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Ain't misbehavin' consumption in a moralized brandscape


Miriam Salzer-Mrling and Lars Strannegrd
Marketing Theory 2007; 7; 407
DOI: 10.1177/1470593107083164
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http://mtq.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/7/4/407

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Volume 7(4): 407425


Copyright 2007 SAGE
www.sagepublications.com
DOI: 10.1177/1470593107083164

articles

Aint misbehavin consumption in a


moralized brandscape
Miriam Salzer-Mrling
Stockholm University, Sweden

Lars Strannegrd
Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden

Abstract. How can one explain the phenomenon that a consumer is able to protest
against worker exploitation in the third world outside a Nike outlet and a day later
walk in and buy a pair of shoes from the same outlet? In this article we try to conceptualize how consumers handle the expressive and functional aspects of brands in a
moralized brandscape. By introducing the idea of de-coupling, we suggest that both
the production and the consumption of brands rest on a logic where the functional and
expressive values are separated from one and another. This implies that consumption
is not merely an expressive activity operating on the sign level, but rather that consumption must be understood as an intricate play where the relationship between
brand image and buying behaviour needs to be further explored. Key Words brands
buying behaviour de-coupling expressive values moral discourse

In 2002, two international market surveys on brands, corporate ethics and consumer behaviour (MTV, 2002; Research International Observer [RIO], 2002)
examined the relationship between buyer attitudes and buyer behaviour with
regard to global brands. Conducted in the aftermath of Naomi Kleins (1999)
influential book No Logo, the two surveys were presented as a response to Kleins
critique of the moral standards of global super-brands, and the two studies were
named respectively Yo Logo and Logo On. Whereas Klein demonstrated how
consumers and activists to an increasing extent criticize and even boycott brands
that do not live up to their moral claims, the surveys on the other hand suggest that
brands are indeed still embraced by consumers. The surveys also indicate that
although consumers might disregard and even take actions against a certain
brand, they are willing to consume products of that brand. This challenges both

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the idea of brands being causally related to purchasing behaviour and the postmodern suggestion that consumption is merely an expressive project. How is it
that brands at one and the same time can be criticized and consumed? How is that
consumers are perfectly able to protest against exploitation of the third world outside a Nike outlet, and a day later walk in and buy a pair of shoes from the same
outlet?
The results of the marketing surveys can be interpreted in a number of ways, but
above all they indicate that there is a need to get a deeper understanding of the
relationship between branding and buying behaviour. With the increasing focus
on brands in theory and practice, consumption has come to be understood as an
expressive activity. Whereas traditional marketing has put the focus on use-value
or exchange-value, the increasing importance of brands has rather shifted the
focus towards sign-value. This implies that consumption in a branded world is
increasingly regarded as an expressive activity where goods are consumed in terms
of their sign-value, rather than in terms of their functional characteristics. In the
form of images or signs, brands are being consumed as aesthetic expressions (see
e.g. Featherstone, 1994; Salzer-Mrling and Strannegrd, 2004).
While the functional values normally are regarded as a products physical or
material qualities, the expressive side of a brand generally refers to its immaterial
values and images. Even though it could be argued that the functional values are
expressive in some sense, and vice versa, a distinction between the two can be
made for analytical purposes (see e.g. Jansson, 2001). Hence, in a marketplace that
to an increasing extent is concerned with the production and consumption of
signs, the brand is not only a marker of identification, but also something that is
consumed in its own right. As Baudrillard (1983: 44) puts it, consumption has
become nothing but a signifying play. The product and its functions are thus not
as important as the brands expressive qualities.
In several studies it has been argued that strong brands create strong ties to the
customers (see Fournier, 1998; Sderlund, 2000). In fact, much of the branding
literature relies on the proposition that a positive attitude towards the brand leads
to positive purchasing decisions, and vice versa. The ultimate rationale behind
brand management is to establish a relationship with the customer and thus to
create loyal buyers (see e.g. Aaker, 1996; Kapferer, 1992). In an economy that
claims to revolve around the production and consumption of experiences, the
expressive values of goods are considered to be more important than ever. Hence,
rather than promoting functional values, brand strategies tend to be directed
towards the expressive side of consumption with a focus on the emotional and
aesthetic values embedded in the products aura and image.
Recent research has pointed to the necessity of recognizing cultural processes,
such as historical context and ethical concerns, in order to understand how brands
are perceived by consumers (Schroeder and Salzer-Mrling, 2005). As has been
witnessed by several authors, corporate branding often makes its presence in the
public sphere with a discourse characterized by ideological and political claims,
where brands compete by sometimes opportunistic invocations of almost any hot
ideological sign that has value at any given moment (Goldman and Papson, 1996:

