Social meanings and brands in marketing.

Author:Pendleton, Glenna


What is a brand? In the days of the Wild West a brand identified a farmer's cattle. Today, in marketing, a second meaning for the word "brand" is used that is much more abstract than simply a physical design that allows a cattle rancher to show ownership of livestock. A brand in marketing refers to not only an offering's important customer benefits, and product related attributes, or features, but also impressions that make up the image of that brand in the mind of the consumer. In other words, two components of brands are used when consumers rate brands: BSAs (brand-specific associations) and GBIs (general brand impressions) (Dillon et al., 2001, p. 417). Both components help differentiate a brand from a competitor's brand.

How easy is it for a marketer to describe these two basic components of a specific brand? This article assumes it is easier for marketers to describe the attributes, features, and/or benefits of a brand offering than it is to describe a brands general impressions or the image of a brand in the minds of consumers. Keller (2003) indicates earlier marketing research concentrated more on tangible information connected to the product even though the term brand image was used by Gardner and Levy as far back as 1955. In addition, according to Keller, more recently marketing researchers are trying to understand "the more abstract, intangible aspects of brand knowledge" (p. 596). What does the consumer think of or feel when he or she hears or sees a brand name? These general impressions of a brand are more complex to delineate, since general impressions tend to be global and inextricably tied to each individual consumer's own mental picture of the offering.

Padgett and Allen (1997, p. 50) discuss the "psychological attributes" associated with brands in services marketing, which is a simpler term than the term "holistic impressions" used by Dillon et al. (2001, p. 417) to describe general brand impressions. However, the authors here assume the term "psychological attributes" may be too limited in conveying the many symbolic meanings that can be associated with a brand. For example, the term "psychological attributes" does not immediately appear to include the important social meanings that can be associated with a brand.

This article emphasizes the importance of social meanings associated with many brands and expands on the simple term "psychological attributes". Specifically, the authors discuss social identification attributes of an offering and suggest it is important to include social identity in the marketer's conceptual tool box when talking about the general impressions a brand can make on a consumer. It will show that this newer conceptualization is a natural evolution in the thinking of what constitutes a brand. It is suggested the term "psycho-social" attributes may be a more appropriate term when talking about social identification impressions associated with a brand.

In the following pages, the authors discuss several trends supporting the importance of social meanings for consumers. The consumer social identification process will be clearly defined. Then, the authors describe a sample conceptual map of some of the territory that can be represented by a brand's image for a product or service in the consumer's mind using college students listening to music on Apple I-Pods. This brand territory map includes both specific attributes associated with the product itself as well as attributes associated with general brand impressions perceived within the consumer's mind, including any social identification associations that may exist.

The authors, focusing on the more abstract brand attributes, use Maslow's hierarchy of motivation to classify the levels of attributes perceived or created within the mind of the consumer. Since the attributes within the mind are often more difficult to articulate compared to features or benefits of an offering itself, Maslow's hierarchy of motivation is a useful theoretical tool for classifying these internal perceptions. In addition, marketers can use Maslow's classification to focus on a specific motivational level for an integrated marketing campaign. For example, marketers focusing on Maslow's social identification level of motivation can be used to tap into or access higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy in the consumer's mind, and therefore allow for more powerful advertising when designing new positioning strategies for integrated marketing campaigns. The authors illustrate the usefulness of this concept by describing a winning international marketing campaign that unlocks social meanings for a new brand of motorcycles via advertising.

The article ends with a discussion of the importance of the conceptualization of the social identity variable when marketers are trying to tap into important social meanings for a market segment in the development of a brand. In an age of experiential offerings, strategies for new integrated marketing communications can build on customers identifying with other members of the market segment to help consumers derive symbolic meanings from an offering.


2.1 Increase on the focus of the inner workings of the mind

In the 60s in the U.S., a movement began whereby individuals began to actively explore the inner mind. This was a whole new way of looking at the world and while some leaders such as Timothy Leary promoted exploring the inner mind using LSD, other less physically invasive approaches, such as the Maharishi's technique of Transcendental Meditation, promoted changing by exploring different states of consciousness. Both of these examples point to a trend in society of becoming aware of the inner world side by side with the external world, a viewpoint especially embraced by the college student generation. What is interesting about this movement, however, is that at the same time individuals looked inward there was a movement to connect with this inner world in others, even strangers. For example, the value of meditating in groups was promoted has having an effect on the outer world.

Over the years this rather new perspective of that time has become more accepted. Marketers soon referred to the "me" generation. More and more offerings over time stress the importance of the subjective aspects of consumption. From movies, to theme parks, to experiential education, to clothing and hairstyles with "an attitude", the importance of subjective consumer experiences is emphasized. Geico addresses the concept of looking inside one's self to find inner experiences. One of their entertaining ads for insurance mentions the importance of the inner self and refers to the 60s, at which point Caveman comically finds himself wondering why he is holding the hand of someone he does not even know! This inclusion of social dimensions of the inner world into advertising and promotions can also be seen on campuses such as Bowling Green University, in Ohio, where dormitory social themes are advertised. Dormitory pods are created where students can live based on inner values that are important to them that they want to share with others: for example an environmental pod, an honors academically-oriented pod, or a social-awareness pod where students can participate in social projects in the community.

2.2 Introduction of neuromarketing to analyze emotional information processing

Max Sutherland is one of the new leaders in the area of neuromarketing. Brain wave recording devices are used to pinpoint which part of the brain is activated when the respondents in the experiment react to products, make brand choices, or are presented advertisements (Sutherland, 2007). The part of the brain that is activated allows researchers to gain insights into the consumer's "emotional information processing" (Lewis and...

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