" Brands and the role they play in consumers lives | Haines McGregor

 

Dr Fred Morrison (Lecturer in Psychology, University of Ulster, specialising in communications) challenges the view that companies own brands by suggesting they only exist within the role they play in consumers’ lives. Looked at from a psychological perspective, he explained how the conscious and subconscious mind of each consumer assembles a definition of a brand particular to that individual…making the ‘management’ of brands, as a consequence, a very fickle practice.

A PSYCHOLOGICAL BACKGROUND

Each era has its anxieties. We can see that as we move away from survival and subsistence and we confront different challenges and needs. For the Victorian?era of Freud the anxieties centred on the repression of sexual drives as required by social order. He identified numerous psychological problems such as hysteria and neurosis with conflicts between instinctual drives and social acceptability. The frustrations experienced often manifested themselves as sublimated activity. Freud identified many of the social behaviours that people engaged in as being?at root disguised manifestations of these issues. He suggested, for example, that eating and smoking were sublimated behaviours expressing oral fixation. Similarly constipation and un-checked urination were anal / genital fixations.

 

“WHO AM I? WHY AM I HERE? DO OTHER PEOPLE HATE AND DESPISE ME? DID I REMEMBER TO LOCK THE CAR?”

On more creative dimensions many of these frustrations manifested in the form of good works and great endeavours. Religious fervour was seen as a sublimation of sexual desires.
Given more enlightened attitudes towards sex we have to seek out our anxieties elsewhere! In the early part of the 21st century our anxieties surround the existential crisis of identity. At 4.00am we cant sleep, our eyes flicker open and we stare at the ceiling. Those dread questions come unbidden. “Who am I? Why am I here? Do other people hate and despise me? Did I remember to lock the car? If that next door neighbour doesn’t turn off the damn car alarm I’ll slaughter his first born!”.
We live lives increasingly separated from the kinds of tight institutional controls that provided a sense of security. Religious adherence in strictly codified patterns of observance and highly predictable life roles provided much of our sense of belonging. Our lives were more or less set out for us from birth. Low levels of social mobility meant that it was highly likely that I would engage in the same employment my father and grandfather had. It was likely that I would marry at the same age as everyone else and would engage in the same forms of social activity. Although stifling of any individual creativity we had a pretty secure sense of who we were and what life had in store for us. Even the family offers less identity assurance than it once did. We are approaching the stage where the majority of us will experience two, three or more familial arrangements both as children and as adults.

 

THE CONSUMPTION OF EVER-NOVEL GOODS BECOMES IN SOME PART
A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE GENUINE DEVELOPMENT OF THE SELF.
ANTONY GIDDENS

Anxieties are our major motivating force. We are like steam pressure machines. Anxiety creates increasing internal pressure and we are increasingly in need of finding opportunities to reduce the pressure. There is an inescapable need to establish a working sense of identity. We frequently experience a gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us. We see gaps between how we would like to be and how we presently see ourselves. The identity project then is about trying to establish some kind of continuity between these differing versions of self. Just as our forbears struggled with the incompatibilities of instinct and social conformity we face similar entanglements. How many times have you started out with good intentions only to find yourself relapsing under the day-to- day needs and struggles? Can any of us really say that the life we live is free of the contradictions between what we know we should be doing and what we are experiencing? Increasing obligations to others are a natural part of economic life. As we mature we find ourselves reacting pragmatically and loosing much of the idealism that once we thought would motivate us. But still at those moments of clarity a little dissatisfied voice inside us says.

Our consumption behaviours are fundamentally linked to our attempts at ?anxiety reduction. As suggested above Freud identified all kinds of product?use as being linked to less acceptable manifestations of instinctual drives. We divert our worries and frustrations into socially acceptable and socially provided alternatives. Consumption alone cannot reduce anxiety – it is the psychological accompaniment that achieves this. We ascribe all kinds of inanimate objects with psychological and social attributes. What I believe you guys frequently refer to?as “Brand Identity” or “personality of the brand”. It is suggested that we can?use aspects of these identities or personalities to augment self-perceived or even unconscious limitations in our own identity or personality. At times this is of course pretty blatant.