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254). Values that traditionally have been confined to the political or private sphere
are today incorporated into the realm of advertising. Values such as equality,
justice or freedom are often communicated in ads and commercials as brands
strive to be positioned as morally sound personas. Ethics has become an important part of branding (e.g. Borgerson et al., 2005).
In sum, in current descriptions of the branded world it is generally held that
consumption is an expressive project: a signifying play where expressive signs
rather than material functions are consumed and produced. This expressive side
of consumption and production often also carries ideological and ethical claims;
and in the literature on branding and consumer behaviour it has been argued that
the brands ethical values clearly affect buying behaviour.
However, the results of the above mentioned surveys (MTV, 2002; RIO, 2002)
seem to be counter-intuitive to current literature. The surveys indicate that consumers might well hold a negative attitude towards a brand while still purchasing
its products. The moral discourse, it seems, is separated from the actual purchase
of products. How can we understand this incongruity? How do individuals cope
with the expressive and functional dimensions of brands? What is the relationship
between the brands expressive and moral values and the products material usevalue?
The aim of this article is to explore how the interplay between the functional
and expressive aspects of production and consumption of brands are dealt with in
buying behaviour. By challenging the idea that contemporary consumption is
nothing but an expressive game, we will in this article explore the expressive and
functional dimensions of consumption. By using the above mentioned surveys as
a problematization of the literature on branding and postmodern consumption,
we will discuss the way consumers and producers handle the expressive and
functional dimensions of the brand. In the following section we will describe the
theoretical framework that underlies much of the branding literature and the view
of consumption as an expressive project. We will thereafter present the two
empirical surveys that serve as a basis for discussing the problem arising in current
conceptions of branding and buying behaviour. In the final sections we will then
discuss how the expressive and functional dimensions of consumption can be
understood in the moralized brandscape.

Branding and buying behaviour


One of the more salient features of our time is the pervasive presence of logotypes,
symbols and images. In a social and economic order that is moving from substance
to image (Alvesson, 1990), the production and proliferation of brands are becoming increasingly important. As Lash and Urry (1994: 15) write, there is also an:
increasing component of sign-value or image in material objects. This aestheticisation of
material objects can take place either in the production or in the circulation and consumption
of such goods. Further, goods often take on the properties of sign-value through the process of
branding, in which marketers and advertisers attach image to goods.

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In the public space, there is thus an ongoing sign war (Goldman and Papson,
1996), where different images, symbols and logotypes struggle to stand out and
make themselves heard.
The idea that branding is a process primarily concerned with the creation of
values started to gain ground during the 1990s. Positive emotions and attitudes
have been considered to increase the value of the brand (e.g. Aaker, 1996; Jensen,
1999; Schmitt, 1999). Others have developed the brand definition into a conceptualization where branding cannot be reduced to a single factor, but needs to be
seen as a collection of factors, a set of consistent processes, aimed at a specific
purpose, that define, differentiate, and add value to the organization, (Blumenthal,
2004: 177). In the process of branding, the aim is to enchant or re-enchant
generic products or services by infusing them with positive images and meanings.
The ultimate rationale behind brand management is to establish a relationship
with the customer, to create loyal consumers who are to become frequent buyers
of the branded goods (see e.g. Aaker, 1996; Kapferer, 1992). Even though the clear
connection between brand awareness and buying has long been questioned within consumer behaviour theory (e.g. Wicker, 1969), the assumption dominates
within the branding field (Aaker, 1996; Kapferer, 1992). In the branding literature,
it is even suggested that the causal link between attitude and behaviour is stronger
than ever, since consumption on the expressive level is mainly a matter of attitude
(Aaker, 1996). By infusing products with emotional, aesthetic and ideological
values, the idea is to create brands that differentiate the products beyond their
immediate functional value. In line with most consumer behaviour theories,
branding is regarded as a strategy for creating positive attitudes that ultimately will
generate the desired outcome: a consumer purchase. Chaudhuri and Holbrook
(2001) argue that brand trust and brand affect determine purchase loyalty. This is
to say that consumers who trust brands are more prone to buying a product of that
brand. Brands thus carry value, and thereby they are to be regarded and managed
as equity. The reason that brands are conceptualized in economic terms is that
brand theory rests on the assumption that awareness, associations and loyalty ultimately leads to action in the form of purchase.
For decades, scholars of consumer behaviour have sought to refine models for
consumer decision making and consumer choice (e.g. Bettman, 1979; Holmberg,
1996; Holmberg, 2004; Howard, 1989). By focusing on relations such as: brand
recognition to attitude (Engel et al., 1990); involvement to purchase (Linderstam,
1989); and information to brand confidence (Howard, 1989), a theory underpinning the field of buying behaviour has emerged. The theory implies a hierarchy
of cause-effects where a particular behaviour, such as purchasing, is preceded by
information processing. Hence, the information processing ends in a result such
as brand recognition; an attitude to that brand; a confidence in it; an intention to
purchase; and finally the purchase itself.
The buying behaviour theory thus suggests that there is a match between the
information processed and the purchasing behaviour. For instance, negative
information about a company results in a more negative attitude to the brand,
which leads to a lower propensity to buy products of that brand. Conversely,

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positive information leads to positive attitudes to the brand leading to an increase


in the propensity that a customer will purchase a product of that brand. This
suggests that there is a clear connection between brands and buying. The underlying model (e.g. Bennett and Kassarjian, 1972) is that different types of stimuli
(significative, symbolic and social) lead to attention, are filtered through attitude
and intention, and finally end up in an outcome in the form of a purchase
decision. Theories of branding hence rest on a logic of perceptions, attitudes and
emotions that eventually are materialized in the purchase of a product or a service.

