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September 2008

ESOMAR Congress 2008: The example of celebrities and other theories of branding

Geoffrey Precourt, US editor of WARC Online, reports on a link between celebrities and consumers’ identities, and on the importance of staff-led branding. This is one of a series of edited extracts from the 2008 ESOMAR Annual Congress in Montreal.

This is one of a series of edited extracts from the ESOMAR 2008 Annual Congress in Montreal. Other articles cover: 

For WARC’s full coverage of ESOMAR Congress 2008, visit our conference blog page.


Imagine, if you will, the brand that persists in being Madonna.

“She couldn’t have sustained her credibility in the 1950s,” keynoter Grant McCracken told the 2008 ESOMAR Congress in Montreal. “She’s a brand in turmoil that changes with the times. That used to be brand suicide. But Madonna keeps reinventing herself. She’s like a seagull floating on the surface of celebrity. She just keeps staying afloat. She fully understands the rules of creating celebrity in a time of great cultural volatility.”

Imagine, now, the brand that used to be Cher. “Tragic,” said McCracken. “She was tragically overcommitted to a different kind of change. But, when Cher made her change, there was no turning back. Each piece of surgery added a permanency and, in time, she could no longer re-invent herself.”

McCracken, an author who bills himself as a cultural anthropologist (or a cultural anthropologist who bills himself as an author) was certainly the speediest presenter at ESOMAR. All but breathless by the end of his hour presentation, he bounced from side to side of the stage and even bounding into the audience.

His full-speed-ahead presentation mixed academic and celebrity references. From Madonna (now) to Cher (then). And the kinetic energy was entirely appropriate to his thesis: The 21st Century consumer never stays in one place and is difficult to pin down.

“A revolution was created in the world of marketing by the idea of market segmentation,” McCracken wrote in the conference programme notes. “It’s time to see that the individual consumer is not homogeneous…. Every individual consumer consists in a number of selves and we must speak to each of these selves in a different voice.”

The paradigm of this model is Eddie Murphy. When David Letterman asked him why he wanted to play all the major characters in the 1996 remake of the 1963 Jerry Lewis French favorite, The Nutty Professor, Murphy answered, “If I can, I will.”

“It’s the signature of the culture we’re in,” McCracken proclaimed.

So director Steven Soderbergh wants to make big-budget Hollywood films that will appeal to art-film audiences. Yo-Yo Ma tosses aside his cello to pick up a Texas fiddle or jam with some Cajun musicians. And Gwen Stefani (“often driven by economic motives”) becomes whatever she has to be.

And, above them all, Madonna floats like a seagull.

McCracken actually identified several strains of transformation that led to the multi-dimensional consumer. And he grounded the discussion with the tale of an interview he was conducting for an upcoming book.

In the interviewee’s living room, he conducted a “Rorschach photography test” flipping through a friend’s photo album. “It was an ethnographic interview and we talked about how this person’s life had played out in the pictures. But we came to a point in the album where my interview subject said, ‘I’m not sure what I was doing there.’ It was right there in front of us – a record of transformational activity. But he couldn’t give a clear account of what it was we were seeing.”

This “swift self” characteristic is “as strange as anything anyone has seen in anthropology. The sheer variety of cultural and social trends offers up astonishing complexity…. It’s a new kind of self that’s more connected, more informed.”

And, he offered, for market researchers the view that change offers up a new post-modern kind of consumer - someone “defined by his or her multiplicity, by variety, dynamism, and a kind of transformational ferocity… We don’t seek consistency. We don’t tidy up as we go. We want every self possible – even if it contradicts our other selves. And we consume movies, advertising and products, always looking for our new self and for additional selves.”

The process is still evolving, McCracken said, bringing with it new models of not just the self but the family as well. Marketing, in McCracken’s world, becomes a way of “creating value through the development of transformation-worth materials.”

And, in all this post-modern vision of brands and multiple identities, where does Madonna fit in? “She’s stealing signals from the culture,” McCracken said, “adopting whatever she can take to suit her self, her image.”

But even the seagulls that float above the culture have to come to ground at some point. And so it is true with Madonna. “That English accent was the worst anyone had ever heard. It’s time someone said, ‘You’re losing your transformational edge, kiddo.’”

People power

What’s in a brand?

