Burhan Wani, Protests, Brand Identification and Battle of Ideas

Some of the headlines in the news media reported the situation of Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani as the following:

  • ‘Kashmir on edge as Wani buried’ (The Hindustan times)
  • ‘Kashmir on boil after face of new militancy, Burhan Wani, is shot dead’ (The Indian Express)
  • ‘15 Dead, 200 injured In Clashes After Terrorist Burhan Wani’s Killing In Kashmir’ (NDTV)
  • ‘Kashmir tense after Hizbul leader Burhan Wani’s killing, Amarnath yatra suspended’ (The Times of India)
  • ‘12 dead, scores injured as Kashmir boils over killing of militant Burhan’ (Deccan Chronical)

This piece I write purely from the marketing and branding perspective without any intention to glorify terrorism or judge military action.

The reported outcry over the killing of Burhan Wani purely from branding angle shows that he was outward concrete manifestation of an idea brand which was very strong brand within his constituency or target market.  The must have enjoyed phenomenal resonance and relationship.  His elimination has sparked off unrest and violent protests in Kashmir. These protests imply some of kind of breach or violation within his constituency.  In the literature on branding one example that comes very close to this is that of withdrawal of Coke in mid eighties. This action of the Company was met with violent protests and outburst of public anger.

Most of us easily relate with brand of goods (Lux or Luxor) or service (Visa or City). But then there are brands which operate as idea or ideological level. For instance, PM Modi became the face of an idea brand at the core of which sat the proposition of ‘development’ extended with strands like ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and ‘subka saath sab ka vikas’.  Donald Trump is contesting his election of the idea of ‘Make America great again’. The human existence is not merely about physical survival. It extends beyond the realm of physics into imagination. Often the quest for meaning is much stronger and powerful than the quest for things.  Donald Trump’s campaign lowers an idea deep into multilayered consciousness of Americans to activate desire for a mythical greatness. After all we all are creatures of body and mind.

We have all been through the childhood stage and cried over a lost toy.  It is the nature of post loss reaction which shows nature of bond or connection.  It is violation of this bond that evokes reaction.  When a loss can be perfectly matched with a new replacement, the outcry is lesser. However when a loss does not have perfect replacement it is likely to create violent protest. The physical objects have perfect replacements but when something physical is extends into becoming an idea, the replacement is harder to find. A doll can be replaced because they are mass produced but if a child has made emotional investment in a doll, it becomes unique.  Now it extends to become a friend, companion, mother, teacher or sibling.

Brands often forge links connections become attractive by the process of identification.  The consumer identifies or links with what the brand stands for and willingly creates a relationship.  It is the sense of oneness or unity with the brand idea which plays out in this regard.  So Burhan Wani may have enjoyed liking based on his appearance. But it is superficial basis of connection. At the heart of the protests lay the deeper connection with the idea that he symbolized.  Like physical products can be eliminated but idea can sustain longer. Like Lifebuoy or Lux’s products keep evolving but the resonating idea remained constant. Similarly new physical symbols would keep emerging in Kashmir’s context if the idea continues to find resonance with its people.  In the battle of ideas, it is only the ideas that can win. Its time that a double tiered strategy is adopted.

Luxury, Merc A Class, and Class & Mass Dichotomy

A recent news item in The Economic Times began with words, ‘Mercedes Benz launched its ‘A Class’ luxury hatchback in India…to competitive luxury car market.  The new Merc A Class is a compact car priced between Rs 21.93 lakh and Rs 22.73 lakh. The car is meant to target the affluent youth.  Mercedes Benz expects to sell about 100-150 units of A Class in a month.

Luxury is a complex phenomenon. Luxury brands create and command value disproportionate to good or service (embedded functionality) that they sell. In this regard high price is both an indicator and ingredient of luxury brands. This means luxury and low price are mutually exclusive. The exclusiveness and prestige on the socio-psychological plane is to a great extent is created by a price meant to exclude majority. Therefore exclusion by creating barriers to reach (un-affordability) and access (distribution) are crucial aspects of luxury brand building. Luxury brands thrive on the paradigmatic opposition between ‘class’ and ‘mass’; ‘function’ and ‘aesthetic’ and ‘form and content’. This dichotomy is essential to luxury brand building. Luxury branding is about adding layers meaning in disguise aimed to make an impact without saying anything. The purveyors of luxury therefore refrain from using verbal communication. They talk through a language comprised of symbols and signs.