Expressive and functional dimensions of consumption


Several scholars have argued that studies of consumer behaviour are tantamount
to marketing studies. For instance, Robertson and Kassarjian (1991: vii) define
consumer behavior as the scientific study of consumer actions in the marketplace. Such delimitation has been questioned however, and consumer behaviour
has been argued to involve all the problems that individuals encounter when they
try to realize a particular standard of living (Arndt, 1976). Morris Holbrook
(1987) has tried to encapsulate studies of consumers by speaking of consummation. He sees consumption as a process entailing acquisition, consummation and
disposal. And he argues that consummation is central to human activity as it
implies a search for wholeness: Consummations of one sort or another are what
all humans and therefore all consumers seek. Consummation attaining customer value or achieving satisfaction thereby designates the central core of the
concept of consumer research (Holbrook, 1995: 88).
According to Firat and Venkatesh (1995) mainstream marketing theory rests on
a dichotomy of production and consumption and, in a sense, also on a distinction
between functionality and expressivity. To produce implies to extract, construct
and provide goods and service that have a value. Each step in production implies
an increase in value. On the other hand, the Latin verb consumere, from where
consuming stems, implies a decay of value. As soon as the consumer lays hand on
the good it starts to deteriorate in value. This dichotomy gives rationale to economic growth. Since the consumer destroys, the producer constantly needs to
produce new goods and services, and hence the wheels of the economy can continue to spin.
Placing the producer in opposition to the consumer has been questioned by
scholars such as Firat and Venkatesh (1995) and Keller (1993). To them, economic
and cultural activities blend together, and consumption needs to be elevated on
par with production. Consumption is, to the same extent as production, seen as a
value-producing activity, and both are matters of signification. Whereas traditional marketing has put the focus on use-value or exchange-value, the increasing
importance of brands has rather shifted the focus towards sign-value. This implies
that consumption in a branded world is increasingly regarded as an expressive
project where goods are consumed in terms of their sign-value rather than functional characteristics (see e.g. Featherstone, 1994). It can even be argued that

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brands have become cultural icons that are detached from any physical need or
object (Holt, 2004; Schroeder and Salzer-Mrling, 2005).
While the functional value normally is regarded as a products physical or
material qualities, the expressive side of a brand is in general referring to the
immaterial properties and images that the brand carries. Featherstone (1991;
1994) has argued that everyday life is undergoing a process of aestheticization.
This is to say that the symbolic and aesthetic appearance of goods and services
become the primary means of everyday experience. Consumption in such a late
modern version is thus mainly an expressive activity where goods are consumed in
terms of their sign-value rather than functional characteristics. In the form of
images or signs, brands are being consumed as aesthetic expressions. Late modern
markets are thus first and foremost said to be arenas for the production and consumption of signs (Baudrillard, 1981, 1988).
Consumption can thus be understood as an activity on the expressive level,
where signs can be used and re-used in an expressive conversation detached from
the physical products (Salzer-Mrling and Strannegrd, 2004). The direct functions of objects cannot easily be changed. For instance, a football boot cannot be
replaced by a hamburger. But on the sign-value level, objects can be substituted
infinitely. Brands, no matter which object they denote, could be signs of prestige,
status or youth. Hence, consumption is no longer a matter of using substance
only, but also a hedonistic, expressive game (see e.g. Pavitt, 2000). This is to say
that production and consumption can be treated as flip sides of a coin. This in turn
leads to a new area for study: the relationship between expressive corporate brand
builders and the consumers or, rather, co-producers of the brands. Along
with Firat and Venkatesh (1995), it could be argued that when corporations are
turning into expressive brand builders, consumption and buying behaviour turn
expressive as well. And when corporations are producing a moralized discourse,
the co-producing consumers take part in that discourse.

A moralized brandscape
The branded landscape, or brandscape, can be regarded as a culture or a market
where brands and brand-related items such as signs and logos increasingly dominate everyday life. The idea of the brandscape is closely related to Appadurais conceptualization of the various flows of meanings and symbols that form the global
world (see Appadurai, 1996). As argued by Sherry (1998), the consumers take an
active part in the creation of meaning in the brandscape:
The brandscape is a material and symbolic environment that consumers build with marketplace
products, images, and messages, that they invest with local meaning, and whose totemic
significance largely shapes the adaptation consumers make to the modern world. (Sherry, 1998:
112)

With the term brandscape, we refer to the social, economic and cultural landscape where brands are produced and consumed, not only as markers of identifi-

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cation, but increasingly as consumers aesthetic expressions in everyday life. The


brandscape is thus not merely a landscape filled with logotypes and images, but
rather a culture where consumption and commodities are given meaning and
where brands are crafted and circulated. It is a landscape where norms and values
are produced and consumed, and in line with Thompson and Arsel (2004), we
view the brandscape as a field of relationships where consumers experiences are
ideologically infused.
As consumption is claimed to have become both a matter of expression and
ideology (see e.g. Featherstone, 1991; Jansson, 2001; Keller, 1993) corporate
brands need to be in line with consumer values and preferences. In the brandscape
moral issues are often raised and movements such as Shopping for a better world
(Mohr et al., 2001), Political consumers (Pruzan, 1998), and Adbusters (Klein,
1999) point toward the ideological dimensions of consumption. When it is
assumed that consumers possess the power to extol or ruin brands through their
choices in the market place, positive brand images are thus considered to be the
key to consumer loyalty and purchasing behaviour. Hence, many a brand is placed
in a moralized discourse where expressions of social responsibility, corporate
citizenship and codes of conduct are central ingredients (e.g. Ellen et al., 2006; Sen
et al., 2006). To an increasing extent, branding involves expressing experiences
such as happiness, a better world, freedom, a greener environment, health,
and other positive ideals (e.g. McMurtry, 1998). Corporate social responsibility
has grown into a discipline in its own right with close links to branding, image and
reputation (e.g. Fombrun and van Riel, 2004; Windell, 2006). In this sense, corporate activities have moral claims, and ethical branding is increasingly recognized as
a corporate strategy (Fan, 2005).
In sum, we would argue that the context in which the production and consumption of brands take place is becoming a moralized brandscape. More specifically, it is a cultural landscape where focus increasingly is put on the expressive
side of the brand and where moral statements seem to be an issue in the discourse
of both consumers and producers.

Two illustrative studies


How, then, can the relationship between branding and buying be conceptualized?
As described above, it is often argued that production and consumption in late
modern society can be understood as a matter of expression and that branding and
buying are causally related. However, two recent surveys on brands and consumers perceptions carried out by Research International and MTV Europe
(MTV, 2002; RIO, 2002) respectively indicate that there is not a really clear-cut
relationship between branding and buying. As we found the results of the two
studies thought-provoking, we use them here as illustrative examples for a discussion on the relationship between consumers attitudes and buying behaviour. We
use examples from the two studies in order to problematize the expressive and
functional sides of consumption in a moralized brandscape. The studies thus serve

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as a basis for conceptualizing and challenging the predominant ideas on brands


and buying behaviour. A brief description of how the two studies were carried out
is presented below.

The RIO study


In November 2002, Research International published the Research International
Observer (RIO) study on global brands. The study, named Yo Logo, was carried
out during the summer and fall of 2002, and is presented in detail in Baker and
Sterenberg (2002) and Baker et al. (2003). It is a qualitative study of consumers
understanding of and reactions to global brands. The empirical data stems from a
random sample of 1500 individuals aged 1835 with different ethnic, social,
and religious backgrounds living in urban areas in 52 cities in 41 countries. The
countries included in the study were from all continents. The semi-structured
interviews were carried out by representatives from the company Research
International, and the study is among the largest and most comprehensive studies
of its kind (Baker and Sterenberg, 2002; Baker et al., 2003). The idea behind the
study was to explore whether a backlash against brand homogeneity could be
discerned. The study set out to explore the limits to globalization, and whether
global brands were considered to make consumers lose their individuality and
freedom of choice. It analysed and elicited consumers feelings and attitudes
toward global brands, and investigated whether or not consumers look for consistency in corporate behaviour and brand associations.

The MTV study


During November and December 2001, the European branch of the television
network MTV conducted a focus-group study of attitudes toward global
brands, preferences and buying behaviour. The study was named Logo On, and the
respondents were 16 to 24-year-olds in Stockholm, London, Manchester, Milan,
Amsterdam and Hamburg. The altogether 350 individuals were chosen from
regular MTV viewers in the above mentioned cities. Approximately 50 focus
group sessions were carried out, each lasting for two to three hours and consisting
of six to eight individuals. The young consumers were chosen as they were considered to be conscious of trends and developments in society and to be extrovert
media consumers (MTV, 2002).
Even though the two studies were carried out with different methodologies,
different respondents and with different purposes, they were both spurred by
Naomi Kleins (1999) book No Logo where the moral standards of global superbrands were criticized. Also, they focus on young consumers and youth culture
consumption, which is an area that recently has received an increased academic
interest (e.g. Kjeldgaard and Askegaard, 2006). Evidently, both organizations conducting the studies are a priori positive toward brands and global branding, and
the studies have thus been conducted in that context. Nevertheless, in our
on-going research of the moralized brandscape we find the results from the two

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studies intriguing. Of particular interest for our analysis is how the studies results
can be interpreted as: illustrating consumers abilities to distinguish between
brands functional and expressive values; and questioning the assumed clear-cut
causal connection between branding and buying behaviour. In the next section we
will make a brief summary of the results in the two studies which will then be used
as a starting point for our theoretical discussion.

Results from the studies: consumption in a moralized brandscape


The RIO study
The results in the RIO Yo Logo study show that few respondents embrace a
development where global brands are becoming increasingly vulnerable to moral
considerations. The reasons are quite straightforward according to the respondents: the role of brands is to simplify choice and politicization can make informed
choice much more complicated. Since brands exist in the world of the imagination, politicization is seen as an unwelcome intruder. Finally, politicization can
create dissonance with established behaviour. The survey thus suggests that
consumers prefer an easy life; they would rather forgive and forget. There is no evidence that consumers are interested in transparency to a great extent, and the
report concludes that there is no mainstream consumer-driven requirement for
transparency.
Consumers in the survey seem to experience an affinity to certain brands, and
to a certain extent they anthropomorphize brands and relate to them in a similar
way that they relate to other humans. One of the most flagrant observations in the
study is that consumers are willing to forgive brands that are considered to act in
a morally questionable way. A representative quote is from an interviewee from
the Philippines:
Although environmental pollution and ethical issues are relatively important, they are not
enough reasons to boycott products, especially if you are used to the brand and there are no
issues against the brands safety.

The consumers in the study find brands helpful in the abundance of products and
services offered. The results show that consumers in many cases have formed a
personal relationship with the brand and are therefore willing to neglect transgressions that the brand may be guilty of. Negative issues such as child labour and
low wages can be put aside or forgotten. The study suggests that Consumers
prefer to forgive and forget and have the capability to disconnect the political self
from the consuming self. Bad corporate behaviour becomes an issue only in cases
when consumers are personally affected. An illustrative quote from an English
interviewee in the Research International Observer study reads:
I know of Nestl and their milk powder scandals. But after all, a Kit Kat does not change the
situation in the world.

According to this interviewee, multinational corporations thus act in a way that is

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morally questionable, but the connection seems remote. A similar standpoint is


expressed by an Australian interviewee:
I know Nike is using sweatshops . . . but I will still buy it, when I like the shoes. It is shallow, but
it is so far away from your own situation. It is not your mother who gets exploited, you know.

In short, the study suggests that young consumers are well aware that the brand
does not live up to its ideals. They may even have a negative attitude toward the
brand, but yet they buy products of that brand. The respondents demonstrate a
high awareness regarding the brands moral claims but seem to disconnect them
from the product they are buying (Baker and Sterenberg, 2002; Baker et al., 2003).

The MTV study


The general results from the MTV Logo On study show that the interviewees consider themselves to be remote from politics and political decision making (MTV,
2002). They have strong opinions on issues such as environmental degradation
and globalization, but find themselves to lack influence on the political agenda.
The interviewees report that they are well aware of the increased focus corporations place on branding, both regarding the corporations themselves and the
products and services they offer. In addition, they see a development where consumers are offered opportunities to choose between different brands. They see a
multitude of brands where there is a brand for each preference and lifestyle. The
interviewees are used to advertising and consider it to be an obvious and necessary
ingredient in society and media. They regard some advertising and commercials as
entertainment, even though they are well aware that they are being influenced
by the messages at the same time. Interviewees state that they are well aware of
ethical and moral issues, and that they try to stay informed of ethical transgression
that corporations may be guilty of. Globalization as such is not seen as an unethical activity, but there is no doubt among the interviewees that global brands are
clearly associated with shady ethics. If a corporation is known for lacking ethics in
one area, such as child labour, the corporation is assumed to lack ethics in other
areas as well. According to the study, consumers are aware, however, that corporations are sometimes stigmatized by rumours that may not be well grounded.
The focus group participants state that brands play significant roles in their
worlds, but that loyalty to a brand is weak at the actual point of purchase. They distinguish between the brand and the product. Brands are important in their roles as
image providers; brands send out signals about what one wants to be and what
group one wants to be part of. The product of a particular brand, on the other
hand, is seen as a matter of quality. Familiarity and perceived quality are particularly important for the purchase decision, and the actual buying of a product
creates loyalty to products of a particular brand with repeated purchase.
The focus group participants see a general awareness of ethical and moral issues
connected to companies among young consumers. To be well-informed on issues
such as how global corporations act in different countries, whether they exploit
natural resources or employ sweatshop workers, is considered to be part of the

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norm of being an urban, educated, young individual. Information on such issues


stems from class discussions, media and friends.
The interviewees found it easier to cite examples of bad corporate behaviour
than to come up with examples of good behaviour. In addition, the focus group
participants could generally give examples of corporations acting in an unethical
way, and they were able to explain why they considered a particular behaviour to
be unethical. If a particular company was considered to act unethically in one area,
such as using child labour, the company was considered to act in unethical ways in
other areas as well. Global brands were generally associated with unethical behaviour. The global brands are seen as representations of global capitalism. Hence, a
company behind a global brand is by default associated with unethical behaviour.
Yet, a negative attitude toward a brand does not necessarily lead to a product of
that brand being rejected at a point of purchase. The participants in the focus
groups were almost unanimous in their view that brands were not rejected at the
point of purchase unless somebody they knew had been negatively affected by the
brand or by a product of that brand. Hence, the participants found it sufficient to
be aware of the ethical dilemmas of global brands in order to see oneself as a considerate individual. At the point of purchase, these considerations were set aside,
and a product from a brand with questionable ethical standards could well be
bought.
The participants of the focus group stated that they often buy products from a
global brand of which they are critical. When asked for the rationale behind this
they stated that they were well aware of this double standard, but said that they
did not want to limit their freedom of choice. They said that their choices were
limited in the first place, since there are few alternatives to the global brands.
Products of global brands have better quality, lower prices and are accessible. In
addition, they considered their own purchase decision to be insignificant in the
global context.
One focus group participant told a story of how she was well able to protest
against the sports apparel company Nikes exploitation of the third world outside
a Nike outlet, but the day after walk in and buy a pair of Nike shoes from the same
outlet. She liked Nike shoes, but disliked Nikes behaviour in the third world.
To the participants in the focus groups, such views and such behaviour were
considered to be understandable and unproblematic (MTV, 2002).

Discussion: de-coupling as a strategy


How, then, can buying behaviour be conceptualized in a context infused by a
moral discourse? Is there a need to reconceptualize our understanding of branding
and buying behaviour in a moralized brandscape? In the surveys, customers state
that they are well aware of the strategy of branding that corporations engage in.
They realize that there is a discrepancy between the brands moral claims and
material performance. Even though the respondents seem to have a high awareness of the corporations unethical behaviour, they choose to put that aside when

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buying products of the brand. Exploitation of the third world, child labour and
environmental degradation are activities that consumers are aware go hand in
hand with some corporations business-as-usual. Many of the respondents are also
negative towards the brand. Yet this does not stop them from buying products of
that brand.
How is it that consumers might hold a negative attitude towards the brand and
at the same time buy products of the brand? One interpretation could be that the
consumers are hyper-loyal and thus forgive their brands mistakes or shortcomings
(compare with Sderlund, 2000). Another explanation that has been launched is
that super-brands are so dominant and omnipresent that there is little choice left
for customers who want to find alternatives (Klein, 1999). It could also be argued
that consumers are pragmatic, practical, indifferent or aesthetically reflexive in
their use of brands (compare with Lash and Urry, 1994). And finally, according to
postmodern marketing theory, the inconsistency between brand attitude and purchasing behaviour could be understood as an evidence of how consumers subvert
the market by being unpredictable (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995).
Even though all the reasons above might be true, our prime interest is to understand how the separation between buying behaviour and moral attitudes is
managed. So, despite all these explanations, and rather than speculating about
what goes on in the consumers minds, our intention here is instead to analyse
how consumers deal with the expressive and functional levels of brands in their
buying behaviour. How do consumers manage to separate the expressive features
of the brand from the functional dimension of the candy bar or the sneaker?
Through our reading of the surveys we have come to search for new ways to conceptualize consumer patterns in a moralized brandscape.
As has been argued above, the emerging brandscape implies a shift in many
corporations business focus: from function to expression. Corporations are in
many cases separating the manufacturing of material products from the creation
of symbols, and branding and production have become two separate activities
de-coupled from one another. The term de-coupling gained wide recognition within organizational sociology when Meyer and Rowan (1977) presented the argument that formal organizational structures may arise as a reaction to institutional
norms. They argue that institutional rules function as myths which organizations
incorporate in order to gain legitimacy. However, these formal structures are
de-coupled from from activities taking place in the organization. Their main argument is that imposed formal structures have very little to do with actual activity in
organizations, stating that:
Structural elements are only loosely linked to each other and to activities, rules are often
violated, decisions are often unimplemented, or if implemented have uncertain consequences,
technologies are of problematic efficiency, and evaluation and inspection systems are subverted
or rendered so vague as to provide little coordination. (Meyer and Rowan, 1977: 343)

Through the process of de-coupling, organizations are able to cope with external
demands while going on with their business-as-usual (Brunsson, 1989). Decoupling is thus a way to manage and legitimize moral and technical requirements.

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The institutional and the technical environments impose fundamentally different


types of demands on organizations. The management of each of these two
demands has got little to do the other; and therefore the two types of structures
become de-coupled. De-coupling is thus a strategy for handling inconsistent
demands. By creating separate, de-coupled structures, the organization can
manage to handle different systems.
The concept of de-coupling, we would argue, can be transferred to the way
corporations manage function and expression in the production of branded
goods. Flows that are related to the products functional/material value are
managed by one organizational system, and flows related to expression/image by
another. Business is, in many aspects, increasingly organized for a separation
between the material and immaterial; between function and expression. The decoupling of functional use-value and expressive sign-value implies that they are
divided into separate spheres: one sphere of substance/function and one of
image/expression. For instance, companies like Nike, Adidas and Ericsson have to
an increasing extent out-sourced their manufacturing so that the corporation can
be free to focus on the real business creating a corporate mythology powerful
enough to infuse meaning into these raw objects just by signing its name (Klein,
1999: 22). This is to say that they have de-coupled the structures of physical and
symbolic production. As the manufacturing of products and brands are separated,
corporations develop their skills in keeping separate function and expression.
Thereby they are able to create sophisticated brands that can take on a life of their
own, regardless of where and by whom the physical goods are produced.
As corporations invest more time and money in creating better brand images
they are constantly incorporating current public values into their branding strategies (see Christensen and Cheney, 2000). New meanings and values need to be
appropriated by the corporations in order to keep the brand up-to-date and
attractive. The way corporations account for themselves and their activities is thus
in terms of social values and norms. As suggested by Christensen and Cheney
(2000: 248):
a growing number of organizations feel the need to explain their existence and activities in
terms of social and political values. Whereas the raison detre of most private organizations is
still the generation of profits, they often justify their existence in other terms.

Hence, the brand is not only an imagery repertoire for attracting customers. It can
also be used more broadly as a corporate strategy for creating legitimacy not only
as a financially sound and effective organization on the functional level, but also as
a morally sound and attractive firm on the expressive level (see Salzer-Mrling,
2002). By communicating certain moral values, organizations ceremonially legitimate themselves as being part of the corporate world or the organizational field
(Meyer and Rowan, 1977). The ritual of moral branding can thus be interpreted
as a ceremony that has the objective of placing the organization in the reference
system of corporate signs, where all corporations more or less come to use the
same imagery repertoire in the construction of themselves as socially responsible
citizens.

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Consumers mirroring corporate strategies


Even though the idea of de-coupling stems from research on organizations, we
argue in this article that consumers adopt the same strategy. The results of the
surveys presented above suggest that consumers de-couple the product from the
brand. This is to say that consumers, just like corporations, are able to de-couple
the material and immaterial. We would thus argue that what happens in the
moralized brandscape is that consumers de-couple expressivity from functionality, and in doing so they mirror the strategies that corporations use. De-coupling
is thus not only an activity occurring in organizations, but it is also a way for
consumers to cope with branding.
When consumers buy products of a certain brand at the same time as the brand
is being criticized or even attacked, they are employing the same strategy as the
corporation behind the brand. By de-coupling the functional from the expressive,
consumers can treat inconsistent or conflicting meaning systems separately. Moral
is one issue, and consumption another, and yet consumers are well aware that the
two are interconnected. As suggested in the MTV Study (MTV, 2002) consumers
are generally concerned about brands and their ethics, but they seem to prefer not
to mix politics and shopping. This implies that on a functional level a consumer
might consume a Kit Kat candy bar, while still holding a negative image towards
the brands moral standards. Quotes such as: I know of Nestl and their scandals
. . . but a Kit Kat wont change the world (RIO, 2002) demonstrate how consumers distinguish between the brands expressed moral and its functional values.
De-coupling thus implies that function and expression are separated.
Hence, it seems that consumers are able to handle two contradictory realities by
separating the functional value of a brand from its overall expressive brand image.
As suggested by Ellen et al. (2006: 155) in their study of corporate social responsibility, positive and negative emotions co-occur in consumers relations to corporations, and while consumers and the public may look cynically at businesses,
they recognize and apparently expect that businesses can serve two masters: their
bottom lines and long-run viability and the needs of society. Thus, in the same
way as corporations systematically de-couple incongruent meanings at the
functional and the expressive level, consumers can in the same way handle the
discrepancies between brand and product through de-coupling.
The physical functions of a product cannot be changed, whereas the expressive
features of a brand can. On the sign-value level, brands can be substituted
infinitely and be used as expressive tools (e.g. Baudrillard, 1983). A Nike swoosh
can be distorted graphically into a sword and used to express anti-American opinions (Klein, 1999). The McDonalds brand can be used as a symbol for globalization, standardization, or Americanization (Ritzer, 1993). Yet, the brand and the
product need not be closely connected. A brand can thus be used to express
something that goes way beyond the individual product. The physical product, a
hamburger in this instance, is remote, or can even be disconnected from the brand
in the eyes of the consumer.
In the moralized brandscape brands are increasingly scrutinized and criticized.

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Many interest groups demand that the brand should be ethical and socially
responsible. Even though the criticism of the super-brands generally is directed
towards the substantial level (working conditions, environmental damages, etc.),
corporate response seems to be primarily focused on the image level. The way
corporations respond to the mismatch between function and expression is, however, focused on branding. Negative attitudes, public criticism and mass medial
examinations of the corporate activities are met with new campaigns, more
advertising and better slogans on corporate citizenship, etc. The problem to be
handled is that of expression, not function. Hence, the super-brands are involved
in an escalating production of myths, where the increased criticism of the corporate moral standards is counteracted with more and more branding. The decoupling of function and expression thus appears to be so well established, that
reactions to the former level are handled on the latter.

Conclusions
We started this article by asking how one can explain the phenomenon that a consumer is able to protest against worker exploitation in the third world outside a
Nike outlet and a day later walk in and buy a pair of shoes from the same outlet.
Such misbehaviour challenges both the idea of brands being causally related to
purchasing behaviour, and the postmodern suggestion that consumption is
merely an expressive project. How is it that brands at one and the same time can
be criticized and consumed? The background to this question is the moralized
brandscape in which production and consumption takes place. The moralized
brandscape is a social, economic and cultural landscape where brands are infused
with meaning and ideology (compare with Sherry, 1998; Thompson and Arsel,
2004). It is a landscape where the main focus of production and consumption has
shifted: from function to expression, or from use-value to sign-value (see e.g.
Featherstone, 1994; Firat and Venkatesh, 1995).
Since consumption and production are more and more to be understood as
expressive activities, corporate branding is often regarded as an issue of improving
corporate reputation and asserting the corporations moral standards (see e.g.
Pruzan, 1998). Corporate social responsibility is for instance said to have a clear
impact on buying behaviour (see e.g. Mohr et al., 2001), and the brands ethical
standard has been found to affect the attitude towards the firm strongly (Folkes
and Kamins, 1999). When brands are intimately entwined with our culture and
our identities, any wrong-doings are bound to be met with criticism and protests.
As has been shown by Klein (1999), the double standards of many global companies are constantly subject to scrutiny and anti-corporate activities. On the
expressive sign-level, consumers and producers alike are increasingly engaged in a
moralized discourse.
As has been suggested in the literature on buying behaviour and branding, there
is a causal relationship between attitudes towards the brand and buying behaviour
(see. e.g. Aaker, 1996). However, the results of the two surveys discussed in this

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article (MTV, 2002; RIO, 2002) seem to be counter-intuitive to current literature.


The surveys indicate that consumers might well hold a negative attitude towards a
brand while still purchasing its products. The moral discourse, it seems, is separated from the actual purchase of products.
One way to understand this incongruity is by using the concept of de-coupling.
The production and consumption of brands, we would argue, must be understood
on two levels: the functional and the expressive. Consumption, as well as production, involves both expressive and functional values. However, in many companies
there is a structural separation between the production of things and the production of images, and the two systems are thus de-coupled (compare with Meyer and
Rowan, 1977). Conflicting demands, often expressed in terms of moral requirements on the one hand, and cost efficiency on the other, can thus be managed by
handling the two demands in two separate spheres of meaning. The moral discourse in the expressive system is thus de-coupled from the physical production in
the functional system. As has been shown in this article, consumers can also
de-couple the brands expressive features from the functional ones. In this sense,
consumers imitate the strategy adopted by corporations where two, sometimes
contradictory, rationales are espoused. Moral claims on the expressive level are
separated from the products features on the functional level. Hence, a brand can
be criticized on the expressive level, while still being consumed on the functional
level.
In contrast to the predominant theories on consumer behaviour, the idea of
de-coupling can be read as a challenge towards the alleged clear-cut relationship
between positive/negative images and purchasing behaviour. In this article we
have tried to problematize the idea that brands generate predictable consumer
behaviour. And it also calls for a more multi-faceted view of the rationale behind
postmodern consumption and production. In marketing literature, it has repeatedly been argued that consumption in the branded world is a matter of expression
(e.g. Featherstone, 1994; Firat and Venkatesh, 1995; Jansson, 2001). In latemodern writings the consumer is conceptualized as a hedonistic, expressive and
reflexive subject (I shop therefore I am), where use-value is replaced by expressive sign-value. However, we suggest that contemporary consumption in a moralized brandscape is not merely a matter of expression. Material consumption has
not vanished altogether. Rather, in this article we have argued that the expressive
and functional dimensions of brands co-exist, and that the strategy for handling
the inconsistencies between the two levels is that of de-coupling.
Even though it has been known for a long time that consumers are by no means
passive receivers of corporate cues, we have in this article tried to contribute to
that knowledge by presenting the idea of de-coupling as a way of understanding
consumer behaviour. This implies that in order to understand branding and
buying behaviour, we need to understand how brands work both on an expressive
and functional level.

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Miriam Salzer-Mrling is Associate Professor at the School of Business, Stockholm


University, Sweden. Her current research interests include leadership, storytelling and
culture. Her research has appeared in the co-edited book Brand Culture (Routledge) and
in journals such as the European Journal of Marketing and Scandinavian Journal of
Management. Address: School of Business, Stockholm University, 106 91, Stockholm,
Sweden. [email: ms@fek.su.se]
Lars Strannegrd is Associate Professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies in
Leadership at Stockholm School of Economics and Visiting Professor at Uppsala
University. His current research interests include the interplay between leadership,
design and technology. His research has appeared in journals such as Organization, the
Scandinavian Journal of Management and the European Journal of Marketing. Address:
Centre for Advanced Studies in Leadership, Stockholm School of Economics, Box 6501,
113 83 Stockholm, Sweden. [email: lars.strannegard@hhs.se]

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