Special Session Summary Interpretive Brand Theory


Soren Askegaard (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Interpretive Brand Theory", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 49-52.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 49-52



Soren Askegaard, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark


Recently, commenting on the tragic events on Sept. 11 2001, the American sociologist Benjamin Barber claimed that what was really hit by the airplanes were two of the most influential and powerful brands of America, the trade domination brand (WTC) and the military domination brand (Pentagon). And he even predicted that the next target could very well be Disneyland as the most significant American cultural brand. Without arguing whether one can rightfully call all these places "brands", the usage of the brand metaphor suggests its central position in contemporary thinking. This session consists of theoretical and partially empirical explorations of the phenomenon of brands in contemporary society.

Since Sidney Levy’s seminal article from 1959 "Symbols for Sale", we have become accustomed to think of consumption as a highly symbolic domain through which consumers continuously construct, discover, and alter their selves and identities. With the interpretive turn within consumer behaviour theory in the early 1980s, this perspective has gradually become if not mainstream then at least "normal science." Numerous articles and studies have sought to conceptualize the relationship between consumers and commercial symbols, most notably brands, implying typically that such symbols play a significant role in the process of constituting and unfolding people’s lives. Thus, few researchers of today would challenge the observation that consumers buy symbols along with their products and that such symbols sometimes are more important to the consumer than the product itself.

Brands have arguably become some of the strongest carriers of product meaning. Still, brand research has been notably absent from the interpretive consumer research scene until recently. The work of, e.g., Fournier (1998), Ligas and Cotte (1999) and Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) has brought brands back into the focus of interpretive consumer research, shedding new light on personal and community aspects of brand relationships and meanings. And for good reasons. Brands are becoming a focal point for discussions of the social, economic and cultural role of marketing, both locally and globally as well as within and outside the marketing field. The public confrontation of NoLogo (Klein, 1999) and ProLogo positions underlines the depth and scope of this debate in the current globalizing market.

This session aims at challenging conventional concepts of brands and exploring their meaning and significance for identity formation. The three contributions probe notions and roles of brands at different levels, ranging from the most personal and literal uses of branding, via a more abstract and conceptual approach to an analysis of brands in global and macro-institutional contexts. Anders Bengtsson and Dannie Kjeldgaard investigate the phenomenon of "auto-branding", the practice of people literally branding themselves using brand symbols as body ornamentation. These extreme cases of the application of brand techniques represent a paradoxical mixture of commitment to and appropriation of brands. In the second contribution, Fabian F. Csaba reflects on the relationship between metaphor and brand. The reference of the term branding to the marking of livestock with a burning iron is used to suggest the centrality of metaphorical abstractions in our understanding of brands and branding. Drawing on contemporary theories of metaphor, Csaba demonstrates how the metaphor permeates branding in both theory and practice, and argues for a more systematic analysis of the way metaphors inform our concept of brands. Askegaard looks at the brand as one of the most significant metaphors, a carrier of meaning and a structuring device in a global marketplace. Drawing on Appadurai’s (1990) notions of mediascape and ideoscape, contemporary social theory is used to argue for the centrality of the brand in understanding contemporary reflexive subjects, be it individuals or organizations. The points made will be exemplified by the process of branding of yoga in a Nepalese context.

In general, the session will be of interest to all consumer researchers interest in brands and brand theorizing, especially from an interpretive perspective. The session adds to the well-established theory domain of brand equity by adding theoretical perspectives from sociology, communication theory and globalization.



Anders Bengtsson, Lund University

Dannie Kjeldgaard, SDUBOdense University

This presentation examines the use of brand names in body expression such as tattooing, scaring, branding, and shaving. Within consumer research, it is a widely received view that brands and consumer goods enter into the construction and display of self-identity (e.g. Arnould and Price 2000; Fournier 1998). Prior research has solely focused on the consumption of branded consumer goods, i.e. objects external to the consumer. However, the use of brand symbols in body expressions (as examples given by Velliquette, Murray, and Creyer 1998) provides instances of more permanent and deliberate brand consumption and expression of self-identity. Furthermore, the use of brand symbols in body expressions illustrates how consumers take brands to new contexts; attaching a signifier to a new signified as it were (cf. Ritson 1999). In this way, the brands that are used in body expressions enter into a more or less permanent display and articulation of self-identity.

