Redefining the Meaning of Consumption: When Technology Makes Brands More Human

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Each member of the MAIM Class of 2016 proposes their individual perspectives on innovation management in the lead up to their Degree Show “Through the Kaleidoscope: Perspectives on Innovation Management”. In this post, Ivette Procel, shares her perspective on the future of brands.

“The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1967)


Brands and the Digital World: A Challenging Race


Where do brands stand in an age where consumers consume and produce content for free (Mason, 2014; Downes and Nunes, 2014), where digital services are redefining the way humans participate within society because the services themselves are intelligent in that they link, combine and create data to create new knowledge, where the meaning of ownership has been disrupted by the sharing economy, where media production is no longer exclusive for professionals as it searches for talented people that aim to make their voices heard and creative talent seen, where 3D printing allows prosumers to produce and consume printed products, where mobile computing will continue to be a medium that supports the access, production and consumption of unlimited information, where advertising has grown not be controlled by certain companies or by certain channels rather, it is controlled by humans and the various different touch points that technology has developed to produce and consume content. Where, at the same time consumers are becoming digitally dizzy, as they are experiencing a proliferation in digital touchpoints and services to engage with, having limited time and attention to interact with them and, where complex drivers of people’s behaviors (Mlodinow, 2012) and the unconsciousness of consumers at the time to make a decision create challenges for brand-engagement.  


[Take a deep Breath]


In today’s digital world consumers cannot keep up with the deluge of technological interruptions, uncertainty has become a consequence caused by an ever increasing inevitability of dramatic transformations that unlock complex paths that challenge traditional approaches and have influenced both consumer expectations and ways in which brands are produced, consumed and experienced. Therefore, brands are being puzzled by the risks of navigating a world where the speed of change has threatened brand-stability and more importantly threatens the traditional one-way forms of broadcast advertising and self-interest oriented strategies.


Brands need to reconsider abandoning solely financially-oriented strategies by withdrawing preconceived paradigms and envisioning the possibility of unveiling social purpose behind brand-development, in order to deliver social impact by transmitting meaningful ideologies of how the world should be. A future where brands earn a seductive power to influence the emergence of radical innovation of meanings (Verganti, 2009) by embracing a dynamic state of constant curiosity between clients and the brand by interacting with each other as social-progress seekers with the ability to foster social empathy through a curiosity that induces an ever-ending process of having always one more cause to puzzle over.


Brands and Myths, a Legendary Relationship


Brands can be seen as ideas to live, they tell stories about themselves and allow the context for both, community and individualization. Brands have grown to have an important impact with collective and personal meanings, as humans have a need to create cultural and ethnic connections as a part of their personal and social understanding of the society they are subsisting in. Brands thus, function as a translator in terms of creating social and personal impact.


Since the beginning of civilizations society has constructed stories that help humans understand the meaning of life. Myths respectively, are traditional stories that often try to explain aspects of human behavior by telling stories that interact with emotional facts in a way that allows interpreters to create their own interpretation by constructing the meaning for themselves. This phenomenon is what allows so many different iterations of a myth to all hold true (Barthes, 1957; Strauss, 1964). A brand is a collective perception of experiences in the mind of the consumers, which facilitates them to express their individuality creating an objective reality by having different subjective opinions of the brand. In the same way to myths, they are inherently varied as they can be interpreted in a number of equally valid ways.


Subsequently, brands are capable of solving contradictions, in the same way as myths. For Strauss (1954) the problem that a myth often tries to solves takes the form of a logical contradiction that is constructed in a group’s belief system and which the myth tries to overcome.  


“Apple makes computers human. Persil makes dirt good. Dove makes beauty universal. Nike makes every-body an athlete. Google makes infinity manageable. Kodak makes moments last forever.” (Yakob, F.; 2015; p.23)


It is collectively that the definition of a brand helps resolve the contradiction between influence and clarity, as well as the contradiction between function/performance vs. function/meaning as brands should not be defined by the object of their message, but by the way in which that message affects society.  


