Self-identification & value assignment
While a person may choose to identify him- or herself with any notion, when we examine the notions within a “range” – a category – this puts a natural limit of sorts on the potential number of ideas. While this is rather abstract as a statement, once we carry it onto the realm of marketing, it becomes an inevitable truth; while ideas may, in theory, be countless, brands always fall within a limited, and generally measurable, range. There are X brands of cars, Y brands of chocolate milk, Z brands of tablet computers, etc. And a consumer may choose each and any of these brands, which will, in turn, play its role in shaping the consumer’s own identity.
Purely theoretically, the consumer will be able to pick any number of brands, products or services, even within one and the same category, which will, in turn, help shape his or her social identity. However, a person will assign personal values to the different brands within a single category. Since a brand, in and of itself, is a synthetic construct, it does not possess noumenal value (and, as per Kant, the human mind would not possess the cognizance to know the “thing-in-itself”). It will, therefore, be assigned value as per the personal views and experiences of the individual, as shaped by his or her cultural surroundings (as personal values exist in relation to cultural values). Furthermore, as Saussure asserts, the value of a sign (and what else is a brand?) is determined by the other signs in the same semiotic system (category), in a liaison of relativity, rather than by its own essential substance. In effect, a brand cannot be given (adequate) value outside of its context, said context being all other brands within its category, known to the consumer.
In the context of virtually unlimited access to information, where comparison-, suggestion- and review-based shopping services have sprung up and blossomed, a single customer can, and often does, rely on more than just an informed guess regarding a product or brand he or she is interested in. Respectively, shopping research not only informs the potential buyer about the brand being pursued, but also broadens the category, against which he or she can assign value to the specific item, by bringing additional brands to the category. This, again, makes it harder to assign ample value to the product or brand considered, and makes choice much harder, turning it (I recommend “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz) into a chore. That is, unless the person is a fan (or a member of the tribe, as per Seth Godin) of that particular brand; then things tend to appear different.
Once a person is a member of a certain tribe, or a fan of a brand (or sports team, party, etc.), that person’s experience regarding the (nucleus of) the tribe tends to differ from that of a non-fan, or a neutral party. This is documented by Dan Ariely in “Predictably Irrational”, where he describes an experiment, in which the subjects’ physical (neurological) reaction to the stimuli depended on the brand to which they were being subjected; more precisely, the pleasure centers of the brain were activated when subjects were told they are being given Coke, more so than when given Pepsi.
Fandom & faith
Being a fan is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as being “an enthusiastic devotee” or “an ardent admirer or enthusiast.” Fandom not simply expresses a positive emotional connection towards the object of fan-affection; it is actually built upon and from this fondness. Being a fan predisposes a person to expect positive experiences regarding the object of his or her fandom. In fact, fandom is a link between past positive experiences, especially compared to other similar experiences (again – assigning value based on comparison), and the expectation, and even anticipation, of future positive experiences. And as Ariely points out, “positive expectations allow us to enjoy things more and improve our perception of the world around us.” Based on the cola experiment he describes, as well as on a series of other experiments he discusses in his book, he concludes that positive expectations allow for more positive experiences. We can, on our turn, venture that, since positive expectations are based on past positive experience, this model of fandom can be self-perpetuating, as each following experience, aided by the anticipation of a positive experience, will again be perceived as a positive experience. Becoming a fan, ultimately, leads to being a fan. In fact, this can be observed in sports fans, especially soccer and football, where the fan-base of a certain team will continue to give their support to the team even if it has been on a long losing streak.
It should be noted that, not surprisingly, this statement holds true for negative expectations as well. Indeed, our premonitions of our experiences will influence these very experiences. This is all due to the fact that the human mind categorizes everything it perceives, in order to be able to recognize it, and to be able to utilize it. Expectations are, really, the basis of stereotypes. And “a stereotype, after all, is a way of categorizing information, in the hope of predicting experiences. The brain cannot start from scratch at every new situation” (Ariely, again).
The occurrence of increased gratification and positive expectations is further reinforced by belonging to a social group – in this case, to a fandom. The phenomenon of “group polarization” is a key concept in social psychology, which also explains why belonging to a larger group of fans tends to further strengthen the positive outlook with regard to the group’s “target”. This phenomenon can be described as a shift of the median tendency toward its extreme. Social group dynamics predispose a person to change his or her initial opinion in two general ways: when the choice (or opinion) of the majority is known and evident, a person is more likely to change his or her opinion so that it more closely resembles the attitude of the group; or when a person’s choice (or opinion) in an argument is supported by a group (or a subset within a group), his or her opinion is likely to strengthen and even shift to its extreme.
Respectively, if a person belongs to a fandom, his or her attitude toward the nucleus of the group will be perpetuated by the very circumstance of belonging to a group of fans (a form of groupthink). On the other hand, if a person belongs to one of two conflicting groups – for example Apple “fanboys” vs. Microsoft supporters – the very dichotomy will shift his or her attitude further along the axis, closer to the extreme he or she was already inclined to support. In both cases, the connection between the nucleus and its perception by the person will be strengthened.
The aforementioned colas study, demonstrating the dopamine link between brands and consumer experience, can be further complemented by a documentary shot by the BBC, “Secrets of the Superbrands”, in which it was shown, with the help of MRI imaging, that the brand Apple – images of their products in this case – invoked activity in the same parts of Apple fans’ brains as images of deities did for religious people. This only goes to show that the constant, self-enforcing cycle of positive past experiences and positive expectations, combined with the demonstration of shared ideas and values, can lead to an amalgamation as strong as religion. Even more, this connection can go as deep as faith: incorporate trust, hope and belief in one fruitful relationship.
