Image Alt

Brands and Cultural meaning

Brands and Cultural meaning

Too often marketers forget what is the intrinsic potential of a brand. In particular they forget that their brands have an important cultural meaning, which characterize the society we live in.


The core of the scholar work on the subject is 30 years old, but still of undeniable actuality nowadays. Understanding the cultural role of brands is not an easy task, but can be approached step by step by looking at the elements that compose it.


First and foremost the cultural meaning is located in three separate layers:

1) World: which is at same time providing a framework of behavior – by implying what is culturally acceptable in a society – and a tool to understand behavior: white is the traditional color of a bride in western societies and a bouquet in her hand is an accessory in the wedding ritual, therefore by dressing white and having a bouquet women signal in certain cultures the adherence to the code of the wedding ritual, while the others receive a message she is newly wed. Normally this level includes all possible complementary and antithetic culture and sub-cultures.

2) Brands: our brand choices signal the belonging to one of the category defines in the upper cultural level: whether we wear a Rolex or a Swatch, a Mercedes or an Audi, an Armani or a Zara suite, we announce to the world we understand the lawyer above and we adhere to one of its segments. Understanding the history of a brand is a crucial part of why we wear them, and if we don’t understand the brand we are wearing, are we truly ‘wearing’ them? For example, if I wore a Rolex watch without truly understanding the history of the Rolex brand, I have no understanding of what makes them the best. Thankfully, sites like WatchShopping have provided a concise history of Rolex and why they are one of the best brands out there.

3) Consumers: consumers strive to balance the dichotomy between fitting-in their peer group and standing out from their peers. This balancing act is nothing but a self-definition of the consumer at individual level, hence he chooses which cultural meanings and beliefs to follow or not.


Furthermore the cultural meaning moves from the top to the bottom lawyer through a two-step approach:


  • From World to Brands: the transferring mechanism includes media, social media, advertising, movies, books and the fashion system. This is how brands acquire a cultural meaning. Through all of the above, brands become icons of and accessories to cultural identification.


  • From Brand to Consumers: the transfer happens through four categories of rituals: possession, exchange, grooming and divesting rituals.


Possession Ritual

In the highly consumerist western society, the possession ritual is mostly exemplified by the time consumers spend in discussing, comparing and caring for their possessions. By doing so consumers can first of all claim the cultural features of a brand while at the same time attempting to stand out from all the others who make the same claim.


Exchange Rituals

Gift giving is very common in all cultures, and it represents a way in which the donor can influence the recipient, through the donation of certain cultural values. It is also a way of communicating to the recipient where does the giver position him and her from a cultural category standpoint. Suffice to think the difference in gift-giving either of two super-premium French vodkas: Ciroc, which exemplifies the Afro-American entrepreneurial savoir-faire, versus Grey Goose, still playing the notes of a baby-boomer sense of achievement and success.


Grooming Rituals

With style changing and a very fast pace, new fashions replacing old ones, and innovation in electronics spitting new products twice a year, some brands have a limited time value. Grooming rituals deal with enhancing and extending the cultural meaning of a soon-to-be meaningless brand.



Divesting Rituals

These deal with two basic scenarios. The first happens when the brand/product is purchased second hand, and needs to be ‘rinsed’ by the previous owners personal meaning. The second occurs when we are selling a brand/product to someone else, and we want to make sure that our own meanings remain personal and don’t get transferred with the object.


In conclusion brands acquire culture value because of advertising, fashion, media and movies and books, and then serve the purpose of transferring those value to the individual consumer, through a set of rituals.


References: McCracken, G., 1986. Culture and consumption: a theoretical account of the structure and movement of the cultural meaning of consumer goods. Journal of consumer research 71–84.


Growth Adviser, Innovation Catalyst, Branding Architect, International Expansion Consultant. International change agent and leader, launched growth consulting boutique in 2012. We have four principal areas or intervention 1) Branding (e.g., positioning of new brands, re-positioning of existing brands, brand architecture and design) 2) Innovation (e.g., co-creation with consumers and experts, ideation, business planning, concept validation and fine-tuning) 3) International Expansion (e.g., countries screening and development of expansion plan, route to market strategy, portfolio) 4) Route to Market (e.g. marketing and commercial planning, portfolio analysis).