Identity in Branding – who is representing who?


The thing I was most constantly challenged with during my anthropology education – from my peers to the professors and actually even myself – was what is the actual value of my branding & marketing knowledge. Talking about branding to a cultural anthropologist is not an easy matter. The difficulty relied not in explaining or understanding what i did but in agreeing that it is a skill and that there is any value in it. I did not expect a cultural anthropologist to challenge the relevance of my job and even more I did not expect to partly agree with some of their critics. And this happened because I believe cultural anthropologists are also branding specialists although from a different perspective.  Of course at the beginning I knew nothing of that – I was the girl that knew of Michel Foucault (one of the fathers of cultural anthropology) by a name association from a fiction book that I had read in highschool (Foucault’s pendulum).

Let me try to explain how I came to this conclusion. In my corporate career, I was always taught that branding represents  a)“crafting” an identity/personality for your product by doing consumer research and a brief to an advertising agency and b) getting your consumers to “believe” in that identity/personality by spending on media or other engagement tactics to have the highest SOV (share of voice) on your positioning among your competitors.

Identity, power and agency are core concepts in cultural anthropology. There are multiple theories that discuss them and even a discipline called material culture that analyses all that from the perspective of the products and their relationship with people. I was told (and showed during my own research) I had no power in creating anything’s identity other than my own (and even that is debatable), that identity is not a fixed concept but constantly changing and that people/consumers make their own mind about products (no matter how much SOV you throw at them).

So what does this mean for me? For a while I was trapped in my own cognitive dissonance. I still believed that brands did had something that you could classify as an identity while at the same time doubting the scale of the influence of branding experts in the process.

Identity, a (social) relationship between representation and perception

The concept of identity is very difficult to explain because of the complexity of its meaning. That is why there is often one-dimensional (incomplete) interpretation of this concept, or a confusion of different terms used to explain the meaning of identity.  However, according to Golubovic the basic meaning of identity refers to where one (a person or a group) belongs, and what is expressed as “self-image” or/and “common-image”, what integrates them inside self or a group existence, and what differentiate them vis-à-vis “others”.  It is, according to Jenkins, a social process of identification of making sense of who we are and who other people are. In simpler terms we (re)define who we are by reflecting it on the social framework around us (other people, objects, structures). In this way identity is a matter of both internal and external definition, negotiable and changeable as with the social framework surrounding us.

If I imagine my identity as being a (social) relationship between how I think of myself and how my social environment reflects that we could expand this to objects and say that an object’s identity is the (social) relationship between how it is being represented by its producer and how its being perceived by its environment (incl. consumers).  The material culture discipline – out of which I would highlight Daniel Miller’s work – explores this relationship in great depth from the perspectives of the key concepts in cultural anthropology: identity, power, agency.  For the purpose of this paper I will not go any further in anthropological theory but start connecting the 2 concepts of representation and perception with the branding discipline.

Current branding theories also defines the discipline through the lens of representation and perception:

  • For producer/product is a mechanism aimed to achieve competitive advantage by helping help them differentiate themselves in front of their consumers: The American Marketing Association (1960) “ Branding is A name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.”(representation)
  • For the consumers is a means to form recognition, association and emotional connection with the product. By accepting “the promise of the bundles of attributes that he buys and provide satisfaction . .” Ambler (1992) and by creating a shared history and ultimately associating human qualities to the product (anthropomorfism/objectification)

It is ultimately about representing the producer and intermediating the relationship between a product and its consumer.

The history of branding, the discipline develops as the (social) relationship between the producer and its consumers transforms

The origin of the word “brand” goes way back to 1553 and it comes from brond = piece of burning wood. It was meant as an “identyfing mark made by a hot iron” to symbolize ownership of cattle.

In the ancient marketplace the brand was the producer. Products were sold out of bins with the branding signs of the producer and they had “small” geographical coverage = meaning they reached their customers via direct interaction. The producer told the story of the product, why he was doing it, his/hers unique technique of producing it and persuaded the consumer to buy it and trust specific benefits. His personality also played a role in the perceptions and emotional associations people made with the product. The product’s identity and the respective (social) relationship was at its most clear and effective state as there were no intermediaries and constructed messages.

The industrial revolution  separated the producer from the consumer through mass production, cheaper transportation, stronger competition and the start of the “packaged goods” society. The brand became the product that – in the absence of the producer – had to transmit a constructed message, to “talk”  through packaging and advertising about its functional benefits. As consumption increased so did the competition between the brands. As similar products were competing for the same consumer the functional message was not enough to differentiate. In the wake of the post WW2 consumerism, driven by the development of television and understanding of anthropomorphism, the constructed message became more complex incorporating emotional features and personality.