 

I WOULDN’T WANT TO BE ADMIRED BY SOMEONE STUPID ENOUGH TO ADMIRE ME!

When I was a teenager I believed that hanging around in cafes smoking Galouise and with an obscure French novel open in front of me would simultaneously drive women mad with passion and provide me with a reason for despising them if it didn’t! (I am afraid I must report that the latter was the most frequent outcome). This is only the surface manifestation of a more extensive process. The only resources that we have for self-expression are those we find in the world around us. In a consumer culture the most readily available resources are in the patterns of consumption that we choose on a daily basis.

Brands are the key element in this process. My teenage fantasies were not fuelled by some tobacco and writings that I could scarcely comprehend. They were based upon the ascriptions of particular associations and identifications with how these elements “fitted” within my adolescent values system of the French intellectual and all that meant to me at the time. In other words I took inanimate objects and gave them a psychological and social meaningfulness – even if it was just for me and others no doubt had alternate descriptions of what I was doing! To me this?is the central notion of the brand. That is, the additional psychological and social resource consumers obtain by choosing one brand over alternatives. What is also suggested about this episode in my memory is something about my dissatisfaction with the life I was experiencing in Belfast in the 1970’s and about the aspirations I would have for my future.

Identity anxiety then relates to the consequences of individualism. We are required to establish a sense of self and of our place in the world. As the pre-established order into which we would simply slot diminishes and as the needs of competitive societies drive ever onward the need for individual attainment and rivalry we must find something that offers an opportunity to demonstrate who we are and what we believe. We each need to explore issues of identity for ourselves. When we were infants and small children, if we were lucky, our mothers loved us because we were who we were. Unconditional love and positive regard more or less despite what we do is a unique experience. The insanely fortunate experience it a few times in a life span. For the most part we continuously strive to convince others of our worthiness. Secretly we often feel that we are really not entitled. To paraphrase one of the Marx brothers – I wouldn’t want to be admired by someone stupid enough to admire me!.

All of this creates emotional stress for us. We live with an anxiety producing tension between who we feel we are and who we feel we should or could be. We see gaps between who we feel we really are and how other people see us. We are all familiar with the different selves we produce when we are parents, offspring, friends and lovers. This creates a psychological dilemma for us. If I seem to be a different person when I am talking to my mother than the person I am who works at a University and still again another person when I am out drinking with friends which if any of these is the “real” or “genuine” me? If the gap between these differing “Freds” is manageable then I can deal with the mild anxiety produced. As demands placed on me by the different situations increase then the levels of anxiety about this also increase.

The position becomes ever more alarming for me as none of the selves described above is actually the self I feel myself to be, or the self that I really would like to be. After years of role-playing I have lost conscious awareness of who that person might be. But I still have a set of values and beliefs that I feel a need to express.

 

THE TENDENCY IS TO ATTEMPT TO EMULATE PREVIOUS BRANDS IN TERMS OF THEIR EXTERNAL FEATURES AND FUNCTIONS RATHER THAN LOOKING AT THE UNDERPINNING SYSTEM OF EVALUATIONS THAT CONSTITUTE THE EXPERIENCES OF THE INDIVIDUAL.

So my dilemma is how do I square the circle between the social expectations of others and my internalised sense of who I truly am? My primary motivation can be seen to be a desire to move from my present expressions of who I am to the aspirations I have for my self. My evaluations of others and objects in the world are in accord with this need and I can achieve a degree of self-expression without compromising my social obligations by sublimating my anxieties in the use of brands.

 

THE IDENTITY PROJECT

Our day-to-day experience can be described as a continuous attempt to express our identity to others and to ourselves. More specifically it is a need to increase the consistency between these differing facets of self. Our consumption is a key aspect of that ongoing project. We select particular consumption patterns because they are a means for us of asserting our values and beliefs as key aspects of who we feel we are and of how we would like others to perceive us. The psychological experiencing of the acts of consumption is key to our expressions and experiences of our identity.