The paradigmatic opposition between luxury and non-luxury stems from certain codes that set them apart: conspicuous value, uniqueness, hedonistic pleasure and quality. (1) The conspicuousness or visibility value originates from a brand’s ability to signal status wealth associated with a class (Veblen’s conspicuous consumption).  Luxury brands act as class markers.  For instance the one who drives a Rolls Royce belongs to top layer of economic hierarchy. (2) Scarcity and rarity of something endows it with uniqueness accordingly especially commissioned to master makers of jewelry, watches and carpets. This fits with human desire for uniqueness. (3) Luxury brands serve human needs to experience a certain affective states. The pleasure/ joy of indulgence in a luxury brand derived from tradition, heritage and authenticity. The sheer feel and joy of sporting a Cartier necklace or a Tiffany ring is unparalleled. Finally, quality and workmanship is essential building block for luxury brands. It is a sine qua non. Both Mercedes and BMW have lot to their credit in perfecting quality of automobile. BMW for a long period of time positioned their brand as the ‘ultimate driving machine’. This campaign has now been taken to a higher level and BMW now promises its owners an unmatched ‘joy’ / ‘pleasure’ (hedonic benefit) of driving.

The launch of Merc A class at a price point which puts the brand within the reach of a larger set of potential customers makes perfect sense considering the share objectives.  But many non-luxury companies like Hyundai and Toyota have cars which are priced higher than entry level Mercedes. This intersecting point presents an interesting dilemma for a potential car buyer. The purchase motivation beyond a certain price band is governed predominantly by symbolic considerations. The buyer ‘cross over’ so achieved by this strategy is likely certainly likely to expand the brand ownership. But fundamental question that needs to be addressed the psychographic fit of this customer segment with the target segment. 

  • Luxury is a two way street.  Brands develop their sign value from cultural resource located in the form of prestige groups within a society.  The highly selective brand owner group and its lifestyle feed back into the symbolism of luxury brands.  A large part of its symbolism is based on ‘how a brand is used’ (how a car is driven by a new money and old money) – which represents intangible core of the brands. It is this intangible core which holds a lure for luxury buying customers who seek non-material cultural transformation. Mercedes A Class prima facie violates many luxury codes. The lure of market share is genuine but it can potentially be a mirage.

 

Arbitrariness, desires and different levels of brand meaning

We use language to express our ideas and thoughts. But language is not the only way of expression.  Both verbal expressions and visual images belong to a sign system by which meanings are conveyed and made.  Ferdinand de Sausssure and Charles S Peirce explored the areas of signs and called their approach as ‘semiology’ and ‘semiotics’.  Sign, which comes from Greek word ‘semeion ‘sits at the centre of semiotic theory. People use language to express their concepts and ideas, in a consumerist society, products and brands operate as a system of signs.  Brands and products are signs that we surround ourselves with to send out messages to others.  Brands are valuable for their instrumentality in consumer identity creation and expression. A consumer’s body is like a piece of real estate on which products and logos situate themselves. A lot can be deciphered from the overall constellation of brands that a person transforms himself into.  Brands in this scheme of things need stand for something more than the product or service they envelop. They need to enter in the realm of semiotics or science of signs to achieve value transformation.

There are two aspects of a sign: the signifier (gold) and the signified (concept-precious).  The meaning is interpreted by people as is determined by cultural code. So the term ‘gold’ is immediately linked with ‘precious/costly’ according to cultural norms and values.  It is through the enculturation and socialization process we learnt what to associate with a given signifier.  These codes are essential to interpret everything that we are surrounded by. But the relationship between the sign and signified is not intrinsic rather it is arbitrary (Saussure). The link between ‘status/ luxury’ and ‘Bentley’ is a constructed rather than inherent one. Although Bentley is primarily denotes a vehicle for transportation, but it connotes status/luxury.  This arbitrariness of meaning provides marketers with a fertile ground to imbue their objects with meanings that create desires and promote consumption.

An object is like an empty vessel or a container. Besides its physical property and performance it does not contain any sign value. But when it enters into socio-cultural world, it begins to acquire symbolic or sign value.  Secondary signification or denotation is inescapable. Therefore how an object is initiated in cultural space critical determinant of its sign value. For instance a color is a color. But not all colors are equal. Consider a color like purple which a shade between crimson and blue, but it is not only this.  In its extended meaning it stands for royalty, luxury, power, nobility, wealth, wisdom and creativity. But exact meanings of things vary across cultural boundaries. For instance, in China the color purple signifies spiritual awareness, strength and awareness and in Japan it stands for privilege and wealth. However in Thailand it is worn in mourning.  Imagine the vast possibilities that this phenomenon opens up for a brand’s to acquire meaning other than what it stands for in objective reality.

The semantic perspective is only one way of looking at an object (Eco).  An object like a pen or automobile can be seen from different perspectives: physical, mechanical, economic and social level. Consider ‘black dress’ created by Coco Chanel in 1920s from different perspectives:

Physical level: this refers to the physical properties. The materials used in this dress were materials such as lace, tulle, soft weightless silks in black color.  In terms of its construction it was slash-necked, short and diagonal pin tucks.

