The brand, an anthropological definition

50585706kalamalkalakeatdawn_18849 The brand is an elephant and we are all blind men.  The designers have one idea of what a brand is.  The Jungians another.  The marketing managers, b-school professors, advertising creatives, account planners…everyone has a formal model, and a working one.

There is an anthropological view, and Rob Walker captured it most precisely yesterday in the New York Times

[A brand is] a process of attaching an idea to a product. Decades ago that idea might have been strictly utilitarian: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, the ideas attached to products have become more elaborate, ambitious and even emotional. This is why, for example, current branding campaigns for beer or fast food often seem to be making some sort of statement about the nature of contemporary manhood. If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.

If brands are ideas, then branding is a process of meaning manufacture and management.  That’s our job.  How to get meanings into brands, that people might extract this meaning for purposes of identity construction.


Walker, Rob.  2006.  The Brand Underground.  New York Times, July 30, 2006 and here


I am on vacation this week.

18 thoughts on “The brand, an anthropological definition

  1. Peter

    “If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product.”

    I don’t think this statement captures the whole story. The audience of potential consumers may do more than, or other than, merely “consume an idea”. They may, rather, associate themselves with an idea, or associate themselves with a group of people whom they believe are already associated with an idea, or they may just signal their desire to do either of these things (eg, by wearing the t-shirt but never watching the film), or even take an idea and run with it, vesting it with new or different meanings.

    AND, morever, potential consumers may engage in all these activities WITHOUT even consuming the product.

  2. david hawksworth

    Hi Grant – really interesting post. Get this one wrong and everything gets really screwed up.
    Once media started getting used to transmit meaning to products (when the mass society first blew up and producers and consumers were dislocated from each other) then of course you start to realise that your meaning can be whatever you want it to be. Not just ‘for men’ – why not ‘makes you a man,’ why not ‘what makes women like men,’ why not anything?? I don’t dispute this is what happened and I don’t think there’s so many ad agencies that see a brand any different to this. But in the antropological sense is there not a difference between the kind of meaning before brands and the kind afterwards. One is real lived meaning – i.e. produce and products defining the places and the lives / rituals of the community and how it understands itself. The other is made up. Does antropology see the difference between the meaning of real experience like smelling a scent on an attractive person versus an ad telling me that the smell will make me attractive or associating it with attractive people. I think that is one of the major misunderstandings i.e. there is a difference, and in the future only real value will do. Look at how Nike has presented Londoners with a new bonafide ritual experience in its 10k Runs – I think the role of products in the pre-branded world of small networks will need to become the same as it was then, now we have one big network… and the fake attachment of meaning will look like an unavoidable mistake.


  3. Candy Minx

    Really liked this post and much to think about.

    I think David Hawksworth also got me thinking about “pre-brand”. Has there ever been human existence without branding? I wonder…I don’t think so…

    And Peter, you’re right we all participate in the idea of brands and products whther we use them or not, good point.

    Branding is a narrative. A narrative among many many layers of meaning and many many narratives.

    I hope you have a great holiday Grant! I will miss ya!

  4. Graham Hill

    So a brand is what the brand narcissists tell us, the great unwashed consumer it is.

    I don’t think so.

    I prefer Tom Asacker’s more profound insights: that a brand is the package of feelings and the associated emotions and changes in our physical state that it creates within us.

    This forces us to recognise that a brand is not what we marketers think it is, but actually what customers think it is. It also forces us to recognise that over 90% of the processing that a brand should triggers us to do will be non-conscious. And it is these two levels where brand marketers need to be working to create brands that really reach out to customers.

    You might say that whilst brand campaigns are created in the marketers mind, real brands are created in the customers gut!

    Sadly, most brands are not actually brands at all by this definition, but just products in a category. They don’t elicit any feelings at all. Certainly not the ones that result in a sale and a positive recommendation to friends.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Marketing Consultant

  5. Candy Minx

    Hello Graham, I think I see what you mean, and I agree with your excellent points about the customer is the actual definition of a brand. I am so NOT a marketer in the traditional sense ha ha. I am a maker which might be the opposite of marketing. I realize there is a great potential to make money on marketing. It’s a complete mystery to me the concept of marketing and it is exactly why for the last six months I’ve gone out of my way to read blogs that focus on marketing. I get consumers. You need some thing, want something, go get it. I get producers, inspired to make something manifest an idea…make it. But a marketer wants and does live within these two actions. Since I am an artist and film maker I often get trapped into my movie analogies…so I’ve come to understand that a marketer might be a little like an agent. Am I close? Um, I am sure that Grant partly defines himself as a marketer…or at least interested in that process, but if I was asked to describe him, I’d be inclined to say Grant McCracken in a poet. I understand with great fear that that could be a horrible insult in todays money obsessed culture. After all not much else in life is as useless or poor as a poet. BUT…i’m old school even a little old fashioned and in my world being a poet is a good thing. i ultimately have come to a sensation that amarketer is a poet. (well unless they have been Vadered and then they are just yucky making up jingles like “Fabricland, fabricland” or “sleep country USA why buy a matress anywhere else” or going for the base of sales “it’s cheap” or “pay less gas” YAWN.) I like to think of brands and ad campaigns in the world of magic, like Darren Stevens and his exotic wife Elizabeth Montgomery…that we can’t really predict the outcome or trajectory of where an idea or marketing strategy might be born except within everyday life and what we like and than surprisingly noticing or not noticing the metaphors of the life force like a witch or magician. It is the customer who has changed marketing…demanding organics and planet friendly products. and the consummer is also a enemy in some ways not seeing the irony that the desire for excess is the problem with our environmental challenges. Did Bewitched really forcefeed ideas into the products of consumers? No, The Tate company stumbled into folly and mishap and magic but harnassed the everyday mistakes into morality. Sales and contracts always occured once the life lesson was recognized. I think Grant is correct: Brands are ideas. I suggest a marketer has to be a poet and recognize patterns and morality and spell it out in the brand=poem. (Um, I tell all my friends about Omega Nutrition organic cold pressed flax seed oil)