In the late modern age it has been claimed that individual identities have become reflexive articulations of imagind biographies (Giddens 1991). As such, identities have become fluid in that there is a constant rearticulation taking place. Bauman (2001) goes as far as claiming that the identity strategy of today is less about committing oneself to one identity than it is about keeping possibilities for identity change open. We find it paradoxical that while body expression on the one hand is part of a reflexive identity negotiation, it is on the other hand characterized by a higher degree of permanence and hence something that closes off the possibilities for identity change. It has been suggested, however, that body expressions are attempts to anchor self identity and thus obtain some stability in contemporary consumer culture (Sweetman 2000). Even though the physical evidence of a body expression is more persistent, it may be argued that the meaning of it can be reinterpreted by the consumer and his or her surroundings, making it less permanent in terms of its symbolic meaning. The meaning of a brand is negotiated in a social context (such as family, friends and brand communities) as well as in relation to the individual’s life project (Ligas and Cotte 1999). But with regards to brands there is also a marketing discourse involved. Therefore, brands whose legal owners seek to strategically manage the meaning of the brand, are symbols with a more controlled association base than other imagery used in body expression. The meaning of a brand can be subject to unexpected change; for instance, a brand can suddenly be repositioned and become loaded with undesired meanings and associations making it less powerful of expressing a certain self-identity. When using brands in body expression the consumer thereby leaves part of the power to construct the meaning to the whims of marketing strategies.

In this presentation we will focus on the motives for consumers’ choice of imagery for modification of bodies in general and the use of brands in particular. Specifically, we will address the negotiation of meaning for branded body expression, by individual consumers as well as within communities of body expression, thus looking at dimensions of both "authenticating acts" as well as "authoritative performances" (Arnould and Price 2000).

The study will be based on data collected work among producers as well as consumers of body expressions using qualitative methods. Among the latter group, we will include both non-brand name consumers as well as users of brand names in order to elicit the cultural meaning of the use of commercial symbols in bodily expressions.



Fabian F. Csaba, Bilkent University, Ankara

The reference of the term #branding’ to the marking of livestock with burning irons suggests that the use of metaphor is deep-rooted and inescapable element in modern brand management. This paper will pursue this analogy and discuss the role of metaphors in brands and branding in theory and practice. Linguists point out that metaphors and related tropes are ubiquitous in everyday use of language as well as public speech, literature, poetry and even scientific writing (Tilley 1999). Because of their omnipresence, we tend to overlook the role and uses of metaphors. I argue that the processes whereby brands are invested with meaning and value are essentially metaphorical. Drawing on contemporary theory of metaphors, I first elaborate on the fundamental part metaphoric processes play in branding. Generally, metaphor involves comprehending some entity from the point of view, or perspective, of another. It is closely related to metonymy and its special case synecdoche, which involve a move from a part to a whole. (Tilley 1999). Fernandez (1986) defines metaphor as #a strategic predications upon inchoate pronoun’. If we regard the pronoun as an #it’ referring to a product or organization, this definition seems to convey what branding essentially is about: Inviting similarities and associations that proclaim or assert certain qualities, attributes, or properties about an oganization or its products. The use of metaphor is applied through verbal means in brand names, slogans and advertising copy, but arguably works identically in nonverbal brand communication devices, including logos, symbols, designs and styles. Metaphor is effective in brand communication for a variety of reasons. They provide ways of giving form to ideas and descriptions virtually impossible in a literal language (Tilley 1999). They stretch our imagination and produce insights resonating with embodied human experience (Lakoff and Johnson 1999). The metaphor often provides the simplest and most parsimonious means of communication between socialized individuals in the same culture (Tilley 1999). They are able to create vivid and memorable images, which obviously is crucial for branding.

Morgan (1997) suggests that metaphors imply ways of seeing and ways of thinking. This applies to the ways companies and consumers see and think about brands (brand identities and images), but also to how we theorize brands and branding. The pervasive and essential role of metaphor in branding is echoed but rarely explicitly addressed in work on brands and brand management. Brands are likened to icebergs (de Chernatony 2001), capitals/heads of a company (Kapferer 2001), battle ships and mental boxes (Aaker 1996), persons/relationship partners (Fournier 1998) and aggressive brand companies as bullies (Klein 1999). While many writers employ rich metaphorical figures in conceptualizing brands and suggesting paths for building, managing andBin another genreBresisting brands, few think systematically about the role of metaphor in branding or dwell on the aptness or limitations of the metaphors they make use of in their accounts of brands. I explore a range of the figures that are invoked to characterize brands and explain their properties, and identify and assess a series of recurring tropes of brands (antromorphisms, icons, the-thing-itself, and extensions of organization), that serve as #root metaphors’ and are used to structure comprehensive analysis of brands.