Ask Alan C Middleton and you’ll get a number of attributes, including name, company, logo/symbol, physical space, design, product (design and performance), employees, service, guarantee, distribution, reputation, display and price.

But often the most overlooked brand attribute, according to the consultant  and (get ready for this title!) assistant professor for consumer and organizational buyer behavior, international marketing, international strategy, marketing Communications, not-for-profit marketing and marketing management at Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, it’s the employee,

“Companies need to build an internal community and a strong brand through their people – to tap into the collective knowledge and skill of employees,” he told ESOMAR . “They’re critical to the organization’s purpose and values – to its flexibility, to the strength of its relationships with customers, to its commitment to innovation.

“Employee knowledge and commitment, therefore, not only relate to product but to what the brand is, to the values of the organization, and the service it provides its customers.”

Middleton said that most employees don’t understand the meaning and import of the brand that pays their salary. And it doesn’t matter where you look:  

Brand management, he continued, is as much an internal – as well as external – function. “In the past, over-simplistic attempts at brand meaning management have been applied. The internal culture has been separated from external community and the commercial proposition. It’s important for brand managers to find a model that fits their particular marketplace, to understand internal relationships to see how their organizations work and how employee relationships work.

“We have new ways to look at the brand, to help us understand the broader community that supports the brand. And each employee is a part of that process. Each one has to ask, “Am I committed to brand? Do I believe that people should buy it? How do I integrate with the brand community?”

But before any of that can happen, there’s a need to address a more fundamental question:

What is a brand? Middleton starts with a well-known definition and then refines it.

“A brand is a promise of benefits consistently delivered with the highest level of satisfaction versus direct and indirect competitors,” he begins, adding, “Brands are not ends in themselves; they’re a solution, something that allows us to achieve something.”

The concept of a brand, he explained, can be traced back to the Sumerians in the 6th Century BC. He dates contemporary branding from the 1770s when Joseph Wedgwood started selling a new porcelain product for a British middle-class that was coming to purchase empowerment. 

“People had these big houses that they used to throw big parties and were looking to fill with items of status,” Middleton recounted, “So Wedgwood took an 800-piece set of china to St. Petersburg as a gift to Catherine the Great. And, when he came back home, he introduced ‘Jasper Ware, the service used by Catherine the Great in the Winter Palace.’ And the modern brand was born.”

The changing climate of branding is grounded in corporate cultures. More specifically, it’s rooted in a then-and-now analysis of different attributes. For years, Middleton said, brands relied on frequency and impact to make an impression. Now, they look at continuity and connection. “We may not shout,” he said, “In fact, we may even be quiet. But we’re always there. Procter & Gamble has long been a great believer in this kind of continuity of effort.

Echoing his earlier consideration of internal brand-building, Middleton related how the emphasis had shifted from the final act of purchase to a “360-degree focus on all the parts – employees, early adapters, peer influencers – that give credibility to the buying process.”

And, what once was management’s arbitrary approach to community engagement had become “a new insistence on differentiation through targeted word-of-mouth advertising powered by customer satisfaction. The technology is there not just to track our performance but also to help us experiment with new methods. And, in fact, social networking has taught us that the more aggressively we try to control a brand, the greater the risk of incredibility.”

Brands built on “the US star system” – with an emphasis on building awareness and fame - presupposed an internal culture that somehow was separated from the external community and commercial propositions. “Consumers are acting much more like business-to-business clients,” Middleton said.

“The decisions are group-oriented. Take a look at how a 15-year-old makes his first beer decision. Before he orders, he looks around to see what others are having. And he makes his educated selection on the basis of what he’s seen.

“Whether it’s a peer, a family member, or a mentor, [the concept of community] is much more developed and decisive than we’ve ever given it credit for. The star system – of identifying a target group and making a lot of noise to get them interested – just doesn’t work as well in this networked world.”

To illustrate his view of brand building in the future, Middleton draws three separate circles and labels each one: Culture, Commerce, and Community. The first emphasizes the corporation, its culture, origins, and values. The second is largely about products and services. And the third encompasses values, norms, and relationships.

Creating the sweet spot – building the place where all three intersect – is the role of the brand in Middleton’s model.

About the authors:


Geoffrey Precourt is the US Editor of WARC Online.


You can read their reports from ESOMAR 2008 Congress and other recent marketing events here.

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