Doing Brand and Subcultural Ethnographies: Developing the Interpretive Community Concept in Consumer Research

Steven M. Kates, Monash University
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - Interpretation of brands and marketing communications has become increasingly problematic in the contemporary commercial environment, largely due to postmodern conditions characterized by an overabundance of available cultural meanings and interpretive perspectives, and the instability of social categories (see Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Firat and Shultz 1997). This problem has implications for segmentation and the positioning of brands, and for the strategic consistency of marketing messages. In response to this question, this article adopts a reader-response perspective. The purposes here are the following: to advance the theoretical constructs of interpretive communities and interpretive strategies; to present conceptual issues relating doing brand and subcultural ethnographies in consumer research; to present some methodological guidance inspired from reader-response theory on doing brand ethnographies; and to demonstrate the usefulness and relevance of interpretive communities and strategies to the theory and practice of consumer research. An interpretive communityBa concept from reader response theory in the humanities (see Fish 1976, 1980; Scott 1994)Bis a cultural formation with a shared social and historical context that delimits the potential of marketing communications (see also Elliott and Ritson 1997). Although the boundaries of interpretive communities may be somewhat fuzzy and overlapping, the fundamental premises of the construct are that members of various audiences have significant connections to their social locations or position and use a broadly similar repertoire of interpretive strategies, and this similarity results in similar interpretations of marketing communications (Elliott and Ritson 1997; Hirschman 1998; Scott 1994). As Hirschman (1998, p. 303) notes, a condition of Abounded diversity@ characterizes interpretive communities as consumers construct individual meanings within the confines of an ideological structure (Radway 1984). In other words, membership in an interpretive community is characterized by structured polysemy that allows for a limited range of readings relevant to the cultural identifications and social positionings of consumers (Hirschman 1998) Interpretive strategies Ainclude the manner of reading, the purpose of reading, the attitude toward the text, and the knowledge the reader may have (or lack) that is brought to the reading experience. Particular reading strategies[are] typical of certain groups [called] 'interpretive communities’@ (Scott 1994, p. 474). Interpretive conventions, as regularities in actions, beliefs, and interpretation, prescribe the actions, beliefs, and interpretive strategies that are the shared way of making sense of marketing communications and brands (Maillox 1982, pp. 10-11). Broadly speaking, consumers belong to the same interpretive community when they use similar interpretive strategies (Scott 1994, p. 474).
[ to cite ]:
Steven M. Kates (2002) ,"Doing Brand and Subcultural Ethnographies: Developing the Interpretive Community Concept in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 43.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Page 43

DOING BRAND AND SUBCULTURAL ETHNOGRAPHIES: DEVELOPING THE INTERPRETIVE COMMUNITY CONCEPT IN CONSUMER RESEARCH

Steven M. Kates, Monash University

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Interpretation of brands and marketing communications has become increasingly problematic in the contemporary commercial environment, largely due to postmodern conditions characterized by an overabundance of available cultural meanings and interpretive perspectives, and the instability of social categories (see Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Firat and Shultz 1997). This problem has implications for segmentation and the positioning of brands, and for the strategic consistency of marketing messages. In response to this question, this article adopts a reader-response perspective. The purposes here are the following: to advance the theoretical constructs of interpretive communities and interpretive strategies; to present conceptual issues relating doing brand and subcultural ethnographies in consumer research; to present some methodological guidance inspired from reader-response theory on doing brand ethnographies; and to demonstrate the usefulness and relevance of interpretive communities and strategies to the theory and practice of consumer research. An interpretive communityBa concept from reader response theory in the humanities (see Fish 1976, 1980; Scott 1994)Bis a cultural formation with a shared social and historical context that delimits the potential of marketing communications (see also Elliott and Ritson 1997). Although the boundaries of interpretive communities may be somewhat fuzzy and overlapping, the fundamental premises of the construct are that members of various audiences have significant connections to their social locations or position and use a broadly similar repertoire of interpretive strategies, and this similarity results in similar interpretations of marketing communications (Elliott and Ritson 1997; Hirschman 1998; Scott 1994). As Hirschman (1998, p. 303) notes, a condition of "bounded diversity" characterizes interpretive communities as consumers construct individual meanings within the confines of an ideological structure (Radway 1984). In other words, membership in an interpretive community is characterized by structured polysemy that allows for a limited range of readings relevant to the cultural identifications and social positionings of consumers (Hirschman 1998) Interpretive strategies "include the manner of reading, the purpose of reading, the attitude toward the text, and the knowledge the reader may have (or lack) that is brought to the reading experience. Particular reading strategies[are] typical of certain groups [called] 'interpretive communities’" (Scott 1994, p. 474). Interpretive conventions, as regularities in actions, beliefs, and interpretation, prescribe the actions, beliefs, and interpretive strategies that are the shared way of making sense of marketing communications and brands (Maillox 1982, pp. 10-11). Broadly speaking, consumers belong to the same interpretive community when they use similar interpretive strategies (Scott 1994, p. 474).

Critically, interpretation of marketing communications follows a discernible cultural logic that can be empirically explored and mapped with the use of interpretive communities and strategies (Holt 1997; Scott 1994). Interpretive communities are distinguished from related conceptsBsubcultures of consumption (Schouten and McAlexander 1995) and brand communities (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001), and it is plausible that both brand communities and subcultures of consumption are composites of fragments of the different interpretive communities. Critically, an attention to the differences among presumably homogeneous subcultures and communities may produce contextually sensitive theory in consumer research that may map the structuring of meaning. The following guidance is offered when ethnographically investigating brand phenomena from an interpretive community perspective: pay attention to local politics relevant to the community in question; understand how brands and marketing communications fit into consumers’ daily lives; be sensitive to emerging differences among informants; understand the ways that brands, products, and marketing communications are ritualized and institutionalized; and learn the tropes that constitute interpretive strategies. Overall, brand ethnographies of social collectivities is essentially an interpretive exercise that involves identifying and unpacking the tropes and practices that characterize the community investigated. Finally, the interpretive community and strategy constructs have important implications for segmentation, positioning, and brand relationships. Specifically, these key marketing constructs may be reconceptualized for the different sociocultural knowledges that existBand the multiple brand meanings that emergeBamong different segments of society. Particularly, one important area of future research is exploring the sociocultural processes such as storytelling that emerged from Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) that connect brands to communities as opposed to individual consumers. Overall, interpretive communities and strategies are useful concepts compatible with the contemporary conceptualization of culture as a complex mTlange of symbols, diverse practices, and hybrids (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Thus, imposing order and making sense from a marketer’s perspectiveBand then strategically managing the brand and communicating to multiple target markets, ethnic groups, and subcultures is greatly enabled by the perspective of this article.

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