In today’s world, over-consumption and internet have pushed the relationship between a producer and its consumers to a new/yet old dimension. New in the sense that over-consumption has lead to a more “blase” attitude towards brands challenging the need for new ones and increasing concerns about the impact products make on the environment. In this context next to function and personality in order to justify their purpose and differentiate brands started to embrace causes. Old, in the sense that Internet has allowed consumers to take back some of the power that they have lost in the packaged good society. It allowed them to challenge the reality of the constructed messages and through digital proximity reinstate a direct relationship between them and the producer that resembles the ancient marketplace.

Branding and the startup mindset

In the ancient marketplace a branding specialist was also a kind of cultural anthropologist. He would have to closely observe the producer to understand what materials to develop that reflected his personality and needs. He was not constructing or manipulating identity – he was projecting the identity of the producer on the materials thus representing the producer. The success/or failure of his representation was based on the direct contact/feedback of the client directly buying and interacting with the producer (as there were no middle men – like media or distribution channels – to obstruct the producer and present constructed imagery.

Any brand, at its beginning starts like that. Imagine a startup with a person with an idea born out of passion and interest, then a product and then a consumer. While the business grows, processes and systems are set in place. People get behind computers and get more risk adverse. They hire more people. They forget how its like to wonder freely about why you do what you do and how your product reflects that. They get inspired with powerpoint and watch consumers behind the glass door of a focus group. They care more about perception than representation. They forget that the brand is a representation of them and together with success (and even without) the brand becomes mass-ified, generic, a representation of a corporate culture connected to its consumers through an infinite number of intermediaries. I believe the brand of today needs to go back to representing its owners. It needs to reconnect to why it does what it does and why people find it useful. It needs to build a culture around that to attract the right people to tell its story.

So coming back to my original point branding much like anthropology is about representation. Like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture trying to represent its identity to the outside word, I believe a branding specialist needs to study the culture of the producer trying to build a brand to represent him to its consumers.

The “dulling” of Amsterdam: a branding & anthropological perspective


When I was first approached to have a contribution on the topic of “the dulling” of Amsterdam, I started thinking about how I can contribute to it from the perspective of my formation: branding and anthropology.

In the Merriam Webster dictionary place dulling is defined as “not exciting or interesting”, “not having a sharp point”. From what perspective can we look at a place like that and what are the mechanisms involved in this perception?  This paper will address this from the point of view of the residents of a place, in the context of the transformation of their space to accommodate tourism. So the structure will cover the following:  Place Identity and the role of residents. Amsterdam and Tourism. Tourism and the Nieuwmarkt. Conclusion and implications on “dulling”.

But before approaching  the dulling of a place as a result of tourism as perceived by its residents I would like to talk about what makes the place what it is (its identity) to its residents and what are its drivers of change. This is connected to the topic of dulling because as a place changes its identity can be perceived – at a certain moment in time – by its residents, duller than it was at a previous moment.

Place identity – an open system of interaction between elements, people and processes

Place identity/image has been addressed in various ways across disciplines.  The political geographer John Agnew (2011) outlines 3 fundamental aspects of a place: 1. Location (the fixed coordinates of a place in space). 2. Locale (meaning the material setting for social relations – the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals) 3. Sense of place. (the subjective and emotional attachment individuals have to place). In marketing there is a similar view seeing place as not only a geographical location with physical attributes but also with settings for social relations, experiences and personal interpretations.

The materiality as one part of the place is manifested through built environment, topography and administrative boundaries and sense of place as another is what creates identification and attachment between the individual and the place. Materiality and sense of place are mutually supporting and both contribute to place identity (Warnaby and Medway 2013). Thus places are complex open systems of interactions between elements, people and processes (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013, Warnaby and Medway’s 2013). This view on places illustrates identity as emergent fluid and changeable (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013) dependable of the interactions between the three.

Let’s look at these interactions from the perspective of people. Residents are only a part of the total number of people of a place. People cover anyone that can claim influence on either the elements or processes of the place – like residents, investors, businesses, visitors.  Place leaves impressions on its people but it also mirrors back their impressions and expectations (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013). This means that the identity of the place to a specific group of people – like the residents – is connected to the level of influence that they have at a certain moment in time over the materiality and the social fabric of the place versus the other groups of people. When the balance changes, the place changes and their image of the place changes with it.

