Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Language of Brands

In a previous post I threw out some ideas about the unique ways in which Millennials interact with brands. Among other things I said, that “[Millennials] are fluent in brands. We know the symbols, their messages, and the communities associated with them.” The basic assumption here being that our culture has adopted the language of brands. And, I thought I should go into more depth about what I think that means.

Our world as we know it is constructed with symbols. The theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke described human beings as “symbol-using animals.” Or, as he later concedes in his chapter, “Definition of Man,” perhaps more accurately we should add “symbol-making, and symbol-misusing,” as well. From simple mathematics where x represents an unknown quantity to more complex symbols intrinsic to our culture, they are by nature devices of substitution and abbreviation.

These ideas fit well with the conceptualization of memory as an “associative network” of nodes, as described by Kevin Lane Keller. This theory describes how meaning attaches to symbols – explaining that each symbol we encounter has a specific memory node in our brain, and connected to this node, with varying degrees of strength, are other nodes (or sets of nodes) that together contribute to our understanding of the central symbol node. And, Keller argues, branding is about connecting symbols and meaning to products and services. Thus, just like all other symbols, in memory a brand would have a “brand node” with a web of associated nodes linked to it, that in turn add to its meaning.

This begs the question then, with brands as numerous and pervasive as they have become in the 21st century, to what extent do we use this sophisticated symbol set of brands to communicate and create meaning? And further, is this a good or a bad thing?

While I shudder at first to think that Coke and Pepsi may have just as much meaning to me as Starry Night, it seems almost undeniable. And, I have to wonder about the impact of this on culture at large. When Andy Warhol created his Campbell’s Soup series it was said that he elevated “vulgar” pop culture to art. Yet, of this series Warhol said, “I wanted to paint nothing... and the soup can was it.” So was pop-culture art or not then? Did it have value or not? As the Campbell brand was a corporate construction to sell a product and therefore without any "real" meaning behind it - soup is pretty much soup -I'd say he was arguing the latter.

Beyond this, Sarah Nardi asks, “How much of the burden of responsibility are we [the audience] willing to bear? Do we see a soup can or do we want to see a meditation on nihilism?” (Ad Busters Nov/Dec 2008). Are we drowning in a soup of manufactured culture that is at its core meaningless – as Esquire’s famous cover might suggest – or can we see the soup as something of value because regardless it still means something to us?

It seems to me that we are seldom willing to bear the burden of finding meaning, but we are certainly open to being told. With Campbell’s, a meaning that we generally accept has been deliberately constructed for the brand. For many, Campbell Soup does not represent “nothing,” (as perhaps it should?), but something very real, and with very real experiences and emotions attached to it.

Therefore, I would argue that, while fundamentally brands stand for nothing and are without truth (because they were constructed to be facades), today we the consumers are causing this to become less and less true. Because brands are so pervasive, so numerous and their messages so well developed, we are able to attribute real meaning to them and use them as a means of communication. We have taken the ball and we ran with it. That is to say, we have adopted the language of brands, and speak it fluently.

Today, brands are part of our cognitive lexicon. But further, as with media fragmentation, where there might be a TV show, cable channel, magazines etc. all for a very specific subject (i.e. Golf), brand variety and “fragmentation” has provided a rich assortment of brands, each with specific messages and associations. As a result, there are brands that stand for just about everything from establishment to antidisestablishmentarianism! So, you might ask, does this mean there is a brand for me then?

Maybe. When we associate with a brand, we project its associations onto ourselves. And, with multiple brands there is the ability to layer this meaning. As the composers of our image, we consciously and unconsciously choose brand combinations (or layers, or webs of associations) that together contribute to a “more unique” image that expresses our personal identity, shaping how other people perceive us.

Further, because we are actively engaged in using the symbol set of brands to communicate identity, we now also share in the process of creating and shaping the meaning of the brands themselves. With the advent of new media/ social media, constructing meaning has become increasingly a two way process. Because we have communities centered around brands, as their identity evolves so does the brands. Skittle’s most recent stunt might be a perfect example of how brands are increasingly allowing their communities and new media to define them.

There is certainly more to write about this, and even the points I touched on above demand a more thorough evaluation. However, the conclusion I hope to write is about how: what brands have become, the way people use symbols and the advent of technology are all combining to change how we communicate.