Identification in Hyper-Loyalty Brand Communities 1

D. Selcen O. Aykac
Sabanci University, Faculty of Management, Istanbul, Turkey An ever lasting urge to uncover “the strategy” of building brand loyalt y has been motivating marketers for decades. However, simply establishing the same discovered “template” for all products and brands has been the pursued agenda, without any further interest in examining the deeper phenomenological processes involved with such loyal consumer behavior of various degrees. Amon g such, consumer communities (Muniz and O'Guinn 2001) created around and directed by particular brands, yi elding to h yper-lo yalt y (McAlexander and Schouten 1998; Ebstein, Betou et al. 1999), is critical for comprehending underl ying dynamics of sustainable long-term competitive advantage. While effectiveness and efficienc y have been regularl y drawn upon to explain advantageous resources (Hunt 2002); I contend, that deeper comprehension of consumer h yper-loyalt y need to be also integrated. Research on brand communities has been limited (Fournier 1998). Even intentions of elucidating lo yalt y as more than a repeat purchase (Jacoby and Chestnut 1978) could unfortunatel y reduce to “narrowl y c ognitive utilitarian decision-makin g”, therefore failing to fully reflect the “talismanic relationships consumers form with that which is consumed” (Belk, Wallendorf et al. 1989), and their “reli gious moments of discovery” (McAlexander and Schouten 1998). Sociolo gy of reli gion, accompanied b y the field of rhetoric, provide insightful tools to grasp an advanced prospect about both the formation and the maintenance processes of cultures. Utilizin g the theory of culture and societ y (Berger 1967), from the sociolo gy of religion, coupled with the theory of identification (Burke 1969), from the field of rhetoric, this paper sheds light on certain phenomenological reasons and methods that consumers employ to ti ghtl y align themselves with particular brands. In doing so, this paper attempts to inform the field of Marketin g about novel alternative perspectives of exploring extreme levels of brand lo yalt y, shaped b y high degrees of brand image/socialself image congruency. “Persuasion is only possible with identification” (Burke 1969).


First draft of this paper was presented at the 2nd Annual Management Congress at Mugla University (Turkey) on February 17, 2005.


Its influence depending on the degree of perceived identification between self and brand images, brand identity encompasses a ke y role in profane consumption behavior. Consumer's differentiation of a certain brand from others, through close identification (Kim, Han et al. 2001) also yi elds to a sense of belonging to a certain group of consumers (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Bhattacharya, Rao et al. 1995) that alread y consume the brand, and develop social identification. Resorting to dialectic relationship process (Berger 1967) in formation and perpetuation of consumption cultures presents hyper-loyalt y brand communit y research a perspective through identification, promising a theory enrichment (Bhattacharya, Rao et al. 1995). Theoretical Grounds Motivations underl ying brand loyalt y have si gnificant phenomenological similarities to those that take place while cultures are formed, and reformed (Berger 1967). According to some research, shopping can be compared to religious sacrifice, especiall y savings efforts that result in more shopping items than it could have been possible with generous spending (Miller 1998). Humans sociall y construct societies, and determine the social order of handlin g various activities. With time, this social order defines the norm methods for activities, and eventuall y forms a culture. The dialectic relationship of constructing a culture is an ongoing process among social animal, man, and societ y. Once constructed, a culture is not finished and needs to be reconstructed. Reli gion, a crucial component of any culture, follows the same evolution process. Religion is the basis for legitimation of social order and relations of man, therefore projects these during the course of culture’s maintenance. The tremendous number of tasks that needed to be accomplished for survival forced the “unfinished at birth” man to form societies (Berger 1967). Once discovered, “a better, easy, less costl y etc. wa y/method of handling a certain task”, it needed to disclosed to others and ensuing generations. Development of language enabled humans to reach a consensus about an “appropriate wa y and/or method” of handling a particular task. As soon as an individual released a new idea to societ y, it was considered to be externalized. Upon objectivation, this new idea’s retention and recall was not onl y preserved as a privilege for its originator since its label enabled others to do so as well. For example, car can infer numerous things to a consumer; however, once it is labeled as “Saab”, others as well as its launcher can recall what the specific vehicle meant. Ultimatel y, b y societ y naming the new idea as “the proper mean” and practicin g it, internalization had been achieved (Fi gure 1). Continuing with the previous example, its brand communit y considers “Saab” as the appropriate vehicle that should be used for transportation.