    Candy Minx
    Independant Anti-marketing Consultant 🙂

  6. Tom Asacker

    “If brands are ideas, then branding is a process of meaning manufacture and management. That’s our job. How to get meanings into brands, that people might extract this meaning for purposes of identity construction.”

    I completely agree with you Grant. When I purchase a particular brand, it says something about me to me (and at times, to others as well).

    If I drive a Toyota, I’m smart. If I buy my children healthy snacks, I’m a good dad. If I buy Nike golf clubs, I’m a “tiger” on the course. Each of these brands must deliver on a perceived expectation of value; e.g. Toyota = quality, reliability, superior gas mileage, etc., which then reflects favorably upon my decision to choose it.

    That being said, what is the expectation of value portrayed in one of Burger King’s strange advertisments? Or pick your favorite beer or cola ad. I truly want to know. Does it perhaps work like this:

    “That was funny and irreverant, like me. So if I eat at their restaurant I reinforce – through my memory of the ad – my identity of funny and irreverant? And if my friends see me do this, I’ve signalled the same to them?”

    Please, I really want to appreciate this aspect of brand meaning. Everyone else reading this, please lend some thoughts, insights, opinions. Thanks.

    P.S. And I agree with Candy. You are a poet!

    P.S.S. Candy Minx? Really? C’mon. 🙂

  7. Peter

    Tom wrote:

    “That was funny and irreverant, like me. So if I eat at their restaurant I reinforce – through my memory of the ad – my identity of funny and irreverant? And if my friends see me do this, I’ve signalled the same to them?”

    Tom — I don’t see the problem here. What would be wrong with signalling funny and irreverant? Am I missing something in what you wrote?

    Something that many of us find hard to do is to put ourselves in the mindset of the target audience for particular marketing campaigns. In Britain, we have seen a long-running campaign for a soft-drink (Tango) which has people exploding and other bizarre events happen. The ads make no sense and are not amusing to anyone over about 18. But anyone over 18 is not in the target audience, and, indeed, the fact that the ads makes no sense to adults probably increases their appeal to teenagers.

    So, in buying a certain product we may not only be signalling that we are part of a certain group (the target audience), but also, at the very same time, signalling that we are NOT part of another group (eg, those who find the advert distasteful).

  8. Tom Asacker

    Thanks Peter. You’re not missing anything. I’m simply trying to fully absorb both the cultural AND economic realities of such a marketing approach.

    So in many categories, identity value (via BK’s irreverant ads) trumps other values like taste, nutritonal value, etc. for the target audience? Is that right?

  9. Peter

    Tom — yes, I would say you are right, as a general rule, provided you add the word “perceived” in front of every attribute.

    I once did some work for a well-known breakfast cereal manufacturer who had two broad categories of products aimed at young eaters:

    – one group, in which the advertising was aimed at children, and which emphasized the taste and the fun of eating these cereals.

    – another group, in which the advertising was aimed at adults, and which emphasized the energy and nutrition of the products.

    When we interviewed parents about the differences between the two groups, they invariably mentioned that the first group of cereals had more sugar in them than the second group. In fact, the reality was the reverse.

  10. Brian Phipps

    I guess I see things a bit differently than most commenters. I would argue that limiting brands to the realm of ideas and “meaning manufacture and management” makes brands weaker, not stronger. First, brands are relationships, not just “ideas.” Second, they’re a two-way street, not a one-way projection of what a company wants its customers to believe. (Otherwise, brands would be no different than propaganda, which also manufactures identities.) For brands to thrive, they might take their cue from Peter Drucker, and focus on creating customers. That’s a holistic process of delivering value customers can use, through platforms designed to advance the customer across many contexts, not just identity.

    To me, “attaching an idea to a product” sounds like advertising, not brands. The brand approach is to deliver forms of value (products, services, context, connections) that enable the customer to do more and be more. Ideas are one of many things integrated into the mix, but it’s more a matter of deeds, not campaigns.

  11. Tom Asacker

    Thanks again Peter. And Brian, I don’t think we see it differently at all. But doesn’t a brand choice eventually come back around to identity? And if not, why has aesthetics become such a powerful economic force? “I like it. I’m like it.”

