To what extent does branding and celebrity endorsement affect consumer purchasing habits? The three brands you shall be focusing on are Benetton, Dove and Nike.
However much one denies it, we are all consumers and our buying habits are undoubtedly influenced by advertising. In the last two decades, corporate marketing strategies have fully embraced the notion of branding as the material product begins to take a back seat and ‘lifestyles, attitudes, values and experiences’ are to be had in all good shops. Nike, Dove and Benetton have enjoyed massive success in harnessing the potent marketing device of cultural identification; consumers associate products with a rounded way of life, identify with the image a product offers and succumb to the adverts’ insistence that the product is necessary. In considering the extent to which branding affects consumer purchasing habits, the fundamental question of whether advertising can change behaviour, or just modifies established attitudes is further complicated by a semiotic problem. Roland Barthes suggested that words and signs are interpreted differently by each individual, and that the interpretation is influenced by cultural understanding and conditioning. If so, then the many complex signs involved in creating a brand must fit artfully into a system of linguistic understanding; therefore begging the question, is culture affected by advertising or do established cultural boundaries govern advertising methods?
The Nike brand has long represented rebellion and individual will. The ‘Just Do It’ tagline, accompanied by images of celebrated sportspersons, went on to promote heightened performance and success, a notion of striving to compete and win. Despite controversies over their use of sweatshops, Nike escaped economic setbacks; the sport shoes they made in the sweatshops were not, after all, necessarily their defining image. Nike is a swoosh tick, performance athletes, fitness, health. After a brand-threat in the early 1990s, the marketing industry came to the following conclusion – ‘the products that will flourish in the future will be the ones presented not as ‘commodities’ but as concepts: the brand as experience, as lifestyle’, and this is exactly the approach taken by Nike that has kept the company close to the top of a very competitive market.
In No Logo, Klein puts forward the suggestion that ‘consumers don’t truly believe there’s a huge difference between products, which is why brands must establish emotional ties’. Nike’s shoes are worn by athletes who perform amongst other athletes wearing Reebok, Adidas, Puma… and in order to compete in a consumer market they must enter the consumer’s mind and find a unique way to stay there. Of late, the notion of individuality, revolution and victory have accompanied Nike’s renowned air of rebelliousness; as with many modern campaigns, Nike’s advertising targets consumers who are seeking to find individuality and respect in these sports goods. To further endorse the notion of the winning Nike lifestyle, Nike’s website is exciting, flashy and aggressive; the advent of the internet has offered companies like Nike a fully-enhanced endorsement of their culturally apt product, and provides an arena is which advertising can become increasingly more involved in peoples’ everyday lives.
This invasion of brands into our homes surely increases the opportunity for a product to become a necessity in consumers’ lives. Companies’ branding is about ‘thirstily soaking up cultural ideas and iconography that their brands could reflect by projecting these ideas and images back on the culture as ‘extensions’ of their brands’, but the question still remains as to whether our established cultural understanding is created by or an obstruction to advertising. Remaining with the idea that a brand sells a lifestyle rather than a mere product, the recent change in direction with Dove’s (Unilever) endorsement of its skincare products is a particularly interesting event. It seems that Dove is to be congratulated on its Campaign for Real Beauty, ‘which is a catalyst for activating Dove’s beauty philosophy and to announce a wider, more refreshing view on beauty’, especially in a media climate that can still be criticised for its promotion of a very narrow definition of beauty. Whilst there is more harm than good in Dove’s campaign, it must not be forgotten that however moralistic a company may seem it still has profit as it’s central focus. To dismiss Dove as a product line that is using it’s consumers’ most sensitive issues to its advantage would be too partial an investigation when the very essence of a brand is in finding the most permanent method to win a consumer’s affections. Similarly to Nike, the Dove brand stands for the individual will to be; using their product will enhance your identity, help in your definition of a self that will fit in to the norms of society.
Dove and Nike have both achieved the ‘corporate transcendence ‘ as outlined by Klein; in which a company transcends its product and becomes a free-standing meaning. The meanings implied in advertisements for branded products plumb the depths of our basic and universal needs and desires; their glossy images and suggestive language show us the way to be happy. Gain happiness through successful competition thanks to Nike, happiness brought on by the smooth skin and self-respect Dove can achieve – whatever the route to happiness, a brand denies all barriers. The glossy adverts serve to influence our buying behaviour by offering an essentially better life.
Celebrity endorsement of brands is part of the very construct of the brand itself. A product need only be associated with David Beckham and it’s representative of him; celebrities are established constructs with which consumers already identify and their use in advertising is a guarantee of the product’s quality. Celebrity is seen as the award for talent (be that physical or intellectual), so celebrity endorsement of products is certain to have an effect on consumer attitudes as the connection between the celebrity and a lifestyle already exist. In this sense, celebrities are respected members of society whose opinions are trusted; whilst a brand will fail if the product is particularly poor, even a mediocre brand will inevitably succeed if the right kind of celebrity (like Nike’s collection of experts; the famous athletes) to allow their lifestyle to be representative of a product.
It is becoming clear that brands are invading society to the point where it is virtually impossible to tell the different between culture and branding. Sports are sponsored, entertainment is sponsored, the home is branded along with clothes, cosmetics and essential hygiene products; we form particular attitudes towards brands through various associations within life, through ‘brand advertising, word of mouth, peer influence, habits’. Through all this, brands bombard us by positioning themselves within our life’s situations until they are ingrained as our cultural associations to activities and emotions. It comes to the point where, if brands have become ‘not products but ideas, attitudes, values and experiences, why can’t they be culture too?’ It is no longer possible to confidently say whether, in a branded world, consumers are capable of making autonomous purchasing choices.
The case comes to United Colors of Benetton; so renowned for their controversial advertising campaign of birds covered in oil and new born babies. It was suggested that Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is impoverished by the company’s profit-driven morals, but Benetton’s shocking images and their intended interpretations take exploitation a big step further. Benetton’s campaign tried to ’associate the name of the retailer with concern for social problems’, therefore invoking a cultural conscience in consumers and almost certainly having a strong influence on consumer purchasing habits. In an exposed global society, consumers are beginning to deal with a guilty conscience about the imbalance of wealth and aid in the world and brands like Nike, Dove and Benetton offer a individual-centred quick-fix solution to that concern. The irony that we are spending the cash which is the source of our guilt surely does not escape us; we continue to search for brands that epitomise our sense of self, our morals, our personalities. Advertisements are specifically designed to win us over on these very basic grounds and, whilst it may seem a paradox, branding will continue to effect consumer habits so long as the consumer exists in an consumer-led society.
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- www.benetton.com 04/05/05
- www.dove.com 04/05/05
- www.nike.com 04/05/04