 

WHAT DOES A PSYCHOLOGIST THINK A ‘BRAND’ IS?

How a brand is communicated is a part of the story. The brand communications can to varying degrees of success cue our perceptions and offer the opportunities to share sets of identifications. As presently practised this is a pretty hit and?miss affair. As may be clear from what I have said so far, my interest in this topic lies in what brands as phenomena tell us about human psychology. My interest?is in what people DO with the notion of the brand. The brand exists only as a mental image in the mind. The active ingredients of a brand are only those that are perceived and internalised by consumers. The authentic experience of the brand clearly is how the consumer construes it. I will argue that we are likely to understand this better if we consider the mechanisms of construal rather than the specific experiencing of a particular brand. My main gripe with present marketing approaches is that it gets this process the wrong way around, the tendency is to attempt to emulate previous brands in terms of their external features and functions rather than looking at the underpinning system of evaluations that constitute the experiences of the individual.

 

BRAND CONSTRUAL

We need to consider the dimensions upon which a brand impacts. This is a familiar pattern to traditional approaches to attitude research. The psychological impact?of any experience concerns three forms of response. In practice we cant actually separate them as the all interact but for present purposes we can describe them as: Affective: The emotional and relational location of the brand as it relates to our patterns of emotional responding. Cognitive: Our understandings and perceptions of meaningfulness. This is an active process of meaning making that occurs as part of our continuous attempts to make sense of a crazy world. Evaluative: The positive, negative and conflicted identifications. It is important to note that all three of these forms of evaluation can be potent. Successful brands can operate upon negative and conflicted identifications or evaluations as well as positive ones.

 

SIDE-STEPPING THE POST-MODERN PIT!

If the brand is mainly a matter of individual perception how can it have a measurable reality? In other words if a given brand offering is a unique experience to each consumer, how can we measure it and refine it? This appears to?become worse when I also argue that “the individual” is continuously changing and developing? My view of identity, as described so far is a process that is continuously ongoing. This is obviously a problem for all forms of research. At any given point of measurement we are assessing something that has changed and moved on almost immediately. Consequently we are always basing decisions on obsolete data. This is an issue that lies at the centre of brand development and management concerns. Asking the consumer will only provide a brief snapshot frozen at a particular time.

 

THE RESEARCH PROBLEM AND IDENTITY

Most research assumes individual stability. In other words social and psychological research considers that our behaviour is consistent and consequently must be a feature of stable causes. In traditional approaches to psychological issues?we phrase this as: behaviour is situational or is a trait. I could express this by suggesting if you walked into a pub and you observed Fred standing on a table and singing, what explanation would you offer? You could say that Fred always stands on tables and sings – that’s the kind of guy he is! Or you could say people always stand on tables and sing in that pub! In either case (or even if we attempt to combine them) we assume either our day to day experiences or our pre- dispositions largely determine our behaviour.
Predicting how people will respond is based upon past or present observations (stability assumption). We assume that how they behaved in the past will enable us to predict what way they are likely to behave in the future. Our notable failures in this respect have been explained away as reflecting imperfect measurement systems or insufficient data. I think the whole caboodle is flawed.
Identity is something that is in a state of constant revision and flux. We experience day to day and context to context experiences that produce refinements, contractions and expansions in our experience of who we are. These experiences not only alter our understanding of who we are they often alter how we go about the process of understanding who we are!
Major life transitions and crises produce significant changes in our self-concept. As we proceed through the biological and social signposts of our lives we revise large sections of our self-perception. A further problem with traditional forms of research is the “indeterminacy of translation”. The very language that we use varies not only in accent or dialect but also quite considerably in terms of meaning. The only real way we can understand language is within the terms of the user – and that can be pretty difficult to get at.
I know that you think you know what it was I said, but, I’m not sure if what you think I said is the same as what I meant to say.
Surveys, questionnaires, focus groups and so forth are all be-devilled by the problem of interpretation. In the social sciences we are continuously faced?with how things are interpreted – what one person thought was meant by a particular question or expression may be very different from another and indeed from the researcher. We are faced with cultural, sub-cultural and even individual conceptualisations.

