Managing Brand Meanings – An Anthropological Perspective

futurelab default header

by: Idris Mootee

The idea
that a group of people is more likely to socialize is based on the idea that
they use the same brand of product that has always been around. Whether they
are a group of Porsche owners meeting every Sunday morning or Mary Kay parties
every Thursday night, here I call them customer communities. Today it exists in
a virtually connected world and this is where “branding” intersects
with “social networks”.

community members place special emphasis on certain types of consumption as
part of a celebration, ritual, or tradition. These brands have certain communal
elements. Schouten and McAlexander’s ethnographic study of new bikers uncovered
a subculture of consumption involving Harley motorcycle riders. Their work
shows how Harley riders derive an important part of their understanding of the
brand from the connection they share with one another. Yet, this understanding
goes much further, to an actual way of life, or what they properly call

These kinds
of subcultures have a lot of similarities with brand communities (shared ethos,
status hierarchies etc.), but important differences as well. The same can be
applied to Apple users, BMW lovers or simple those who are carrying a “I’m
not a plastic bag” bag.

Brands such
as Starbucks, Harley Davidson, Apple, Prada, Mario (Nintendo), Rolex and Oprah
are so powerful in comparison to a religious icon, around which an entire
ideology of consumption is developed and articulated around. Professor Holt’s
(Harvard) work applies a structuralist analysis that describes a brand with a
socially fixed meaning. Consumers see brand communities having an active
interpretive function, with brand meanings being socially negotiated, rather
than delivered unaltered and to from context to context, consumer to consumer.
This is very interesting when you start thinking about what’s going on in
Facebook or MySpace.

networks represent a relatively new form of customer community. They are
communities bound together most frequently by shared interests, such passion or
share meanings. Even online, there are rituals and traditions typically center
on shared experiences (not necessarily consumption) with the brand or multiple
brands. My observations are that the majority of all brand communities
encountered some form of ritual or tradition. Through these rituals come “meanings”
and these “meanings” are what different a true brand that stands for
something versus a brand that is being known across the world or being used but
do not go beyond their utility. It was interesting reading on the thread today
on global brands when Bart and others were debating the difference between
Twitter, Facebook and the Coca Cola and Nike of the world. Hope this
provides some context.