I believe it’s fair to say that companies and marketers are more interested in the way their brands are impacting consumers, than the other way around. This is not surprising in any way, considering that this has been the dominating focal point for brand literature. The question is, to what extant do consumers impact a brand, if at all? Why should companies care?
Battle for the mind
In traditional marketing the company designs a brand identity, much akin to a personality, which is transmitted to consumers. This often involves advertising, but also stresses the point of consistency in all aspects. A successful result of this endeavor is a brand image in the mind of consumers, which closely mirrors the personality of the brand. In this school of thought consumers are passive drones, which can be programmed through a battle for the mind.
Consumer culture theory raises the question: Is it really that simple? Consumers appear to be more active, resistant and participatory in their consumption. They are not driven by rational decisions, but by deeper meaning. They no longer consume to live, but to exist. This shifts the aim of consumption from basic needs to identity. Consumption becomes an existential quest, leading to the production of meaning, and ultimately identity. On the small scale a purchase may be considered a minor step, but the grander picture may be a crossing, upon a path, upon a journey, finally leading to the construction of a pyramid!
Where work earlier played a major role in the shaping of identity, consumption has taken the lead. Consumers now flock to the market to shop identities. This allows them to reinforce or develop them, as well as assume temporary identities which can be cast aside. Temporary identities offer consumers a possibility to explore new meanings in their lives.
Consumption of brands is a dance of polarities. At one time the customers play along, and the next they move in opposite directions. Consumers and their relationship to companies are unstable to say the least. They are equally participatory, and rebellious.
Brands are raw materials
Consumption is never simple, as it involves more than merely purchasing. Consumers do not accept prepackaged brand images, as designed by the company. They grapple with them, alter them, add to them, and finally blend them into their lives. They cannot consume a brand, without becoming the brand and the brand becoming them. Brands are raw materials which consumers use to construct their identities. These raw materials are being mixed up with dreams, stories, history, values, meaning, and ideals. In this aspect consumers are producers, as the meaning of a brand is continuously being authored in multiple social contexts.
Companies that pride themselves in the management of their brand have to take on a broader perspective of the consumer. By studying how consumers are using their brands as cultural resources to construct identities, they can learn how to better support them. The larger role a brand plays in the construction of identity, the more valuable it becomes.
Cova, Kozinets, Shankar (2007), Consumer Tribes, Elsevier
Carú, Cova (2007). Consuming Experience, Routledge.