<trp-post-container data-trp-post-id='26894'>La life social from brands

Bernard Cova teaches marketing and consumer sociology at Kedge Business School. He has just published "La vie sociale des marques". Meet one of those rare marketers who are passionate about consumers.

Adwise : According to you, not only do brands create our identity (as Baudrillard already argued), they also completely structure our existence; to use your expression, we "exist through consumption".

Bernard Cova : Yes, but we need to put this into the context of the liquid society in which we now live, which has destabilised many previous identity markers, starting with work. "We live in a society in which consumption is becoming the centre of people's lives. We have gone from a society whose central pillar was work to a society whose central pillar is consumption". in the words of sociologist Georges Ritzer.

When Ritzer says this, he is referring less to conventional consumption, that of shopping in supermarkets and hypermarkets, than to experiential consumption, that linked to all ordinary passions, be they cultural, sporting or other. Faced with an unstable identity as a result of the weakening of previous points of reference and life events, our contemporaries find ways of building and consolidating their identity through consumer experiences that are sources of pleasure and recognition.

Some examples from the book The social life of brands analogue photography experiments carried out with one of the cameras in the range Lomo which end with the sharing of photos with other lomography enthusiasts; taking part in the Tough Mudder obstacle course, which allows you to push your limits while helping each other (pleasure through pain!); defending a drink whose production stopped more than ten years ago - Surge - and taking part in the movement created to relaunch it; and so on.

There is pleasure in all these experiences and recognition by peers, other consumers. This is the secret of consolidating identity through consumption: it is based more on horizontal recognition by other passionate people than on vertical recognition by an overarching authority. And it is through the use of specific skills associated with a passion for an activity (painting, climbing, playing, etc.) and/or a brand (Apple, Harley-Davidson, Star Wars, Starbucks, etc.) that individuals are recognised today.

Adwise : Brands are increasingly looking for commitment from consumers, some of whom are even becoming brand ambassadors: but what is the value of this commitment when, for example, YouTubers are sometimes paid handsomely?

Bernard Cova : Loyal consumers are often mobilised by companies to promote their brands by word of mouth. Anglicisms are flourishing to describe these amateurs playing a quasi-professional role: brand advocates, brand evangelists, brand influencers, brand ambassadors.

Brand ambassadors are those who have inherited the marketing tradition of using "great witnesses (testimonial), the fact that they are paid, and even handsomely. This raises questions about the quality of their commitment.

That's why the parallel phenomenon of consumers volunteering to work for brands (brand volunteers) provides an interesting counterpoint. For example, Honda recently asked some of its fans to transform their homes into temporary dealerships for the HondaNextDoor operation. Dacia, as part of its Portières Ouvertes (Open Doors) operation, asked its fans to invite prospective customers who were reluctant to visit a dealership to come and test drive their Dacia. In both cases, apart from a fee, the consumers gained nothing.

A volunteer on a Decathlon collaboration programme also confided: "I take a day off or make arrangements. It's a real opportunity for me. I get to test materials, give my opinion and I love it. Then, once the products are launched - as in the case of the T-shirt for which I suggested moving the pocket - I can say that maybe it's thanks to me! This gratuitous commitment, in contrast to that of Youtubers and other paid ambassadors, can be explained by the need for recognition that drives individuals today; when this need is not satisfied at work, they seek it outside, in voluntary work. More and more people are saying that they exist because of their commitment to branded volunteering.

Brand volunteers find enough intrinsic satisfaction in these voluntary tasks not to seek or ask for extrinsic satisfaction (discounts, gifts, financial rewards, etc.). In fact, while our contemporaries are less inclined to commit themselves to major causes, as was the case in the 1970s, they are, on the other hand, prepared to commit themselves to the brands they love.

Adwise : Some consumers are committed to brands, while others 'troll' them more or less gratuitously: the other side of the same coin?

Bernard Cova : The brand is shared; it is a collective identity resource that functions as a semantic condenser, redefined according to the practices of different consumers, whether they are for or against the brand. Indeed, any brand that plays an important cultural role secretes love, but also hate. Alongside a brand's image of wonder, there exists a doppelgänger, a double with inverted qualities.

Starbucks, with its community of followers but also its anti-Starbucks groups, is a well-studied example in marketing. Consumers take hold of brands to make them live differently from the way they are intended by the companies that own them. Today, we have to deal with this new way for consumers to relate to brands.

Constantine Nakassis, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, invented the concept of "trademark infringement (brand surfeit) to describe this. Observing the social practices developed around brands in a more or less autonomous way by consumers, which have the effect of creating - or destroying - value for brands, he coined this concept from the better-known concept of "brand surferit". "trademark infringement (brand counterfeit): the total or partial reproduction or imitation of a brand and its manifestations such as the logo, advertising, products, etc. without the authorisation of its owner.

According to Nakassis, the total or partial modifications and extensions made to the brand by consumers, particularly on social networks, are not counterfeits but surfeits. Their purpose is not to profit illegally from the brand but to play with the brand. The proliferation of negative counterfeits of a brand can be seen as an identity risk for the brand. However, this is generally offset by the positive reaction of pro-brands.

When Nutella was attacked by anti-palm oil activists, and more widely by those who love "troller on the internet by posting videos of Nutella decomposing in the sun, Nutella fans rose in their numbers to defend the brand on a multitude of blogs and social networks. As a result, the Ferrero company, which owns the Nutella brand, has only had to intervene marginally in this debate.

Adwise : At a time when everything is digital, when all relationships are just a click away, what room is left for empathy? And can brands survive without this empathy?

Bernard Cova : I believe that, on the contrary, the development of digital technology and the acceleration of society in general are leading consumers to seek greater empathy with the brands they love. In a world of instability, uncertainty and insecurity, certain brands provide stability, certainty and security.

Many of them have celebrated their centenary, such as Coca Cola, Boeing, Alfa Romeo and Nikon, and others have even celebrated their bicentenary, such as Peugeot, Lagavulin Scotch whisky and Clarks shoes. And even young brands such as Apple or Google are stable landmarks in the lives of the under-20s.

Brands are compensating for the instability of modern life by producing objects that enable consumers to "to populate its environment with reassuring artefacts. While the profusion of products, objects, goodies, etc. linked to a brand can be seen as an unethical drift in branding, it is important to consider how this profusion enables an individual to fight against the insecurity of the environment. What's more, the materiality of the brand allows for a bodily empathy that goes beyond that of the computer keyboard or mobile phone keys.

Riding your Vespa, handling your Lego pieces, tasting a Lagavulin, and so on, all these interactions maintain the empathy between the material manifestations of the brand and consumers. What's more, the proliferation of brand festivals, from the Star Wars celebration on 4 May ("May the fourth be with you!) to Dacia or Paté Henaff picnics (the famous "Garden Paté), not to mention Harley-Davidson or Jeep rides, are a sign of the search for physical empathy with other consumers and brand employees. This also involves the development of physical meeting places like Apple Stores and Amazon Bookstores for brands that are closer to the digital world. Today's great brands are those that enable people to offset the effects of digitalisation with a stable, physical presence.

Playing with the social life of brands requires different skills to those of brand management, such as those possessed by a Chief Marketing Officer. In my opinion, we are moving towards what Grant McCracken anticipated in his fine book Chief Cultural Officer, i.e. the development of skills for interpreting and accompanying the cultural phenomena co-created by brands. This is the focus of our courses at Kedge today.


Bernard Cova


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