Faith is, ultimately, what differentiates a loyal fan from a utility consumer. Faith that the brand stands for the same ideas and ideals as him; faith that future experiences will be as positive as past; faith that this exact brand signifies what the consumer stands for. And, naturally, once a person’s interaction with a brand reaches this Faith-state, then, it could be argued, the fan’s perception of the brand transcends above rationality. This is where convictions turn into belief. This is the ultimate customer loyalty.
The Faith-state is, however, only a marker for a more comprehensive change that takes place in a consumer’s mind. What really happens is a change in the individual perception of pre-existing cultural significations.
In her book “Managing Cultural Differences: Strategies for Competitive Advantage”, Lisa Hoecklin attempts to present a structural view of what culture is, building upon the ideas of Geert Hofstede:
- A shared system of meanings.
- About groups.
Hoecklin also offers a three-tier pyramid model, directly adapted from Hofstede, illustrating the ascending constructive relationship between Human nature (universal / biological), Culture (specific to groups / learned), and Personality (specific to individuals / inherited and learned), where each of the levels is built upon, and dependent on, the preceding stage.
Personal culture is, admittedly, shaped mainly by societal culture in combination with individual experience. Cultural signs tend to bear secondary significance with respect to the societal “pool” to which they are native. What an event, or an object, connotes in one culture, may be completely different from what it connotes in another, albeit the primary denotation may be one and the same.
For some people, meat at the dinner table could mean that someone killed an innocent animal, while for others it could mean that they will live to see another day.
Naturally, personal culture generally exists within a society and, more often than not, abides by the society’s overall guidelines. However, every person’s individual culture is different from that of other people within the same society, even within the same micro-society, depending on that person’s own experience – imagine an ordinary western-type family with two children, one of whom has gone vegan. This clearly demonstrates that cultural significations and perceptions can differ and even change; they are malleable.
This is a beneficial precondition for brands, as it allows them to interpose their own ideas between a person and his or her ideals, effectively leading to juxtaposition between the two, and, in the end, to adopting the former in lieu of the latter. For example, a person, who values creativity, might have adopted Apple’s products as a surrogate. In fact, this is one of the main notions when discussing the brand Apple: it stands for creativity.
This replacement of ideas by brands is possible largely due to a peculiarity stemming from a distinctive way we tend to use language – the metaphor: the formation of a novel sign through the combination of the signifier of one pre-existing sign and the signified of another. Thanks to this active semiosis, we manage to express ourselves with hundreds and thousands of words, instead of millions – what Richard H. Robbins calls the “economy” of language. This mode of language usage is so common and habitual that Roman Jakobson claims it is perhaps the core principle of our communication (along with metonymy). What this effectively means is that our mundane use of metaphors in everyday communication has made them easy to create and ever so hard to notice; metaphors are oftentimes perceived as primary signs, instead of signs constructed out of other, pre-existing signs.
What this leads to is the fact that the regularity with which we use metaphors creates a habitude, which, in turn, makes it easy to digest even new metaphors, and difficult to recognize customary, time-tested metaphors. Once this transfer of words and meanings has become habitual, it is no longer regarded as a metaphor; it becomes a primary implement. The connotation gains broader consensus, so much so that it transcends to denotational status – a process based on the general structuralist view that no meaning is, in fact, literal, and that denotation is but connotation, which enjoys broader consensus. In a similar way, aided by this said habituality of metaphorization, the substitution of products and brands for cultural values has become commonplace and this very routine has overcome any barriers that we may have otherwise had against such value surrogacy; again, connotation (brand) has reached a general (prevailing) consensus (convention), thus becoming tantamount to denotation (cultural value).
Thus, a person using Apple products believes that he or she is fond of, or even devoted to, creativity, and also “broadcasts” that conviction to his or her peers.
Value surrogacy is exploited by quite a few brands – the entire marketing and advertising industry has managed to contrive a scheme for hijacking pre-existing ideas, ideals and even values. Remember Bernays’ “torches of freedom”?
Consuming a brand is, in its essence, an act of expression. To the consumer, expressing him or herself through the utilization of brands substitutes an actual idea or value, both within his or her own self-perception, as well as within the image he or she “radiates” toward the surrounding world – the peers. Furthermore, by substituting products for certain cultural traits, the brands successfully immure themselves within a person’s very identity throughout his or her life, since a person’s identity is, rather than a persistent and complete entity, a constantly evolving and changing thing. We are all “programmed”, as we live and grow, by the society to which we belong – from the notions of virtue and malice, to ugliness and beauty, to the very act of interacting with other human beings. It is precisely these “layers of cultural programming” (Hoecklin) that the brands tap into, in order to parasitize on them, and to eventually engorge and replace them in the cultural “program” of an individual.
Respectively, it is through the aforementioned process of value substitution that the product – the surrogate value – is effectively embedded within a person’s own individual culture. It becomes one of his or her private (personal, individual) cultural values, which have been, respectively, shaped by the cultural values appurtenant to the society this individual belongs to. Once implanted, this value substitution becomes habitual and not only indicative of the person’s individual beliefs, but also significant as to his or her cultural appurtenance. In other words, a brand becomes not only a facet of identity, but also a symbol of cultural endorsement and social belonging; in a culture, where freedom is valued, any symbol of freedom will be just as valuable (an approach frequently used by politicians by substituting various different ideas and actions for the values of freedom and patriotism).
A brand can become a part of you.