Brand Culture: The consumer economy and personal identity
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) One of the many problems Karl Marx pointed out with the capitalist world is the notion that it tends to alienate workers from their product. He held that, as a species, we live to work and that work is what allows us to feel as if we have meaning, creativity and expression. While this held true for the most of recorded human history, the industrial revolution turned all of this on its head.
Division of labour was celebrated by people such as Adam Smith (for its efficiency) but Marx believed otherwise. It reduces men and women to cogs in the industrialist’s machine — little more than abstractions in need of a living wage. Profit is a matter of human exploitation and not technology, as everyone would simply use the same technology, thereby rendering a profit margin void. If the capitalist machine is going to grind on, it would seem that it will have to eat not only people but also their dreams, wills, desires and sense of belonging.
It’s an idea that dawned on me as I was thinking about how the cultures of individuality and hipsterism seem to be under threat. The concept that our individual and creative selves somehow stand apart from our branded and our commercial selves seems to become more and more difficult to maintain. Yes, you can be a stamp-collecting oboe player who develops film photographs on the weekend but, at some point, social security and economic welfare will depend upon economic participation. The line between artistic genius and self-inflicted economic exclusion (and everything that comes with it) is sometimes very thin.
But where did this division between individuality and commerce start? For the most of history, we’ve been living in a world of few-to-many communications. While it manifested best in communications, the top-down hierarchy of the world up to the mid ’90s was also seen in general business structure, most notably in films and comedy such as Office Space and Dilbert. But we didn’t know any better and we didn’t really have options. How were people going to organise themselves without big brother seeing or facilitating? It’s hard to imagine a time when TV could be watched, when you wanted, for as long as you wanted. If a message was going to be created, it was going to be created by the few (with the means) and be redistributed to the many. The result is that, if Nike said its shoe was the best, it would be difficult to argue unless adidas came out to dominate the airwaves, either by calling the incumbent out or by telling a different story.
It was an era of brands talking at people, and the general sentiment was that we were sheep buying into the very limited amount of types of self-expression available. Big business dominated and a handful of big brands which articulated the paradigm culture of the time. The market had far less granularity; this created massive open areas between the brands, which was a fertile soil for a mindset that divorced the commercial self from the authentic self.
Global co-creation tool
The internet managed to change that substantially. Within two decades, the web has gone from a mass publishing tool to a global co-creation tool. By creation, I don’t simply mean creating things (3D printing) but also the co-creation of ideas and the rapid erosion of barriers between intuitions and national groups. There are plenty of examples of this erosion, the most significant being the Arab Spring. As barriers between people eroded, the realisation dawned that not only was everyone unhappy with leadership but also that everybody knew that everybody knew.
Closer to our industry, the sharing economy kicked off. Companies such as Airbnb and Uber made it possible for people to take part in the economy through (at least, in some form) bypassing the hierarchy and — in Marxist terms — becoming capital owners themselves.
Uber, as one example, leveraged the tension between classes in a fantastic way. Its consumer-facing line preached that every person can now have a personal driver. But, to its drivers, a similar bridge was alluded to. Like Uber meant that every person can now live as a capital owner (to use such economic phrasing), so also every worker could be a capital owner. On both supply and demand sides, it created an illusion of pushing people into this capital-owner bracket. Of course, the concept of ownership is fading away and the idea of user is becoming the operative word. I imagine we will, in the near future, have ‘owner’ as a legacy word, much like ‘horsepower’ still exists in the automotive world.
This new sharing economy leveraged the same system that has given consumers not only a powerful voice but also a powerful platform to create and participate in the economy. This shift took the cultural focus of brands from talking at people to simply being a person. ‘Just do it’ has to be accompanied by more-engaging campaigns, especially given the success of shoe companies such as Toms, which takes part in the world as it speaks.
Because of this sort of interaction, we see a far more-textured brand economy today than we did a few decades back. Smaller brands are cropping up everywhere as the barrier to entry has dropped through the floor. Big corporations still exist and will probably exist for years to come, but they can’t just be massive, lumbering giants pushing out products. Instead, innovation has become a table stake to many, being responsive is key and, most importantly, listening to and caring about people are more important than ever. The fact of the matter is that people will have the influential conversation with or without the brand.
Today, brands are more responsive and representative of people than ever before. Keeping in mind what Marx said about alienation, we can almost see an attempt by industry to mediate the effect. Yes, you’re not taking part directly in the manufacturing of your final product. And, yes, when people wear a product that you worked upon, it doesn’t have your name upon it. But, in a more abstract sense, brands are hunting for the drivers that make us tick. Big business builds brands that create critical mass in a society, a type of pseudo-religion. So, while my name might not be adidas or Nike, I do have a sense of affiliation and belonging to the brand, its values, and (if the brand is doing its job properly) what it is trying to achieve in the world.
Symbols and brands
Granted, Marx might be a bit of a reach, but there is truth in that we identify and find purpose through the symbols we adorn ourselves with. In a modern consumer economy, those symbols take on the shape of brands, which is probably why a wider variety of cultural expressions among brands can close the gap between my individual self and my commercial self.
Our task as branding experts is, therefore, to find the seams of societal gold and overlap our brands, not only in order to drive higher profit margins for our clients but also to create cultural campfires and relevant icons of identity around which people may come together and build meaning.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.