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Do brands have personalities?

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Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008

Rob Walker linked to this item from Science Digest about research into our susceptibility to “brand personalities.” I’ve tried but failed to understand the upshot of this highlighted finding:


“This research points out an interesting but counterintuitive finding: brand personality can be most useful for forging consumer-brand connections with consumers who tend to enjoy such deep connections in the interpersonal context,” the authors conclude.


The study hinges on “attachment styles,” which seem to have something to do with self-esteem: “Because of a low view of self, anxious individuals”—those with “anxious” attachment styles—“use brands to signal their ideal self-concept to future relationship partners and therefore focus more on the personality of the brand.” But brands don’t objectively have personalities. Consumers are actively involved in conjuring them up and pretending that they exist. One can’t simply select a brand that already has a given personality, because that whole personality, if it exists, is a delicate social construction heavily contingent upon the consumer’s own place in society. The meaning of Abercrombie to me is not “excitement” as the study’s authors suggest; it’s “shallowness.” So when I choose to reject that brand accordingly, that choice derives from my interpretation of the brand, which comes from my social milieu, intermixed with my strictly personal hang-ups and predilections, all of which reconstitutes the brands’ own marketing messages (themselves always being modified) into something peculiar to me. I’m using or not using certain brands to signal certain things that I hope will be understood by a target audience that I am hoping to define and attract with the help of those brands.


Maybe that is what the researchers are saying, and I am one of those “anxious” types. I just can’t see who would be exempt from such considerations, if they have chosen to participate in consumer society at all. Brands are by definition the appeal of a product over and above its practical usefulness—it is always the “personality” of the product as opposed to how well it works or what it is capable of doing. But though brands seem to signal some quality, that doesn’t mean it rises to the level of actually having a personality. It functions more like a word in a language than a living, breathing person. Calling its signifying quality a “personality” is itself a marketing move, seeking to glamorize products and give them a rich complexity.


Is the point that needy people want their brands to seem to love them back? Do such people mistake the fact that they can detect personality in a brand for the brand’s actually making the loving gesture of one person sharing their personality with another person? When I sense that I’m supposed to think American Apparel is “sexy,” do I at the same time, at some level, believe the brand is in fact coming on to me?


When people disclose their personalities to one another, it’s a gift, a gesture of trust and intimacy. When brands persuade us that they have a personality, it’s an affront, an invasion, a corruption of that intimate, human exchange. But if, through anomie and generalized social isolation, we are starved from more of that intimate feeling, we may prefer to accept the brands’ personalities on their own terms and assist in establishing them and their social credibility.


The “anxious” types in the study may be more likely to ascribe personalities to brands, to regard everything as a quasi-personal relationship that needs to be governed by the same rules and expectations, because actually personal relationships have been demonized as “inconvenient.” These seem to be the twin macro-level goals of advertising: (1) to discourage from having too much inconvenient, reciprocal human contact and (2) as a replacement for real companionship, to encourage us to mistake products for friends, to whom we owe such things as loyalty and forgiveness. 


N.B.: I wanted to call this post “Are Friends Electric?” but thought it was too much of a stretch. But you should still watch this.

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