  12. Reynold


    There are some really useful ideas in this article. However, I wonder if many of today’s top brands have been ‘manufactured’ in this fashion. Consider some of Businessweek’s top ten global brands:

    1. Coca Cola: As a product, Coke is hardly different from any other cola brand. The appeal of the brand idea (Classic, American) is probably the single biggest reason for consumers to buy it. A ‘manufactured’ brand? Yes.

    2. Microsoft: Brand? Idea? Consumer? Meaning? Clearly there’s little to talk about there. However, one could argue that there is – to attach emotion and true meaning to its products. But this can’t be a superficial task and certainly can’t be achieved by mere advertising. In fact, unless the products themselves reflect the brand, everything else is pure faff.

    3. IBM: I think this is a case where the brand has been . It used to stand for cutting-edge, reliable computers, lost that meaning when its products couldn’t keep up and now wraps its IT services inside the hugely appealing brand idea of a helpful person from the ‘helpdesk’.

    4. Disney: Sure, this brand has a lot of wonderful emotion and meaning attached to it. But Disney was a real guy who built an entertainment and media empire. In a sense, he was the brand. That it has endured beyond his lifetime is due to good management of the characters and storytelling franchises which he created. One wonders if the Virgin brand will endure as long. Is Disney a ‘manufactured’ brand? No.

    5. Toyota: This is a brand built upon the quality of its products. Has it been ‘manufactured’? No. However, this is a product category which has plenty of meaning to its consumers and Toyota has recognized and utilized that meaning in its communication activities.

    Therefore, one can conclude that:
    a. Brands CAN be constructed; products CAN be imbued with meaning. However, many existing brands already have meaning in consumers’ minds and not all of it is ‘constructed’. Such brands need to be understood and carefully managed by their stewards.

    b. Some brands, especially newer ones, do not yet have strong meaning. The meaning CAN and SHOULD be ‘constructed’. However, this can’t be a superficial process involving brand names and advertising. Unless the product or offering truly delivers what the brand promises, the effort of branding will be unsuccessful.



  13. Brian Phipps

    I guess I’m just not convinced that the traditional brand approach of “manufactured identities” is the way to go. I see the brand conversation taking two directions: the traditional path, where it’s dominated by advertising, and a new path, where the focus is on value delivered to customers. The new path aligns brands more with innovation and product development than with promotional campaigns. In the months ahead this will be a great conversation via forums like these, and brands will be the stronger for it.

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  15. Peter

    Thinking about these ideas, it occurred to me that my view of brands is very similar to what computer scientists call “Co-ordination Artefacts”.

    A CA is something which enables multiple distinct entities (computers, people) to collaborate or co-ordinate their actions. Prototypical examples in computing are electronic bulletin boards (where users post messages) or electronic auction sites (where participants offer to buy or sell something). We can think of the participants in these exchanges as all having some ability to manipulate the current state of the CA, eg, by posting something to it. There may be rules governing exactly what manipulations different participants can do, as in an auction where usually just one participant gets to be auctioneer.

    A brand is an example of a CA where the participants include the creator of the brand (the company selling the product), the potential consumers and indeed, other people also, such as regulators and defiant non-consumers. The state of the CA (eg, the meaning of the brand) is manipulated by the actions — witting or not — of these participants over time, as they purchase the product, as they use and re-use the brand identity, as they vest the identity with their own understanding of it.

    I think this viewpoint stresses several important aspects:

    – The brand is distinct from any of the participants.

    – The meaning of the brand is created jointly by all the participants, not just by the company which “owns” it legally.

    – The meaning of the brand is created incrementally, and so changes over time.

    I’m sure an expert anthropologist could ground these ideas in good theory. Over to you, Grant!

  16. Peter

    Reynold said: IBM “used to stand for cutting-edge, reliable computers”.

    I don’t believe IBM ever had a reputation for being cutting-edge. Their business strategy from the founding days through the mainframe computer revolution, the mini-computer revoluton, the internet, and the PC revolution, right to the present-day has always been: “second to market, but better”. They watched the innovators and then copied and improved on them.

    Customers of IBM never got cutting-edge products. That’s a key reason IBM products were perceived as reliable.

  17. Candy Minx

    I think the list of brands that Reynold posted has a group of brands that all have something in common. For what you pay…you get the most payback.

    for example a parent could buy their kid a couple of Hans Christian Andersen books, dr. suess and spend time reading. but it is more economically viable to buy a couple dvds on sale of Disney, no child care one on one attention, plus the kid will watch them over and over and over(parents, am I right or what?) and then the child also has a kind of currency in pop culture because a child can reference+spend knowledge of Disney much more than a fairytale or Dr. suess.

    Plus all of these products hanve a hand me down quaility from older people, parents, mentors teachers. IBM is for saving money or scientists. Otherwise people are much better served for ease and comfort getting a mac. but IBM and knock offs okau, pcs are much cheaper.

    I tend to be a person who thinks EVERYTHING we do and every decision we make, from schools for our kids, who we marry what we wear and eat reflects MONEY.

    I am a little tired tonight, so I hope some of this made sense, if I freaked anyone out…I’ll return tomorrow after a good nights sleep to continue.

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