of success);
  • (8) dandyism of the common man as well as the aristocrat;
  • (9) pronounced escapism in many styles (such as those of beatniks, hippies, surfers...);
  • (10) a new concept of the right to be whatever one pleases, regardless of what others think (the new romanticism);
  • (11) the breakdown of status symbols, the tendency of fashions to mix and obscure classes rather than differentiate them.

Klapp’s list suggests some of the different things people do when creating branded selves, and points out some of the problems branding causes, because in some cases the objects that signify a certain status may not be recognized by others or may be misinterpreted by them. In some cases, people lie with styles. Klapp offers the example of a group of people who look like motorcycle riders—they wear all the clothes that motorcycle riders wear—but they don’t have motorcycles. Some people who ride around in expensive cars don’t have any money in the bank. They are poseurs to a higher status. Others, who are very wealthy, ride around in beat up old cars. They are poseurs to a lower status.

To a considerable extent, people define themselves and others, in terms of brands they prefer which leads me to suggest that there is what we might call a “branded self.” Our identities are, to a considerable degree, shaped by the brands of products we purchase, by the locations of our houses (certain zip codes have high status and others low status), by the brands of automobiles we drive, by the brands of clothes we wear, by the brands of mobiles we use, by the “look” and status of our sexual partners, and so on.

When thinking about brands, we have to think about public displays of brands and the use of private brands which others do not see. In his book Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, Tom Doctoroff talks about the way Chinese relate to status symbols. They use name brands in public and domestic brands in private. He writes (2005:28):

Chinese need to project status.... Products that are publicly displayed— brands that can double as badges—will justify a higher price relative to the competition. The leading home appliances are domestic.... Mobile phones are a different story. In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou not a single local brand penetrates the top five, despite price points 50 percent (or more) below Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung. Cell phones represent a revolution in personal communications. They are also the most powerfully public means of projecting individual identity.

So brands play an important role in Chinese personal identities and to a considerable extent in the United States as well, except that here the difference between public and private brands is not as pronounced. Americans tend to have name brands in their home appliances as well as their cell phones and other brands used in public situations.

As Klapp suggests, some people dress down and hide their status by purchasing clothes and cars that don’t show their true socioeconomic status, and the reverse occurs with some people who dress above their socioeconomic status, by devoting most of their income to such things. Most people fall in between these two polarities, but we must recognize that just about everything we purchase is branded. Store brands of foods and household supplies and second- or third-tier brands of clothes still are brands. Some people, who pay little attention to brands, end up as what Klapp would call “style less” individuals, though from a semiotic perspective, this is not quite accurate and one can never be “style less.” There is, I suggest, no escape from brands; what many people do is find certain brands that they are comfortable with and use them to help create their personas—their public identities.

We can make a distinction between three levels of the self: the persona or mask—that is, the public self which is the branded self. At a level below that is the privata, the private self that we do not display to others and find difficulty in accessing most of the time. And at the lowest level is the privatissima, the self that we cannot ever know, but which plays a role in shaping our other selves. It may be that brands speak to something in this privatissima that then manifests itself in the brands we purchase to create our personas, our public branded selves.

If the self is defined by the collection of brands people have selected to create a public identity, the fact that they sometimes change their brands and thus their branded selves suggests that the concept of “the self’ is a modernist one that is no longer functional. It is based on a notion that a self is somehow lasting and coherent in its stylistic formation. The branded self, which argues that selves are based on the selection of brands that people think suit themselves, and which can change when styles change or our sense of self changes, suggests a postmodern perspective on the self— one in which is fragmented and in which eclecticism rules.

 
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