Brands, Consumption, Identity and Fluidity

Consumption is a social phenomenon. It occurs within contextual frame involving a complex interplay between individual and society. Fundamental to the existence and perpetuation of a society is presence of some kind of relationship governing mechanisms. One such mechanism is segregations of people based on some principles. It is common find categorization based on age, income, gender, religion, and caste. Inherent to these categories is power and role structure. Groups exert pressure on their members to conform to a universalized conduct which also include consumption norms. Brands that deviate from the cultural impositions are met with resistance (consider women dress code and choice in Arab nations).  The beliefs, values, attitudes, ideas, roles are culturally determined which in a way prescribe ‘right way’ of being and doing.

Who you are is defined by the group you belong to. This imposes a perimeter within which your consumption/ behavior can move about (e.g. women must adhere to a dress code, officers must wear dipped in starch clothes, young should avoid ‘hot’ food, marry within community). Consumption in such situations takes place within an overall framework imposed upon an individual by the group.  Groups attain stability by regimenting individual behavior. Identity is an imposition rather than a choice. The choice of an individual to experiment with alternative selves depends upon power and cohesion of the group. But with the emergence of new networked and interconnected world a cultural assimilation seem to be taking place. Isolation is a thing of past. Many people criticize this development as cultural imperialism. Physical movement and exposure to alternative ways of existence have empowering effect. Who you are is becoming a matter of choice rather than imposition. It is not only about psychological choice; even the biological self can be bought (gender choice). One of the important questions here is whether consumption is identity determined or vice versa.

What is the role of brands and branding in such a fluid situation? How does this psycho-social experimentation influence branding practice? One such effect has been transformation of physical products into inhabitants of psychological space. As people move beyond their physiology to fashioning their psychological construction in identity search process, consumption is systematically distanced from its primary utility centricity. Brands are now new tools of identity creation and signification. Products are now more about what they mean than what they do. The identity creation project of target customers dictates their mandate. Consider how Lacto calamine ad is more about the user rather than the product, (a girl who forces the driver to reverse the bus so that old waiting couple who could not run could board in). Brands are identity creating tools. Who you are can be played around with by plugging in the symbolic capital that they embody and make available.

Who you are implies who you are similar to and who you are different from.  With the identity becoming fluid tensions seem to be simmering between established and the emergent structure. New groups and coalitions are beginning to challenge the power and legitimacy of old groups. The ideas and ideologies have come under greater scrutiny, the wisdom of which stands challenged.   A friction is  between  traditional-liberal is palpable; women are rebelling against the prevalent mould and seeking greater gender equality; people with alternate sexual orientation want  recognition; youth ‘you only live once’ orientation is militating against the age old mindset. All this is symptomatic of cracks in the established identity structures and new ones are knocking to make an appearance.

Differentiation/distancing: Brands is such a situation accord opportunities to identity creation (you are what you have- brand transfers a meaning to its user). Brands achieve this by a process of differentiation/ distancing and affiliating. At the centre of Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption sat drives with a certain class of people differentiate/ distance themselves from others. And this distancing was achieved on the basis of consumption. Certain products and practices are employed to ‘mark’ a class different from others. Is classical music or opera or art appreciation are new devices of distinction? In a city like Delhi when Jaguar ownership ceases accord differentiation, people move to a different category of prestige signifiers- e.g.  What you listen to while driving. Your choice of albums is indicator of exclusivity.  With the emergence of new economically entitled category of distinction marker is shifting. Theme restaurants, clubs, holiday, music, sport and education are used to achieve exclusion. Some of the iconic structure challenging and identity defining products has been bikini, rap music, contraceptives, and jeans.

Affiliating/ belonging: Unlike building identity based on rejection, often people are motivated to maintain their allegiance to an identity group. People with socialistic leanings wear Che Guevara hair style and Lenin beard to communicate affiliation to their political ideology. Consider people wanting to maintain and perpetuate relationship in Apple or Harley Davidson owners group. Here adherence to consumption codes, rites and rituals is essential to acquire identity from the group. In the world of crime Yakuza syndicate expect their members to strictly follow group’s code, rite and rituals. This is also true for tantra/ occult groups. Brands/commodities sometimes develop such strong linkages that they become symbolic icons of a particular group (guitar, tattoo, hair style, and hat). They appropriate some ideology and thereby become reservoir of cultural capital open to be tapped by anyone seeking identity transformation. For instance leather jackets signify Harley culture and body tattooing is about human transformation in to a yakuza.

It is worth pondering how people continually engage in brand acquisition and abandonment in their bid to weave a narrative about themselves.   

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