Historically, brands are meant to identify the origins of products. They have thus served as a ‘message on the bottle’ clarifying the identity of the maker. By entering the so-called ‘brand economy’ – a market and social condition that is highly permeated by brands – the number of brand functions has exploded. Today, brands can be used to shape our sense of self, establish social links, express our deepest values or embody our worst fears, and way more. Consumers do not only expect brands to identify the origins of products, but also to have rich meanings. From a message on the bottle we have thus moved to a ‘message in the bottle’. Somehow, attention has shifted from brands-as-identifiers to brands-as-reifiers, that is, brands with a quasi-human nature.
The future of branding – I argue – stands primarily in the exploration of the new functions brands are able to express. This seminar is not meant to manage brands but to understand them in light of market, technological, and social changes. The importance of consumption is unprecedented. Social media and digital technologies bring about new forms of interaction between companies and consumers, which require novel thinking about brands.
The seminar opens with a brief introduction of the brand economy. It then moves to the discussion of four main functions that brands are susceptible to expressing.
First, we start from the original function of brands, that of identifying a product’s origins, but we contextualize it within raising interest for authenticity. What is brand authenticity and how can brands provide authentic experiences to consumers?
Second, we will address brands and consumer identity. How do brands concur in the construction of the consumer self, in both the digital and physical world? What are the implications of personal branding, the practice of branding ourselves to increase our own marketability?
Third, we will cover how brands can confederate consumers, as per brand communities or brand publics. In a material world, consumers are using brands – together with family and/or religious links – to establish connections with others. Yet, what are the logics behind?
Last, brands can also divide. Certain brands have been the target of harsh attacks from consumers seeing them as emblems of disvalues or sources of today’s problems (e.g. globalization, hunger, materialism, pollution). Why do brands cause trouble? And how is brand resistance manifested?
The research seminar will be organized in a very interactive fashion where students have to confront current case studies with academic readings and engage in activities of reading, writing, conversing, and presenting.
Students will be assessed on the basis of a 4,000 words long paper. Each participant will be free to choose one research topic among the four broad domains covered in class. He/she will be also free to develop said project more theoretically (e.g. conducting a literature review) or empirically (e.g. conducting some fieldwork).
Readings will be attributed on the basis of groups’ selected projects.