Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Consumers, prosumers, brands and identities

I'm finding recent discussions of branding, consumption and "prosumption" pretty interesting.

Wired: The Decline of Brands. "Sure, there are more brands than ever. But they're taking a beating - or, even worse, being ignored. Who's to blame? A new breed of hyperinformed superconsumers."

The Prosumers Have Arrived "and Will Be Out in Full Force This Holiday Season, According to Context-Based Research Group" (via)

Cory Doctorow comments from a property perspective. And Things Magazine weighs in with some critical thinking.

I tend to agree that the "prosumer" label ironically smacks of branding-guru-speak, but it also smacks of the "RFID-on-all-products-will-allow-me-to-make-better-informed-purchases-and-therefore-stick-it-to-the-man" and other non-ironic utopian, technological, democratic discourses I keep reading.

Thanks also to Things for pointing at Eye magazine's special issue on brand madness and Design Observer's discussion of Nick Bell's implication (indictment?) of designers in The Steamroller of Branding.

I'm also more interested in Terry Eagleton's Fresh Look at Wally Olins's Highly Regarded Branding Manual - but perhaps not for the same reasons. I groaned when the "fresh look" concluded with this statement:

"'Brands', argues Wally Olins in On Brand, 'represent identity.' It may be that he himself only knows who he is because of his brand of underpants, but the more discerning among us have not yet been reduced to this tragic condition. To avert any such dreadful fate, the reader would be well advised to give this pile of cold-hearted cynicism a miss and buy Naomi Klein's No Logo instead."

Brands may not represent identity, but they certainly act in our performances of individual and group identities, including No Logo anti-brand identities and "I-am-impervious-to-the-power-of-brands" prosumer identities.

Whether or not you support brands and branding, prosumption is not really a critique of consumption or consumerism. Marketers may have overestimated the importance of brands in terms of loyalty and sales, but saying that consumers have more power because they have more information is a dodgy claim. Power to do what? Buy what we want? Versus what? Buying what we are told to buy? When did we ever do that? And power to be who? People never identified with purchased goods? Non-consumers? I don't think so.

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