Today, our digital reality has drastically changed the way that we consume branded content. The cultural importance of brands today is particularly evident when one considers that, particularly in the luxury segment, “people [don’t] consume merely for functional satisfaction, but consumption becomes meaning-based, and brands are often used as symbolic resources for the construction and maintenance of identity.” In Sociology, we call this
The American Marketing Association defines brand as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” However, marketers know all too well that the idea of a brand encompasses a wider meaning that takes into account intangibles such as feelings, perceptions, images, beliefs or attitudes that, in time, become associated with the brand.
These experiential attributes are at the root of how consumers use brands to construct themselves. In this sense, brands are really just digestible morsels of visual information. We use them to define ourselves and communicate our association and belonging to others. It is clear that the act of brand consumption informs the narrative of the self – indeed, buying a certain brand over another (moreover, being seen to buy a brand over another) fulfills an important role of self-definition. This is even more prominent with items of apparel or adornment, which enable the wearer to communicate-at-large certain determinate attributes about him or herself with clarity and immediacy.
In the case of luxury brands, while the overarching message of status and prestige remains constant, the individual messages behind individual brand inclinations become granular. For example, you’re wearing Christian Dior, while she’s wearing Calvin Klein – there are two very different statements of identity at play here, with the aim of displaying a belonging to two very different groups.
Accordingly, if being seen to buy a brand contributes toward building one’s identity, the impact of being seen to like a brand on a social platform is exponential. Its aftershock is multiplied as the action is reverberated across friends, friends of friends and so on. From a marketer standpoint, there is no doubt that social media is having a huge impact on brand consumption. But taking our marketer hats off for a minute, how are brands and social media shaping us as individuals in our journey to define the self?
Today, we enjoy an unparalleled freedom. Adorning in order to define ourselves is really quite a modern phenomenon. This idea of choice of costume to reflect the self began with the development of aniline dye for industrial use, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to this, individuals had little choice over what colors to wear, as the decision was made for them according to their social rank. Strict sumptuary laws, developed in the Middle Ages, forbade a person of lower class to wear colors reserved for the upper echelons of society. Reds and purples, for example, were among the most expensive natural dyes to acquire, and so remained the exclusive property of the nobility. By contrast, if one were born a peasant, it was nothing but unappealing shades of brown for you. Quite simply, the assumption was, in this time of little or no social mobility, any such attempt to dress outside one’s rank must have been motivated by trickery or deceit.
In this feudal reality, clothing did communicate belonging, but only in the narrow sense that was defined by family or birthplace. However, by today’s standards, this represents a strange parameter of belonging. We lead an increasingly urban, modern, digital existence that paradoxically leaves us feeling anonymous. Most of us live in big cities – in fact many of us no longer even live in the towns or cities in which we were born. Accordingly, we no longer derive our sense of belonging from where we are “from.” More and more, we gain our feeling of belonging through largely psychographic parameters – lifestyle, beliefs, and outlook – which in turn informs the choices of products that we consume. Ultimately, we identify with others who share our interests in those products.
The social web has created a fertile breeding ground for a new virtual sort of contact, one that allows relationships to flourish based on shared “Likes” and dislikes. Social media breaks down the traditional geographic or kinship boundaries and allows us to form free associations across these psychographic segmentation drivers. The fact that brands have stepped into this space – whether warranted or not – has fundamentally shifted the dynamics of self-definition and belonging. The dynamics have morphed into a virtual space where consumption, or the appearance of consumption, shapes the self we want to project, and the groups to which we long to belong. Girls walking down the street with a Louis Vuitton logo on their bag, are inherently showing the world they belong in the social group that is associated with Louis Vuitton Bags (high status, sophistication, etc.) This brand and it's symbolism has become associated with their identity - who they want to project they are.
Increasingly, more and more users follow brands on social platforms. According to a recent study 25% of Twitter users follow brands, while on Facebook that figure jumps up to 40% – indicating a very high propensity to identify with them (Study taken in 2013). Meanwhile, the act of sharing branded content re-enforces that brand association in real time. Indeed, one of the leading psychological share motivators is the need to communicate identity and self-expression. The content we share online instantly shapes the perception of our personality to other users. Case in point: If users don’t want their friends associating a brand video with their identity, they won’t share it.
But the traditional social media platforms are not the only space where brand identity is being forged. Stardoll, a social media platform that allows girls (and boys) to dress up and style their own digital paper dolls, offers an interesting example of how social media, fashion brands and self-identity collide. Through the act of choosing a 2-D avatar (or “Medoll”) teenagers can actually fashion a persona which might be quite far removed from who they are in their day to day, but helps them explore who it is that they aspire to be.
From a sociological perspective, this is super interesting as of itself. When one digs deeper, it turns out that luxury brands play an important part in overall brand consumption on the site, suggesting a sophisticated aspirational demographic that is paying attention to a host of luxury brands – such as Kenzo, Ferretti, DVF, Balenciaga – that one might not consider at first glance as “aspirational” for a 8-13 year old demographic.
This adolescent population seems to be highlighting, in a rather over-pronounced way, (fuelled by Stardollars and thus unfettered by such pesky details such as “real” spending power) the sociological drivers at play in our adult digital world. Funnily, it would seem that for many users liking a brand is tantamount to what hanging out with the “right” kids was in high school – a badge of cool, so to speak. By liking a brand on Facebook, or recirculating branded content on Twitter, we are communicating to the world that we are aligning ourselves to the ethos and philosophy embodied by that brand.
All this is pretty powerful stuff which raises the same questions that seem to be "echoing" across all kinds of scholarly studies of social media and self. I would like to think that by now we all know, not just understand, that our virtual identity is just a shell of whom we really are. It is what we want people to see. The questions that arise for me are more about the children who are growing up with this now - as it wasn't like this when I was growing up - how will it affect their own identity and sense of self? Are they at risk of over-inflating digital street cred, or worse, creating a virtual self with no basis in reality?