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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *