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Researching brands ethnographically: an interpretive community

approach Steven M. Kates

Consumers construct different meanings from what brand sponsors may have intended, and
different social types of consumers construct multiple meanings, depending on personal
background, contexts of consumption and multiple frames of reference. This issue of brands
possessing several potential meanings – what we might label the ‘problem of polysemy’ (a word
or phrase with different meanings) – has significant implications for consumer theory.

Brand meaning may be understood in light of the structuring potential of interpretive
communities and their associated interpretive conventions.

Interpretive communities and co-creation of the brand
An interpretive community is a cultural formation with a shared social and historical context that
delimits the potential of marketing communications. This predicate states that people are active
members of their communities and possess significant connections at various social location or
based on the similarities in their thinking pattern which may result in the similar interpretations
of marketing communications.

Consumers draw on various flexible sociocultural codes and construct meaning about the brand
or sponsors based on the marketing communications. Understanding these interpretive
communities and convention concepts can help understand their perspective and activities and
provide understanding about the brand meanings consumers construct. Marketers need to have
cultural competency; that is, the sociocultural knowledge that people in a particular society are
thought to possess so that they may understand and act appropriately

Examples of brand-related interpretive communities are gay men, Christian fundamentalists, Star
Trek enthusiasts and devoted Apple users

Brand-related interpretive communities in consumer research

Brands and social affiliation

Brands can foster a sense of social connection among consumers in informal social contexts
or in more socially organized interpretive communities. Brands have a ‘linking value’ or function
that connects consumers to each other through a set of common meanings or activities. Brand
communities are usually focused on the enthusiastic use and promotion of a particular
consumption object (such as a Saab, Apple, Newton or Apple computer).
Brands and oppositionality

A brand-related interpretive community may reflexively view itself as apart from and even
marginalized from mainstream culture.

For example hippies, punks, the deaf, Christian fundamentalists, lesbian separatists and many
other social groupings undoubtedly feel that they are marginalized from the mainstream and
disadvantaged by the way they are treated by others, most brand-related members usually
negotiate a significantly less stigmatized sense of otherness.

Members of branded subcultures of consumption seem to revel in and enjoy the cachet of
difference that their affiliation affords them, developing a unique set of values that may actually
be a source of social capital for the brand.

Brands and constructing identity

Interpretive communities (or social groupings) also play a role in the construction of identity.

For example, the people who prefer Harley Davidson represents a particular brand identity or
consumer identity as the outlaw bikers, the ‘moms and pops’, the lesbian Dykes on Bikes, and
the Rich Urban Bikers, etc. The meaning that is likely interpreted as freedom from patriarchal
society, separatism etc that are likely to be quite distinct from the more mainstream, working-
class cultural meanings that the more traditional, socially conservative ‘moms and pops’ riders
realize.

Doing interpretive strategy analysis of brands in the field: an application
Pay attention to the local politics
It is likely that brand meanings may reflect the biases and loyalties of informants toward the
brand and even hostilities toward others. For example, Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) noted that
some Apple users were sensitive to the dominance of IBM products in the PC social world.

Understand how brands and marketing communications fit into consumers’ daily lives
A key assumption of brand ethnography is that brand and product meanings are realized in the
ordinary, mundane course of everyday life and may go unnoticed and undisclosed. Thus it is
important for the brand communications to be immersed within the consumers daily lives for
building the relationship with the brands and their life.

Be sensitive to emerging differences among informants Conduct research

Interpretive communities arise in certain sociohistorical contexts and may change and even
disperse over time. Market research is an important tool to understand the prevailing differences
in the market. Another strategy is doing historical analysis of archived materials.

Understand the ways brands, products and marketing communications are ritualized and
institutionalized

It is very likely that brand communities and other brand-related groupings (like the generic
community construct in sociology) have rather stable rituals and traditions that relate to
commercial text. It is necessary to find the ones that appear to repeat, if in different forms. For
example, the importance of storytelling among consumers in establishing shared meanings
among brand communities.

Learn the tropes that constitute interpretive strategies
 Tropes includes:
 language is critical to human understanding
 poetic figures of speech that simultaneously unite and differentiate interpretive
communities. As
 metaphor is a key tropic manner of creatively transferring commercial meanings from
text to life and brands, and of mocking authority figures.
 Conscious refers critical endeavor to scrutinize market offerings in a fully aware manner,
contemplate the implications of consuming them from a sacred set of values, and make a
decision in accord with these values, and one that will result in spiritual outcomes that
connects his family members.

Future Research should be in the:
 Research into consumption communities
 Research into managers’ branding practices
 Broader issues and debate
Also:
 Ethnographic studies may extend our knowledge by demonstrating that communal
relationships exist between brands and interpretive communities, ones that depend
on past history with the brand and linguistic tropes that unite and divide
consumers.