Brands Need to Make Consumers Socially-Curious


Advertising has long faced criticisms regarding the corruption of  social values as it allows people to learn the meaning of consumption. Subsequently, mass-media plays a significant role as a shaper of social forms as it sets the agenda for how the public thinks about concerning values and issues.


Having the influence brands have, behaving as myths of the modern society, they need to use brand-narratives that unite ideas and emotions capable of inspire and engage social change. Brands need to start doing real things, in the real world, to real people. They need to focus not in what advertising can do for the brand, but in what advertising should do for society. Customers are beginning to make purchases based on their future, not on the features of a company’s product.


In that sense, brands need to re-position themselves using strategies that support social progress by not only focusing on financial revenues but by cooperating as mediators in order to support social organizations and help solve social causes with the perspective that the ultimate benefit a brand can deliver is using its influential power to inspire social empathy. Brands and clients need to interact in an environment where curiosity leads the reinforcement of aesthetics-affective and aesthetics-cognitive empathy. This transpires into an ever ending formulation of questions that will propel the social-progress seekers to challenge their behaviors in order to explore, understand and discover how the world could be, questioning the act of irresponsible consumption and linking brand success with social progress.


Virtual Reality: An Extension of One’s Consciousness


Empathy is a powerful medium, research shows that when a person is empathetic, he or she enhance the ability to receive and process information, putting themselves in someone else’s shoes (Schacter, 1996), causing measurable changes in the cognitive attitude. Empathy also manages curiosity, as empathy attends to another person on his or her terms, it is a demanding exercise, so it is linked to the dialogic exchange, as curiosity comes from paying attention to what another person implies but does not say (Sennet, 2013).  Empathy, can be a powerful medium when aiming to influence consumers in order to transmit and inspire social purpose. Empathetic behaviors could involve bottom-up processes that relate to emotional contagions and affect social behaviors by understanding another’s person context embodying his or her emotion as a type of interpersonal influence.


The use of VR could be seen as technological medium that displays valuable content translated into real life stories with the aim to reflect the hidden aspects of social problems, engaging and influencing consumers in order to create social effects that earn attention, acknowledging the possibility in which importance no longer lies on what advertising can do for the brand, but rather the effect the brand has on a community.


VR immerses and transports the user through a journey of telepresence experience that reinforces the emotional labour of embodying someone else’s truth as a form of constructed reality, fostering social empathy as a fusion of aesthetics and affective attitudes that induces curiosity as a strong and constant driver. It is the immersion into the real stories that will allow witnesses to believe in a better future, as VR allows users to experiment interactions in the mediated environment rather than only witnessing the environment as a whole. Is the thoughtfulness about the anticipation of a possible future behind a brand’s development that will support brand’s equity.


The world is evolving at an incremental pace, where technology has democratized the power between producers and consumers. In a world where technology seems to makes us more human, it might be suitable for brands to start thinking about a broader purpose.


Stay tuned for the upcoming MAIM 2016 Degree Show, taking place at Central Saint Martins from 22 to 26 June 2016.


* Mahdawi, A (2014) Satire is Dying Because the Internet is Killing it. [Internet] Available from: < > [Accessed 10 May 2016]

* Mason, P. (2015). Postcapitalism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

* Barthes, R. and Lavers, A. (1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.  

* Downes, L. and Nunes, P. (n.d.). Big bang disruption.

* Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1967) The Structural Study of the Myth. NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

* McLuhan, Marshall (1967) The Medium is the Massage. UK. Penguin Book.

* Schacter, D. (1996). Searching for memory. New York, NY: Basic Books.

* Sennett, R. (2006). The culture of the new capitalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

* Sennett, R. (1998). The corrosion of character. New York: Norton.

* Verganti, R. (2006). Design Driven Innovation. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.