mundane magic

magic
magic

Every waking hour we experience magic. It appears contemporary and is extremely mundane, and while we inevitably fail to recognize it as such, it is there and it is magic. Every 30 or so minutes (depending on local regulations) a new organized burst of magic comes to pass by means of public media – simultaneously sprinkling pixie dust over thousands of people, largely unbeknownst to them (as to them it is just humdrum). It’s a sort of modern voodoo, a ritual of pagan descent, homoeopathic and contagious magic, a veritable spell that enchants us over and over again, hiding under the banal (thus allegedly benevolent) silhouette of advertising.

Shampoo-conditioner with pearl extract and cashmere oil” the TV proclaims, and you just know that you have to purchase this product of modern cosmetic science in order to have cashmere-soft hair and the complementary pearly shimmer.

All-natural whole-grain crackers” the ad reads, and you are convinced that you have to eat a pack a day of these little miracle-workers, in order to balance your intestinal flora.

A venerable occurrence of sympathetic magic, this demonstrates both contagious and homoeopathic magic in a split second.

– Properties are transferred by means of contiguity.
– Like yields like.

(By the way, what is “pearl extract”?)

Peoples have been known, throughout history and geography, to consume a divine being – indirectly, by means of an effigy – in order to imbibe a portion of its deific spirit. This tradition has found multiple incarnations and variants, but it is inevitably tied to the transfer of qualities, typically perceived as virtuous, from an entity, which possesses them in higher concentrations, to an individual (or a group), who desires to acquire them.

The qualities may include strength, courage, speed, endurance, youth, beauty, among others.

While one can hardly speak of divine shampoo, or holy whole-grain crackers, the homoeopathic link is, indeed, quite evident in modern marketing approaches and product (and brand) perception. Naturally, consumption in the case of cosmetic products is reduced to regular application (thus – combined with contagion magic), however, in the case of comestibles, it is, indeed, a matter of direct consumption. In fact, recent healthy-living crazes can, without a doubt, be distilled down to bouts of Mother-Gaia-centric practical magic. It’s a simple equation: consume (foodstuffs from) Mother Gaia (herself – the embodiment of purity and Nature), and you shall become as pure and natural a being as Nature herself.

While in some cases the consumption of goods can be viewed as a means of obtaining properties, pertaining to their ingredients (hair as soft as cashmere, skin as smooth as silk/milk, etc.) – homoeopathic magic, there is also strong evidence for contiguity-based pattern of inheritance (or acquisition). This can most easily be seen in the ever so popular field of wellness – especially when one takes a look at the many, mostly scientifically-unproven (or disproven), weight loss and “rejuvenation” products. More often than not, the claims behind their miraculous potency are directly tied to stories of indigenous peoples who are known for their longevity, endurance and – you guessed it! – non-obesity.

What can be observed in such instances is a real-life metaphor, where the {random exotic} berry stands for the {random exotic} tribe, whose abs are always visible, who never get tired, and who only need a handful of food, in order to function an entire week. (Also, the berries suppress appetite!) Here, contagious magic does its wonderful job, by taking the berries as a vector, which, in turn, having been consumed (touched) by the exotic tribe, will act as a carrier of this “virus” of well-being and slenderness, to anyone, willing to act as a receptacle. This is not direct, but mediated contagion, but still, it is believed to fulfill its purpose, since the vector is on the one hand a carrier of the effect, while also being a cause – albeit unproven.

Another instance of magical contagion – probably the most obvious of all – can be observed in plain old celebrity endorsement. Yes, we will all agree that a reason celebrity-endorsed brands utilize the celebrity is to gain credibility – i.e. “this product actually works, otherwise [popular sports star] would never use it!” However, one should not easily dismiss the product’s vector quality; here, once again, it could be a cause-and-vector relationship (“Maybe she’s born with it?”), but without the product acting as a carrier, the celebrity endorsement would lose its spark and the brand would get away with just anyone (“Maybe it’s Maybelline.”)

Branding works.

It works magic!

brand implants

brand implants
brand implants

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:

  1. A shared system of meanings.
  2. Relative.
  3. Learned.
  4. 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.

Value surrogacy

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.

fairy sales

fairy sales
fairy sales

 

According to Laurence Vincent, what separates legendary brands from the rest is their narrative – the legends, the myths that accompany these brands throughout their existence. Their history, their private folklore, their ups and downs, their heroes.

What makes a brand mythical is, essentially, the Myth.

A myth, in its essence, is a third order of signification – derived from, and preceded by, denotation and connotation: “The connotation of the Sign becomes the Signifier of the Myth,” says Elliott Gaines. It is an extended metaphor that aides us to comprehend our own cultural experiences. In fact, according to Roland Barthes, myths are no less than the guidelines of our understanding, the prevailing beliefs in our culture. The “American dream” is a myth, which has shaped the mindset of a baffling portion of Westernized cultures. The notion of fairness of the judicial system; the expectation that “good will prevail”; the idea that “you will find true love” – these are all ideologies that we recognize and in which we believe. Myths naturalize cultural particularities: they take prevailing traditional notions and objectivize them; they make prevalent morals, beliefs and attitudes seem normal and rational; they “transform history into nature,” in the words of Barthes.

Kevin Roberts, in his book “Lovemarks,” has systematized the conversion of a trade mark into a “lovemark”, by describing a list of metamorphoses of the rational basics, which build a brand, into mythological elements:

  • Information becomes connection (relationship).
  • Recognition becomes fondness.
  • Wide application becomes personal.
  • Story becomes love.
  • Promise of quality becomes a touch of sensuality.
  • Symbolic character becomes iconic.
  • Certainty becomes saturation.
  • Statement becomes history.
  • Characteristics become enigma.
  • Values become spirit.
  • Professional character becomes commitment to creation.
  • Advertising becomes idea generation.

While Roberts analyzes what a brand needs to achieve, in order to become a “lovebrand”, he reaches the overall idea of “statement becomes history,” rational becomes cultural, connotation is built upon denotation, which is but the initial impetus for creating a narrative. Once this is achieved, maintained and reinforced, the narrative eventually grows into myth, essentially forcing the cultural element to incorporate normality, reaching a third level of signification, thus achieving mythological status. Hence, statement becomes history, which, in turn, becomes a new, undisputable statement.

Let us take a look at an Apple product: the extremely popular (at the moment of this writing) iPad. On a first order of signification level, it is a hardware product, a computer tablet. It is one of many hardware products available on the market today that consumers can choose from. The connotation it bears is that of lightness, ease of use, mobility and connectivity. It is the go-to product for on-the-go professionals, or people who desire to dispose of a quick and easy way to communicate and reach sources of information at all times. However, on the third level of signification – the mythological level – this product is loaded with the legendary status of Apple, the air of creative extremes, an embodiment of Maslow’s final tier – self-actualization. This is no longer just a useful product; rather, it is a self-identification instrument, a tool that allows its owner to declare him- or herself intelligent, creative, elite, cool.

The fairy tale that is Apple is the basis, upon which this strong brand presence is built and which, in turn, has led to such extremes in customer loyalty. The Apple (and Steve Jobs) story possesses all the elements of a fairy tale. Analysis of fairy tale structure and function, described and developed by Propp, Levi-Strauss and Greimas, suggests that there exist concrete narrative themes, actions and actors (actants). These basic elements are set within the story in three main binary oppositions: subject-object, sender-receiver and helper-opponent.

The subject is the hero, the one who is on a quest, trying to achieve (reach/find) a goal – the object. In the Apple story, and according to its legend, the subject is Steve Jobs, and the object is changing the world.

The sender is the one who sends the object; in this case, this is an inanimate entity – American culture (which also is a myth in and of itself and, in this case, represents a necessary pre-requisite for the narrative), since the object is an ideal, a purpose, rather than a material item.

The receiver is the destination of the object; Greimas argues that the subject and the receiver are, essentially, one and the same, which is clearly the case in this particular instance of the fairy tale – Apple (and Steve Jobs).

The helper is an actant, who assists the subject – here that would most likely be Steve Wozniak, the other notable founder of Apple, or companies and other external forces, that have, one way or another, aided Apple in its quest.

And finally, the opponent is the actant who attempts to interfere and hinder the subject’s quest; in Apple’s legend that was IBM, at first, and later on – Microsoft, Google, Samsung, et cetera.

The main construction of the fairy tale mimics basic sentence structure, where we have a subject-verb-object sequence: Steve Jobs (Apple) achieves success (in changing the world). Evidently, an oppositional force exists, exhibiting a “frictional” force in a vector, reverse to the subject’s action: IBM achieves success before Apple (i.e. IBM starts competing with Apple). This is a basic binary opposition where we have a protagonist opposite an antagonist.

Fairy tales are generally simple: characters are one-dimensional, possessing only positive or only negative traits; actions are clean and unidirectional, without any meandering. Barthes explains in his “Mythologies”:

Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. If I state [a fact] without explaining it, I am very near to finding that it is natural and goes without saying: I am reassured. In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions… Things appear to mean something by themselves…

This simplicity, depicting the hero as inherently good, while the villain is undisputedly evil, comes out of fairy tales and myths, and transcends into our perception of the events surrounding us. When we observe, or are part of, conflicts, we resort to this basic binary opposition, which is rooted deep within our perceptions, as it is one of the ideologies that we believe in, derived from myth-borne naturalization. In every conflict, in which we sympathize (and identify) with one of the opposing sides, we unconsciously apply this paradigm to our perception of the situation and side with whomever we perceive to be “the hero” of the narrative.

Naturally, the definition of the villain is clearly dependent on the stance and point of view: to some, Coca Cola is the hero, while to others it is clear that Pepsi is the protagonist – it all depends on the direction of the narrative’s vector that we choose to follow. Brand opposition takes place within a frame that is different from that of a fairy tale – it does not usually come with predefined role designations for the actants and the consumer (the observer) is free to assign them as he or she pleases.

A brand fares well if it nurtures its fairy tale. However, if its story remains passive in the past, and its narrative is based mostly on its legend(s), it may be faced with losing its legendary state. Strong brands, international or local, have been known to lose their vital force, while others keep growing strong.

One main characteristic of brand virility is the fact that these brands constantly perpetuate or re-invent their fairy tale. Essentially, this is what J.C. Larreche dubs “momentum”: “Momentum accumulates energy from its own success and provides ever-increasing acceleration for firms smart enough to build and harness it.”

Should the antagonists be defeated, the brand will re-populate their empty space with a new villain: once Apple outran IBM, it clashed with Microsoft (and later, on other fields – with Google and Samsung). Should the goal be achieved, a new goal must be set; or rather, should the brand get too close to achieving its goal, it will “inflate” or shift it, once again turning it into a “dream” that it (and its loyal consumers, by means of empathy!) have to strive to achieve: once Apple had created a best-selling consumer product that changed the world (by all means, the iPod and iPhone changed the landscape of personal electronics, the way we interact with our personal computers, the way we listen to music, the way we communicate, etc.), it gracefully entered a new niche – tablet computers – and once again set the mythology pendulum into motion.

Naturally, the new niche comes with brand new villains.