Developing Brand Literacy Among Affluent Chinese Consumers: a Semiotic Perspective

Laura Oswald, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
In this paper, I focus on a form of consumer acculturation I call “brand literacy,” e.g. the ability of consumers in emerging markets to acquire and manipulate the codes structuring brand meaning as it is communicated in advertising signs and symbols, retail spaces, and packaging. I base this theoretical inquiry on early stage findings from an ethnography of affluent consumers in Shanghai (2007-2008). Findings suggest that Chinese consumers purchase luxury goods such as watches, bags, and cosmetics, without tapping into the deep, emotional, and imaginary worlds that create value for European luxury brands. Respondents in Shanghai tended to collapse brand distinctions into a somewhat generic association of all luxury brands with high price, status, and distinction. They claimed that luxury purchases did not express their own personalities, and that luxury advertising fell short of helping them personalize their brands. I contend that acquiring the rather sophisticated codes necessary to read and integrate brand discourses resembles language learning, because brand literacy, like language acquisition, is structured by cultural codes and follows specific stages of acquisition. I develop a structural semiotics approach to brand “literacy,” and suggest ways that advertising may contribute to this type of acculturation process.
[ to cite ]:
Laura Oswald (2010) ,"Developing Brand Literacy Among Affluent Chinese Consumers: a Semiotic Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 37, eds. Margaret C. Campbell, Jeff Inman, and Rik Pieters, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 413-419 .