Why Things Matter: The relationship between consumer & product
by Marguerite de Villiers. Material culture is an area of research that explores the relationship between consumer and product — the processes involved in the production, consumption and interpretation of objects. It’s an understanding of the material side of human culture, and a belief that materiality is a form of cultural expression. This series of columns, Why Things Matter, applies an anthropological lens to the world of commercials and commodities.
An object has two types of value attached to it: material value and sentimental value. The first is often a monetary amount, derived from the quality and cost of materials used and labour invested in the production of the product. The second is the imagined or subjective value associated with an object based on what it means to or evokes for the consumer; it is often prompted by a brand as a marker of status, identity, or other evaluative criteria.
Both forms of value allow us to perceive an object with meaning, to see the object as a reflection, a representation and an indicator of who we are.
Humanity has the ability to create and transform the material world and, in return, we are shaped by it. Brands — more so today than ever before — have become a driving force behind an attempt to make a change, to have the world reflect the vision of what people believe it should be. We see brands championing causes, taking a stand, making their voices heard.
We expect brands to behave in a way that is in line with and relevant to the sentimental value we attach to them. Just as we expect to get what we pay for — to have the monetary value translate into quality, craftsmanship, and care.
A brand is a symbol of just as much our own identity as it is of the brand’s identity itself. If Nike says you can do it, you expect its product to help you achieve the seemingly impossible, and to present you to others as someone who is driven to succeed.
A timeless tagline from 1948, De Beer’s statement that “a diamond is forever”, creates the expectation that a diamond — like the relationship with the person to whom you gifted or from whom you received a diamond — will last forever. A brand is a marker of value and, when an object is successfully branded, we perceive it to matter more.
To illustrate the point, below are two instances of where brands either succeeded or failed in growing their perceived value.
Many brands have championed campaigns for the empowerment of women, but few have spoken up about #FreedomForGirls. The reality for many girls the world over is one plagued with violence and control. Considering International Day of the Girl, The Global Goals has released a video to encourage people to make their voices heard and take a stand for freedom, choice and access to opportunity for girls.
Concurrently, Facebook created a profile picture frame to celebrate “today’s girls, tomorrow’s leaders”; an empowering message that steps away from cultural notions of weakness commonly associated with girls, and toward one of admiration for what girls overcome and what they are capable of.
Usually when a brand stands for something, its communications often paint a bleak and hopeless picture hoping to evoke sympathy and empathy. In doing so, they perpetuate reality that the ‘something’ they stand for is weak and in need of help.
The examples above take a different approach. They portray girls as powerful individuals in their own right and are great examples of how brands can not only shape perception, but alter reality.
From the start, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was an attempt to engage with critiques of whiteness in advertising, as well as challenge unrealistic and digitally enhanced female bodies.
This is what made it so shocking that a brand claiming to be ‘committed to representing the beauty of diversity’ — and apparently targeting an audience who would recognise feminist codes, an audience well-informed, and able to afford its products — would sign off on an advert that showed a woman of colour removing her clothing to reveal a white woman.
Rather than addressing issues of cultural conflict, racial tension, and gender misconception, Dove have added fuel to the fire.
Marguerite de Villiers is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Added Value. “Why Things Matter”, her latest regular column on MarkLives, applies an anthropological lens to the world of commercials and commodities.