 

A POSSIBLE SOLUTION?

What I am arguing is that to appreciate concepts such as “identity” and subsequently perceptions and motivations we need to look at the processes that underpin them. How can we investigate the complex value systems and self- evaluations of the individual within their own construction of meaning? The point is to assess the process of identity not a supposed reification of it. We need to think about how an individual negotiates a consistent sense of who they are and how important features of the social experience contribute to this or obstruct it.
If we consider the process we can begin to understand how evaluations work? If we seek out the underlying processes of emotional attraction, sense making and ascribing values we can begin to identify what it is about social objects that attracts and repels. We can speculate about the kinds of features that are likely to be significant to the identity processes of the individual. These features are likely to become internalised as means by which and individual understands themselves and their social identity. Although I shouldn’t have been I was shocked at the salience of particular brands to the core identification and evaluation systems of consumers. In the pilot studies we have carried out I could perhaps have predicted that a BMW driver felt very close affinity with the core values of the BMW brand but BOTTLED WATER!! Indeed the users of Riverock bottled water had very strong feelings about their consumption and selection and great contra-identification with the features of rival brands. It is almost as if the consumption of a different brand of bottled water would be an offence to dearly held beliefs about themselves.
By investigating the processes underpinning how we make judgements of this form we can then understand the features and cues that are salient to the individual. For each individual there are subtly distinctive perceptions but we can identify the shared features of identification that a given brand holds for those who presently consume it. In addition we can identify similar evaluations held about those who consume a brand by those who do not. Indeed there are a wide range of evaluative patterns that we can extrapolate from an investigation of consumers Identity Structure. Brands offer a collection of psychological features to the individual. The “meaning” of the brand depends upon how these features are located within the evaluative system.

 

THE THREE ASPECTS OF BRAND IDENTIFICATION

1. We are motivated toward brands that we evaluate as having psychological features we can fit into our process of identity formation
2. We are indifferent to brands that have psychological features we construe as not relevant to identity processes
3. We are highly motivated by brands that have psychological features that are construed as conflicting with identity processes. The following section briefly outlines the background to how we go about investigating these issues.

SO WHAT IS IDENTITY?

• How you see yourself now
• How you see yourself in the past
• How you would like to see yourself in the future
• The expression of identity can be seen as the continuity between these different aspects of self.

OTHER ASPECTS OF IDENTITY

• Self in different situations – in different roles, with different people, mood states, (past, present and future)
• Self as (you think) others see you
• Hypothetical self – self as imagined in different lives or experiences.

CORE IDENTIFICATIONS

• Idealistic Identification
• Contra Identification
• Empathetic identification
• Identification Conflicts

VALUE SYSTEM

• Differing levels of consistency in use of evaluation dimensions
• Positive and negative application of evaluative dimensions
• Strength of evaluative dimensions

CASES (PERMISSIONS OBTAINED)

• Riverock bottled water
• Northern Ireland BMW drivers
• Customers of varying outlets of Botanic Inns

ANALYSING IDENTITY

• We can analyse identity by looking at two dimensions – evaluative statements and significant (to the person) people, objects institutions etc. and BRANDS
• For ease of reference let’s call these Constructs and Entities

BRIEF EXAMPLES OF CONSTRUCT / ENTITY SCALES

• Both the construct and entity dimensions are constructed by identifying what are significant to the individual and to the researcher
• We can compute and rate the constructs that are of significance to the respondent and we can identify the direction of approval

OUTPUTS

• Based upon the completion of a series of scales the program calculates indices of the following:
• Ego involvement – both positive and negative
• Evaluation of an other (with respect to the location of their ascribed attributes in the respondents value system)
• Aspirational identification – the degree to which the respondent would wish to emulate or dissociate from the other
• Empathetic identification
• Identification conflict
• Pressure on constructs – evaluations expressed by self and admired others that create internal contradictions