Mechanical level: a pen at this level writes and an automobile transports. The little black dress provided simple and comfortable body cover.

Economic level: this pertains to exchange value. The economic value is measured by the maximum amount of other things that a person will willingly give up for something. It is about choices and tradeoffs that people make.  In present economies, it is reflected in the rupees or dollars that people are willing to give for something.

Social level: objects can be linked to a certain social class and indicate status, distinction and hierarchy.  Like caviar and single malts indicate rich class. Also brands such as Rolls Royce and Harry Winston are linked to social status. Starting as a simple wear without any class restrictions, the LBD socially epitomized elegant, stylish, sophisticated women.

Semantic level: at the semantic level the meaning of a sign is ‘cultural unit’, i.e. the meaning of signs is culturally defined.  Here the object does not remain an object, rather it into enters as a  unit into a system of cultural units and forms relationships.

Branding is all about signs and signification. Eco calls ‘signification’ as the semiotic event where a sign ‘stands for something’. Consider the latest communication of Coke-‘open happiness’. How the brand has been achieving semantic transformation in what the brand stands for. The resistance that has been brewing up against junk food in general and some brands in particular makes it essential for the suspect brands to transform what their brands stand for. Coke is reinventing its fit with new emerging cultural paradigm where Coke is beginning to stand for ill health.

Brands, Connotative meaning and System of signs

Luxury is a perceptual phenomenon. It belongs to an object but is not an objective construction. It is constructed in perceptual space of people by a process of meaning transfer. It involves semiotic process of transformation of an object into a sign. A sign operates at two levels of signification. The first order signification is about denotation of what a sign represents. Denotation stands for literal or explicit meaning which operates within the realm of reality. For instance Ray Ban is a shade which protects eyes from ultra violet rays, comes in plastic and metal frames, and with different types of glass shapes sizes and shades. The denotative meaning is ‘what goes without saying’ or is ‘obvious’ description of something.

Making of a luxury brands requires a deliberate and strategic shift from the field of denotation to connotation. How many of people actually look (eye) at Chanel or Ralph Lauren as sun shades or see (perception) them differently. The meaning inferred in these cases operates within the realm of imagination and myth. These brands succeed not by how they are looked at rather by how they are seen. Luxury brands transcend from their denotation or first order signification to appropriate a second order meaning. A whole lot of cultural connotations surround these brands which make them valuable by a certain class of consumers. Brand Chanel signifies class, opulence, style, glamour, fabulous and French.  Ralph Lauren on the other hand signifies American classism combined with English Aristocracy with a dash of sportiness. Technically connotation stands for connotare in Latin, which means ‘to mark along with’. That is how cultural meaning is attached to objects which push them into symbolic, emotional and historic sphere. 

The relationship between a sign and signified (concept) is arbitrary (Saussure). In the above two cases of Ralph Lauren and Chanel, the signified or concept has not been inherent to the objects that they sell, rather these are created or appropriated. Brands are given meaning by use of signs preexisting in a cultural system. Brand communication uses mass media which extensively deploys signs to create meaning. Typically the meaning creation process uses objects, artifacts, people, music, activities in advertising which are obtained from the material culture. Consider how Woodland brand uses people (young, sporty), activity (adventure sport), background (rugged terrain, mountain, and jungle), adventure equipment (mountain bike, climbing gear), shoe construction (sole, leather, laces, shape), earthy colors, brand symbol (tree), bird (eagle) to create a meaning. Upon seeing the ad, people use codes to get to the signified.

In building a meaning, brand communication relies upon different types of signs. Three aspects signs can be distinguished: iconic, indexical and symbolic.  An icon signifies meaning by sharing resemblance. For instance upon seeing a picture or drawing of a person or object (ads show people like a real young male in Woodland’s ad and cycle) to develop meaning. We find out toilets meant for men and women on the basis of icons displayed which share gender resemblance.  Indexical signs signify meaning by the process of causation. The audience can make out or figure meaning like smoke indicates fire and trees signify jungle). In Woodland’s ad by seeing mountain cliff and rugged location we can figure out that the shoes are meant tough outdoor situations. Lastly relationship between a symbol and what it signifies can neither be seen nor figured out, rather it must be learnt. For instance we learn what different traffic symbols signify (a pin band sign on the road suggests that road is bending or the word ‘Kitty’ signifies cat, platinum is learnt to be precious in some cultures).

 Woodland as a term combines two words ‘wood’ (jungle) and land. Literally it stands for jungle or woods. But by use of signs in its communication, the brand has evolved into a symbol of rugged outdoorsy personality. The shoe ceases to be at the centre of its meaning which is quite discernable from the spatial position that name has been given and percentage of space given to shoe in ads. Similarly luxury brands do not stand for objects or products they sell; rather they transform themselves into symbols of something called ‘luxury’ by substitution of the signified.