In the minds of many running businesses, particularly those related to luxury and fashion goods, brand choices are driven by what we make. Wealth equates to capital. And there is some truth in that, but there is more to capital than Dollars, Euros and Yen. There is social capital, cultural capital, psychic capital. The general presumption is that the increasing shift towards brands, as opposed to a focus purely on goods, reflects our culture’s assumed obsession with displays of wealth and status. The bigger the name brand, the more you can afford and the more you want to show that wealth off. Indeed, there is some truth to that notion, but it’s not a simple as it seems. First, a little history.
The rapid rise in importance of brands in the 80’s coincided with a social and political landscape at odds with the counter-culture movements defined, in large part, by a questioning of wealth for its own sake. Punks carried this over starting in the 1970s. Antiestablishment rhetoric and symbolism became ingrained in pop culture, but there was a response to it. Amongst what would come to be termed “Yuppies” brands had the capacity to signal power and economic clout. So began a reversal of the previous two decades.
The catch was that in a postmodern world where brands could be used to signal identity and affiliation with a host of cultural sub-groups, brands began to be associated with lifestyles as much as wealth. Doc Marten’s were symbolically repurposed by punks and took on a meaning unrelated to the display of wealth. As another example, Benetton began a series of advertising campaign that demonstrated an understanding a growing number of their consumers were gravitating toward brands which aligned with their social and political beliefs. While Doc Martens were appropriated by several subcultures, Benetton redirected their brand image and message to reflect a specific worldview.
The rise of the lifestyle parallels the rise of social fragmentation and communication breakdown which lies at the heart of our postmodern condition. While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, undefined and unstructured mass where identity is more problematic. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do.
What brand today do is signal systems that reflect personal values and objectives. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature. It provides a messaging tactic for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes. He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs.
That means thinking beyond economic clusters and age cohorts. It means learning what a brand says in a range of contexts and thinking about its value to the consumer on a cultural and social level that is often fluid. It means thinking about what current and potential consumers wish to say about themselves in a given cultural context, rather than reducing them to a pile of statistics.