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«Journal of Consumer Culture Brands: A critical perspective Adam Arvidsson Journal of Consumer Culture 2005; 5; 235 DOI: ...»

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The fact that brands only exist – only offer resistance, to use the Latourian/Deleuzian definition of existence – as long as consumers act on them introduces a tricky problem. In so far as consumers’ reproduction of the form of life that the brand stands for tends to introduce an element of diversity, an ironic twist, or simply an unanticipated development, management must allow for a certain mobility of the brand image: the brand is an ‘open-ended object’ (Lury, 2004: 151). At the same time this mobility must be controlled and kept within the boundaries of the intended brand identity.8 This necessity to balance between innovation and conservation means that brand management contains two sets of techniques: those that aim at the selective appropriation of consumer innovation, and those that aim to make consumers’ use of branded goods serve to reproduce the forms of life that the brand embodies. Even in this latter case it is not a matter of imposing a particular meaning or message, or of fostering a particular model of consumption to simply be reproduced by consumers. Brand management is not a disciplinary practice. It does not seek to impose a certain structure of tastes or desires, not even a certain manner of relating to goods.

And there are seldom sanctions. Rather, brand management works by enabling or empowering the freedom of consumers so that it is likely to evolve in particular directions.

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In its present form, brand management recognizes the autonomy of consumers. It aims at providing an environment, an ambience, which anticipates and programs the agency of consumers. Brand management says not ˇˇ ‘You Must!’ It says ‘You May!’ (Barry, 2001; Zizek, 1999).

These efforts at anticipation move at different levels of abstraction. At the most


level we find the management of the media image of the brand. To a large extent brands are built through investments in media culture, in advertising, product placements, sponsorship and co-branding (cf. Janson, 2002; Kellner, 1995). The media strategy of brand management differs from Fordist advertising, and not only in its frequent recourse to an ironic approach that positions viewers as reflexive and ‘knowing’ interpreters. More significantly, brand management does not so much aim at sending a ‘message’ about the product (however ironic) to consumers.

Rather it aims at defining the contours of what the brand can mean, by creating inter-textual links in media culture. Brand management aims at creating what Marshall (2002) has called an ‘inter-textual commodity’: a mediatic space that anticipates the agency of consumers and situates it within a number of more or less precise coordinates. Within those coordinates consumers are free to produce the shared meanings and social relations that the branded good will help create in their life. Marshall cites Nintendo as an early example of this strategy. Starting in the late 1980s, Nintendo licensed a wide range of gadgets around its successful core products, the videogames SuperMario Bros. and Zelda. T-shirts, watches, cereal, sleeping bags, dolls, magazines, cartoons, wallpaper, snacks and a film (The Wizard, Provenzo, 1991: 15 ff.). ‘Kids’ could use these objects as a kind of raw material for their play with and around Nintendo’s video games. In their play they would create a common in the form of a local and specific Nintendo world, partially – but not entirely – determined by the coordinates of the brand space. Today many companies use similar strategies to define the contours of a form of life to be acted out in more concrete ways by consumers. Through its sponsorship of action movies of the James Bond and John Woo kind, BMW anticipates different kinds of actions and self presentation than Mercedes, that sponsors art-house films and features gadgets with more advanced design (through their alliance with Swiss watch-maker Swatch, among other things). These coordinates all move at the very abstract level of ‘mood’ and ‘feeling’. Unlike Fordist advertising, what to do with the object, how precisely the BMW or Mercedes is supposed to enter social relations is never explicitly spelled out. Rather it is a matter of making the object resist certain uses, and invite others.

Consequently, media politics is about policing the public visibility of Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) undesirable uses, as in the case of the censorship exercised over films and other media products by commercial sponsors (Wasko, 1994).

At a more concrete level we find the management of consumers’ lived interaction with the branded environment (Moor, 2003). Here brands function as capital in the less obvious sense of an instrument of governance. Like many other instances of contemporary capitalism, brand management makes use of bio-political governance: a governance that works from below by shaping the context in which freedom is exercised, and by providing the raw materials that it employs (Dean, 1999; Hardt and Negri, 2000; Rose, 1999). In the case of brand management this occurs mainly through the construction of particular ambiences that aim to shape what consumers produce.

There are many ways of doing this. Physical space is one medium that has gained in popularity recently. The use of architecture and design to provide a particular commercial ambience certainly has its precedents. It goes back to the construction of 19th century department stores, the design of British 18th century shops, and perhaps even the elaborate spaces of the Ottoman bazaar (Bowlby, 2000). The systematic connection between design and brand management can in turn be traced back to the ‘corporate image’ work performed by design bureaus like Lippincott & Margulies in the 1950s. The most important precursor for the use of physical space in contemporary brand management has probably been Disney. In Disney’s theme parks (as in the Disney residential community Celebration) customer movement, interaction and ‘mood’ is heavily orchestrated to make it

produce a particular ambience and experience. As George Ritzer (1999:

90) has shown, this fusion of entertainment and commerce is a growing trend in contemporary consumer culture. He also shows how most such ‘new means of consumption’ rely on the active involvement of consumers to produce the desired experience. In places like Starbucks and McDonald’s customers contribute to the production of the actual service they consume – by clearing trays, filling up drinks and such, but not only. The built environment and the schooled attitudes of personnel also aim to make customers interact in a certain way so as to produce a particular mood or experience (Pine and Gilmore, 1999). At McDonald’s, clowns, brightly coloured uniforms and Disney toys with your Happy Meal encourage the performance of wholesome family fun. At Starbucks, the smoke-free environment, the schooled Zen-like attitude of the ‘baristas’, blues music and books from Oprah Winfrey’s book club encourage the performance of a laid back attitude appropriate to a west coast urban intellectual of the low to middle-brow kind (Elliott, 2001). In super-stores like the Chicago

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Niketown the primary scope of the environment is the involvement of consumers in the construction of an experience. They are invited to try on shoes, test athletic gear, to use the indoor basketball court, and to interact with and around the brand. In fact, the primary purpose of the store is not to sell Nike products (as this would give other retailers unfair competition) but rather to provide a space where consumers can interact to perform an experience of the brand as somehow important to, or even part of, their ordinary lives. As Sherry argues: ‘Nike’s brand essence is both embodied in the built environment and realized in apprehension, in an act of cocreation...’ (Sherry, 1998: 138; Peñaloza, 1999). The purpose of these spaces is to make consumers produce a particular relationship to the brand.

Similarly, many brand owners have invested in the construction of branded communities. Pioneers in this respect have been British supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s that in the 1980s created spaces for customer socialization through events like cooking courses,gourmet dinners and wine tasting. Other brands like Jeep and Harley Davidson routinely organize ‘brandfests’ where users can come together, improve their skills at using the product and, most importantly, socialize and create community ties (McAlexander and Shouten, 1998;Wolf, 1999). Similar strategies of involving consumers in producing a dimension of trust or authenticity to be added to the brand are frequent on the Internet. The auction site eBay owes much of its success to the sense of trust generated by a particular rating system by means of which users come to constitute themselves as a community in which social standing and peer appreciation matter. Similarly, amazon.com actively seeks to make users add value by reviewing books and participating in discussions. Future applications promise to take this even further. With a functioning mobile Internet, applications like ‘Real Space’ interactive games will enable users to create a web of alliances and hostilities that evolves in a pre-structured space, both virtual and real. Thus the branded phone (or the provider) can be employed in the production of a new and different kind of ethical surplus (Haig, 2002).

An important part of brand management consists of building intertextual, physical and virtual spaces that pre-structure and anticipate the agency of consumers. Within these spaces consumers are given contours of and raw material for the exercise of their productive agency. Consumers are free to themselves produce a set of social relations and shared meanings – a common. This can be a matter of participating in the creation of a collectively shared experience (like at Starbucks), of adding a dimension of trust to a service (like in the case of eBay) or of creating a local and specific meaningful dimension that contextualizes the branded good in a Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) particular life situation (as in the case of a particular enactment of a general BMW-style) or that makes it possible to experience the brand as endowed with an authentic meaning in one’s own life-history. (A fond family memory articulated around the Nike brand, a childhood birthday party at McDonald’s.) Brands work as platforms for action that enable the production of particular immaterial use-values: an experience, a shared emotion, a sense of community. This way, brands work as a kind of ubiquitous means of production that are inserted within the socialized production process that consumers engage in. The idea on the part of brand management is that what consumers produce by means of the brand will contribute to strengthening the position that the brand occupies in their life-world.

Indeed, it is often argued that attainment of the superior dimensions of brand equity is contingent on this interactive element. It is not the brand itself that counts, but what you can do with it, what you can be with it (Schmitt, 1999). While it is not impossible for consumers to use branded goods in unanticipated ways, the purpose of brand management is precisely to anticipate the ways in which consumers use goods; to inscribe certain ways of acting and relating in them (Lury, 1999). This way, managerial power becomes an immanent component of the very environment in which consumers act. As they become subjects, brands become valuable.

It is not always necessary or even desirable to anticipate consumer agency. Among some consumer groups, like American ‘urban cultures’, global ‘hub-culture’ (Stalnaker, 2002) and among American (and to some extent European and Asian) high school kids (Quart, 2003), the production of social relations and shared meanings quite naturally transpires by means of branded consumer goods, and with high degrees of expertise.

These forms of productive sociality can be used as a kind of natural resource for brand managers. Through various forms of ‘guerrilla’, ‘viral’ or ‘stealth’ marketing, goods can be inserted in ‘trend setting’ social circles. It is hoped that ‘hype’ about them will subsequently diffuse naturally. These kinds of marketing techniques are frequently used for cultural goods like records, restaurants and night venues and alcoholic drinks. Alternatively, a branded product can be inserted into a particularly attractive cultural universe, hoping that some of that attraction will rub off. Absolute vodka has done this with American urban gay culture, Nike and Reebok with urban ‘ghetto’ culture. Finally,‘trend scouting’ uses social life as it naturally evolves through branded consumer goods as a sort of ‘living lab’ from which inspiration and information is gathered and sold on as feed-back to advertising agencies and design companies. In these techniques that aim at working directly with social relations (and which Holt, 2002 privileges in his account

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of the post-modern ‘branding paradigm’) the autonomous immaterial productivity of consumers is simply commodified as it unfolds ‘naturally’.

This can occur either by ‘farming out’ the diffusion of a branded good, or the construction of a sign value, to a particularly influential or attractive group. Or, as in the case of trend scouting, it occurs through the use of consumer practice as a source of innovation.

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