Let’s take tourism as an example. In touristic areas, places start changing to accommodate the (commercial) expectations of the visitors and businesses. This change, if done out of balance, can lead to a higher perception of “dulling” on behalf of the local residents as the place (through both the topography and the social life) reflects more the commercial touristic interests that the interests of the residents. Even done in balance the place nevertheless transforms to include the interests of the tourists and this can be seen as “dulling” if compared to a previous non-touristic place identity.  So my point here is that “dulling” can be a perceived effect of a place identity change/transformation and tourism can be a driver of that transformation. The intensity of the perceived “dulling” has to do with how much the change is driven in a balanced way by residents and tourism.  I want to talk a bit more on how is this relevant to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam and tourism

In recent years one of the strongest challenges in Amsterdam has been how to manage the impact of the   number of tourists on the local residents. In a city of app. 800.000 inhabitants, more than 6.000.000 tourists were estimated to visit in 2013. As the municipality and the business environment try to accommodate them, the residents complain of economic transformations (like new hotels and horeca) of their neighbourhoods that slowly reduce its residential/local function. There is a strong pressure from the residents as well as the media, on the city council and especially on its marketing department (Amsterdam Marketing) to find ways to relieve the tourism pressure on the city, and especially the city center.

Tourism and the Nieuwmarkt

The Nieuwmarkt is a special neighborhood in the center of Amsterdam. First, Nieuwmarkt looks and feels like a “small village” in a highly trafficked touristic central area. Second, it is an icon for the residents’ ability to oppose capitalistic processes – in the 70s, when the city officials, decided to dismantle the neighbourhood and transform it into office spaces and a highway, the residents rioted and managed to alter the plans and keep their neighborhood residential. For these two reasons, I chose it as my fieldwork and hoped to find here the answer to the question: “How the highly involved groups of local inhabitants relate to tourism as a case of change in their neighborhood?”   Many residents I have talked to expressed that the number of tourists is too much for them to handle but they have found ways to fight back. Many of them refer to these actions as “the second fight for the Nieuwmarkt”. Only this time it is not a fight against the municipality but against the tourism industry and local businesses as its economic enablers. In order to answer my research question, I chronicle their actions. I show that although they are disconnected from the wider tourism generating activities they influence the businesses that emerge as a result of those activities and subsequently maintain a local balance in their neighborhood.

I formally interviewed between 50-60 people I also had 10 informal short interviews with tourists around the Nieuwmarkt. To answer my central question: “How the highly involved groups of local inhabitants relate to tourism as a case of change in their neighborhood”, I will argue by joining the current debates surrounding participative marketing, against the empiricist marketing tradition that considers residents consumers with no agency of the product that is the city developed by the city branding/marketing policies. I aim to show that residents do have agency and as a constitutive part of the city develop actions from below. I will do this by using the social world’s arena framework developed by Clarke and Star 2008 as a tool to understand construction of meaning and power dynamics on a social level.

In classic marketing tradition (Simon Anholt Moilanen & Rainisto 2009) residents are seen by local governments as “consumers” of the place they live in, next to businesses and visitors.  The role of residents only as consumers has been challenged both in literature on urban governance (Zenker and Seigis 2012) as well as in place branding, in particular the emergent literature on residents as central participants (Karavatzis 2012, Braun, Katavatzis and Zenker 2013). Residents suffer the effects (like excessive tourism) of place branding initiatives so they should be engaged throughout the process and they should have a higher influencing power that the other groups in articulating and implementing the marketing activities of the place (Karavatzis and Hatch 2013).

Including the residents in the participation process means treating them like citizens with rights to contribute to the marketing activities (Braun, Karavatzis, and Zenker 2013). In a democratic system residents chose their local officials, they have political power and participate in political decision making. This is both an obligation and a right (meaning that authorities need to create the structure for the residents to exercise their right to participate in decision making).

Hitting “the sweet spot” of what is the best participation strategy has proven difficult as places are very complex structures but the key to this dynamic as per Braun, Karavatzis and Zenker (2013) is in the relationship (and specifically how mutually influential it is) that place authority develops with the residents “Arguably, the significance attributed here to residents – and specifically the suggestion to consult them and listen to them at all stages of the branding process – challenges place authorities. It is a very demanding exercise in terms of political will and risk-taking because place authorities may find themselves outside of what Ind and Bjerke (2007) call the “zone of comfort”. Zenker and Erfgen (2014) echo this opinion, stating than when the participatory approach is entering place authorities, some of the power of decision making must be given up and this generates uncomfortable situations, this being one of the reason why participatory measures sometimes fail in implementation.