Acknowledging the ways metaphorical processes are at work in branding and writing on brands might advance our thinking about the nature and possibilities of brands and the functions they play for organizations, consumers and society.



S°ren Askegaard, SDU Odense University

Consumer research in brands has a long tradition starting with Gardner and Levy¦s (1955) paper "The Product and the Brand". In spite of Gardner and Levy’s clear emphasis that a brand primarily is "a public image", this aspect of the brand has been is neglected by the research in brands. Instead, managerial approaches have been predominant in brand consumption research. Nor has there, traditionally been a lot of research in the role of brands on a global scale from a consumer research perspective. Either the literature has been managerially oriented in the search for global branding opportunities in the tradition after Levitt (1983). Or, as witnessed by the growing bulk of research in globalizing consumer culture, it has largely focused on consumption and consumer culture generally (e.g.,Ger & Belk, 1996) without a specific focus on particular brands.

In recent years there have been indications of a growing interest for understanding how brands function, both at a macro and a micro level (e.g., Fournier 1998). What characterizes this research is that the brand is not placed in a global cultural context. The brand remains a neutral element without specific importance to the global development. The brand and the consumption of it, however, are not culturally neutral. When transnational companies implement brands in a cultural context this have great consequences for the cultural development. Ritzer (1993, 1999) has shown how the diffusion of McDonald’s burger chain has had fundamental consequences for the American society as the connected processes of rationalizations, calculation, control and predictability fundamentally has changed the Americans’ food cuture. In a follow-up volume, Ritzer (1998) argue for this development also encompasses a number of other cultural institutions (the women’s role, the dinner table as rallying ground, the understanding of work). Whereas Smart’s (1999) critical analysis seeks to provide guidelines for a resistance against the cultural changes caused by "McDonaldization". The example shows how a single brand can influence and change basic cultural institutions.

Although many dispute Ritzer’s thesis, there is no doubt that his topic, commercial rationalization processes, is central to the issue of globalization. The process of globalization has been described as a compression of time and space where geographical space or landscape relatively looses its meaning compared to other structured "landscapes". A number of social processes become more and more independent of national boarders. Some of the most essential new structurations are the symbolic universes that consist of the global "mediascapes" and the global "ideoscapes" as Appadurai (1990) has labeled them. The global brands and their meaning universes constitute central elements in these mediated messages through their representations of central ideas about "the good life" initiating new value systems and meassures. The question is to what extent these global brands also initiate new "trans-national" communities (Beck, 2000), and what kind of bonding the common reference to global brands provides. Global brands are not absorbed in local consumer cultural contexts through processes of direct copying and imitation of their cultures of origin, neither in transitional societies (e.g. Wilk 1998), nor in other developed consumer societies. (Miller, 1995). Thus globalization is not synonymous with homogenization, but maybe rather a plurality of consumption forms that exist more or less parallel in the different contexts.

This process of dissolution of traditional consumer cultures in a global fragmentation (Firat 1997) of national cultural references (e.g. the presence of similar ethnic restaurants in the world’s metropolitan areas) and global brands added one or more drops of "Americana" (McDonalds, Coca-Cola,...) or "Europeana" (Paris-Milan-London when it comes to a number of luxury brands). Thus there is in each brand a built-in cultural reference that refers to an origin, even for "global" brands. But this place of origin will co-exist in each consumer’s life with a large number of other potential spatial references. Hence, it is reasonable to recognize that modern consumer culture has multiple layers of references.

Brands are thus complex in their meaning formation. Nevertheless, this paper argues that brands are among the most significant ideoscapes in the globalization processes. It is a central metaphor for understanding marketplace actor practices in the positioning game of modern identity formation. Consequently and finally, just as is the case on the individual level (cf. Bengtsson & Kjeldgaard above), a long range of collective social practices and reflections concerning identity formation are based on brands as vehicles in "authenticating acts and authoritative performances" (Arnould & Price, 2000)

Such process are evident in the development of yoga in Nepal, where the embracing of yoga by Western consumers inside and (especially) outside Nepal has changed the local imagery attached to this ancient cultural practice. It is argued that yoga has developed from a taken-for-granted aspect of cultural practices into a reflexive activity and, as such, a consumer choice. The process of branding may help to illustrate this development, and to provide some empirical evidence for the impact of globalization processes in third world consumption spheres.


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Soren Askegaard, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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