Objectivation / Externalization



Internalization Fig. 1 Dialectic Relationship (Berger 1967)

Burke links identification with "consubstantialit y," or the connections humans make with one another throu gh shared experiences or goals. Identification in the marketplace is possible to the degree that individual possessions and ideas are shared s ymbolicall y. For anyone to identify himself/herself with an y particular automobile owner, a social bond is necessary. Such a bond mi ght be created via shared rituals like in the case of Saab owners beeping or flashing to other personally unknown Saab drivers on the road (Muniz and O'Guinn 2001), or among Volkswagen TDI communit y whose members range form airline pilots to professors of mass communications (Yost 2002). It is enlightening to portray how complementary Burke’s and Berger’s theories are; ‘survival tasks’ and ‘internalization’ process of Berger correspond to ‘goals’ and ‘shared experiences’ of Burke, respectivel y, which are entirel y necessary in construction of a culture. In contrast to liberal utilitarian thought, consumption is often cultural as meanings involved in its discourse are necessaril y shared meanin gs (Slater 1997). Identification is not simpl y a bilateral relationship between individual and organization, isolated from other organizations, but a process that unfolds in a competitive arena (Bhattacharya, Rao et al. 1995). Simultaneous membership among complimentary brands’ communities is common. Explanatory Applications Innovations and new products are results of human creativit y, though they are often announced by a collective entit y. Each and every day, numerous products are launched around the globe. Similar to the introduction of new ideas to societies, new product launch is also an externalization. Ever more competitive marketplace witnesses success stories of new products as well as


failures. Established brand equit y is found to be among those commonl y observed factors of successful new products. It is surmised that high brand awareness help consumers to recall what to bu y in the marketplace. As labels assist societ y members to recall a collection of proposed wa ys and methods, brands do so for shoppers to recall available brands in the marketplace and shape their consideration sets. Once new vehicle purchase is considered, a Saab communit y member bears in mind a different vehicle, than a Volkswagen or Harley Davidson communit y member (McAlexander and Schouten 1998). Decision to buy a new product of a certain brand is a way of practicin g an externalized idea as it is deemed appropriate for continuance of participation in a certain societ y, therefore a process of internalization. Often a sin gle requirement of access to a consumer subculture and/or brand communit y is the possession of a certain brand, standing as an identifier of extended social-self. Duration of internalization depends on the match with a customer’s life st yle, a strong one promoting access for brand communit y facilitatin g brand loyalt y (McAlexander, Schouten et al. 2002). Fashion cate gorizes individuals as (1) imitative, followers of fashion for satisfying urge to adapt, and (2) teleological, investi gators for satisfying urge to innovate (Simmel 1957), substituting perhaps internalizers and externalizers, respectivel y. In addition, objectivation is located around a particular brand. Such an approach would also present consistenc y with single social status s ystem assumption (Veblen 1994) instead of depicting two scholars as polar ends (Store y 1999). For example, professional women’s choice to adopt dressing codes of male colleagues and further preferences of Seville Row-UK suits (McCracken 1990) involves a short hand communication of who the y are, where the ultimate aim encompasses winning acceptance, approval, or at the very least, in some cases avoiding disapproval (Langer 1997). Through a dialectic relationship following “a cycle of externalization, objectivation, and internalization”, consumers and brands interact with each other. In search for higher levels of brand lo yalt y, internalization is furthered by objectivation to discover means of sustaining and/or advancing initial brand internalization. This is a joint activit y taking place at consumer-brand-consumer triad, at which brands contemplated as social objects are in deed created sociall y(Muniz and O'Guinn 2001), yielding itself towards a brand communit y (McAlexander, Schouten et al. 2002). Consumers utilize brands not onl y to aid living, but also to introduce a different meanin g to their lives. It is a ‘choice of a life’ for them, rather than a brand. Communities coalesce around brands to satisfy a yearnin g for a “reconstructed and re-mystified communit y” (Barber 1995) as a result of modernit y, which is accused of bringing “the disenchantment of the world” (Weber [1922] 1978). The abilit y to mediate the inherent tension between hi ghl y


st ylized consumer lifest yles (Simmel [1903] 1964) and the underl ying conformit y (Firat 1991) demand provides brands a unique position (Muniz and O'Guinn 2001). The higher the level of internalization, tighter is the integration with brand community, hence, higher the level of lo yalt y. Consumers who choose to posses a particular brand also choose to subscribe to a certain consumption communit y (Friedman, Vanden Abeele et al. 1993). Identification with brand image takes place upon evaluation at the earl y stages of decision making. Individuals choose to express and/or improve themselves, closer to their ideal selves, by the aid of identification with brand images. The level of brand identification determines the degree a brand expresses and enhances the consumer’s identit y (Kim, Han et al. 2001). Promoting possibilities for consumers to identify themselves with the brand image is the key to persuasion for higher levels of loyalt y (Oliver 1999), therefore, brand image and supporting activities of the firm should be aligned to maintain its consumption communit y. Moreover, marketing communications about a brand should be (1) carefull y wei ghted for their consistent congruit y with well researched and clearl y understood set of values associated with it in the consumer consciousness (McAlexander and Schouten 1998) and (2) providing assistance for prospective subscribers of the communit y in their “implementation intention”(Ba gozzi and Dhlokia 1999). For example, the perfect fit between Range Rover’s target audience and range of activities included in “A Country Affair” marketing pro gram achieved 82% participation rate amon gst invitees, 24% of who eventuall y purchased a new Range Rover (Keller 1998). A more developed stage of identification might even result in ownership in the brand, perhaps developing into commitment rather than a loyalt y (Oliver 1999; McAlexander, Schouten et al. 2002). Further Comm onalities Human perception of realit y and operations of s ymbols are manipulations of realit y (Burke 1969). Differenti ating mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom besides the opposing thumb, humans are s ymbol making. Symbols repel humans’ attention from the real world, and introduce a detachment from this realit y. Yet, s ymbols assist humans to comprehend the world. S ymbols are simpl y a representation of realit y rather than the realit y itself. The twofold denotation of objectivation specifies not only that social realit y is “there”, but also that social realit y is “there for everyone’. B y the course of internalization, the sociall y constructed world that is looked upon as being “there” for everyone becomes “there in me”. The difference between the “in here” and the “out there” is everlasting since what’s “out there” is continuousl y reproduced by the dialectic relationship. Man tends to captivate social realit y as a facticit y ex clusi ve of some internalization, though it is cooperativel y constructed and consequentl y adapted. Individual, removed from


social realit y through incarceration or anomie, “loses his orientation in experience” and, in extreme cases, “loses his sense of realit y and identit y.” Such an individual “becomes anomic in the sense of becoming world-less” (Berger 1967). The gap between actual and ideal self is among the key drives facilitating market demand. Social realit y continuously boosts ideal self, intensifying market demand. Together with brand communit y subscription (Langer 1997), individual’s ideal self inherits various dimensions from new communit y. Consumers bu y products to extend their selves and enhance their self-esteem (Belk, Wallendorf et al. 1989). Certain possessions are necessary for maintaining collective sense, and avoiding “becoming world-less” (Berger 1967). Fear of “becoming world-less” (Berger 1967), and practices readil y performed to avoid distancing from social realit y should be considered to comprehend identification with brand image better. Concluding Rem arks: As opposed to products, brands do not necessaril y practice a life cycle. As in the case of companies such as Levi’s and Coca-Cola, some brands’ value increases over time. Bearin g in mind that building brand loyalt y endures profitable growth as well as sales volume (Palumbo and Herbig 2000), branding polic y should be treated as part of the business policy.

The perspectives put forward herein contributes to research on active roles of consumers in constructin g ‘modern culture’ (Holt 1995; Miller 1995; Fournier 1998; Mick and Fournier 1998). The ‘realit y’ – that consumers’ experiences with brands are often phenomenologicall y distinct from those assumed by the managers who tend them – conceptualizes a different conception of brand at the level of lived experiences, and its social classification (Fournier 1998). Just as all individuals are not reli gious to the same degree, all consumers are not brand loyal to the same degre e. What man takes to be reli gion is a projection of his social relationships, and shoppin g choices, in deed, are ways of stabilizing relationships (Arnould 2000). Level of identification between brand and particular social group determines type and degree of mutual commitment. As identification is amongst the ke y determiners of brand loyalt y, integration of theory of culture and societ y (Berger 1967) with rhetoric (Burke 1969) to comprehend brand communit y construction and maintenance provides the field of Marketing an alternative novel approach.


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