 Various school of thought in sociology and anthropology argue against the perception that power is located within the state mechanism and people (in this case residents) have no agency to resist the top down decisions (in this case city marketing activities or their effects – like tourism). The social worlds framework is a theoretical and methodological extension of symbolic interactionism developed by Anselm Strauss (1991) and Howard Becker (1986).  According to Clarke and Star (2008 p.115) social worlds are “groups with shared commitments to certain activities, sharing resources of many kinds to achieve their goals and building shared ideologies about how to go about their business”. At the core of the framework of the social worlds are the interactions between the various social worlds that constitute the identification of the social worlds themselves. In the interaction between the social worlds we can observe power and agency being is exerted.

In my research, focusing on the dynamic between the social worlds / groups of residents, businesses and municipality, I tried to show that residents in the Nieuwmarkt do have agency, and as a constitutive part of the city develop actions from below, influencing economic processes triggered by increase in tourism and aiming to change the structure of their neighborhood. They deal with tourism in different ways but the basis for all actions is the participative model of collaboration between the municipality and the residents, as by exercising their agency, they act and are treated as citizens of the neighborhood.

There are some people that use a more “subtle” approach when it comes to dealing with the municipality and the business environment. They use the relationship they have with the municipality as well as the wide network of information gathering that they have set in place (e.g. neighborhood walk, traffic group) to influence policy and business development. The key to their success is that they manage to not openly challenge the legitimacy of either business or municipality but actually collaborate on an equal power position.  Others adopt a more “combative” approach – through protests, petitions – and “everyday resistance” (e.g. discretization of newly open businesses).

I have seen this in action when Betty Blue – the new bakery on Sint Antoniesbreestraat – applied for a horeca license. It was difficult to like the arrival of a new horeca especially in a neighborhood with already enough places and a street of (mostly) social houses despite its future commercial ambitions. It took numerous back and forth discussions between the owners, the residents and the municipality to release the license. Eventually the license was released with a restricted opening time (addressing the concerns of the residents regarding noise) and a restriction of ownership to only this particular group (addressing the concerns of the residents regarding lack of trust in potential future owners). This was the result of a long process in which the residents of the street came together in online and offline groups, writing petitions, attending meetings, taking pictures, thus making sure that the residential function of their street is maintained. Their commitment to the street is likely to also influence  the long term development of Betty Blue as the new owners learn it’s in their interest to include more the residents in their decision making process.

Although they challenge   the business environment (and sometimes the municipality) their resistance is important as it narrows the policy options available, amplifying – in the cases where their interests converge – the more “subtle” work the others are doing, thus leading to stronger effects (like the hotel ban with the SoHo project). By these actions the residents actively influence the tourism related commercial transformation of the area. They are steering the neighborhood into developments (like the closing of the square traffic, the fish market, the ban on more hotels) that maintain the residential function of the area as well as promote commerce that caters to the needs of inhabitants and actively oppose activities that do not (like the Soho Hotel or the Skylight cafe)

Relevance for the “dulling” topic

So, how is this research relevant for my position on the topic of the “dulling” of Amsterdam? I have started this talk by saying that place identity is formed by the interaction of materials, people and processes. As this interaction changes, the identity changes as well as the perception of the people. Like an omelet that changes taste if you keep the same ingredients but you decide to change the ratio of one to another or if you chose to add new elements. As a result for some groups of people “dulling” can appear as a consequence when comparing a previous reality with a current one. It’s still an omelet but with a different taste or composition.

During my research I have seen how residents are actively engaged in maintaining the status quo of their neighborhood, influencing economic changes made as a result of increase in tourism.  They manage to influence certain processes because of two reasons: they invest a lot of time and energy into understanding the processes and trying to influence and the municipality offers them the platform for participation. This participation strategy is a reflection of the result of the 70’s riots (that in some way was generated by the city looking at residents as consumers and reducing their role as citizens) and the acknowledgment of both municipality and residents that they need to work together with a stronger participation model.

Even in this case the neighborhood is still changing although with a lower speed that its neighbors. There are more horeca than necessary, bars, souvenir shops, Airbnb, gentrification, effects of the reality of living in a highly attractive touristic city center. For the residents that have been here for 30-40 years this is not the same neighborhood.  Nevertheless by actively influencing the decision making process they still have a say to where the neighborhood is going. But this say is representative of the weight they now have in the group of people that live and work in the Nieuwmarkt. It’s still an omelet but the new taste reflects the new ingredients.