Introduction to Brand Sociology: Brand Management – The Right to Be Dissimilar

Why can strong brands build clienteles, which may last for centuries? Because brands are alliances, time-resistant because they are voluntary alliances. What motivates the individual consumer to join such alliances? The fact that in such economic bodies he can satisfy his desire to be dissimilar. Finally, which  conditions must a company create to make brand configurations   economically successful? It must build non-interchangeable style systems. Three questions on brand sociology – three answers which we shall now address.

The Brand seen as Alliance

Brand sociology is the art to manage brands as competitive weapons in a way which generates profitability and maintains the brands asset value. This value safeguarding profitability is due to a specific relationship – the positive attitude of all actors who are part of the brand’s economic universe. Immediate profits can also be achieved by single transactions, but these do not create any value as they fail to establish a durable business flow, i.e. cost-absorbing repeat business.

Therefore, brand sociology can also be seen as the capability to create long term alliances or at least initiate processes which make such lasting alliances possible. Alliances between people; between people and products; between people, products, prices and sales patterns and many other components. In terms of day-to-day business‚ this strategy of alliance consolidation is socio- technological practice. It shows the sociological background of brand sociology, since sociology is the science of alliances. The executive familiar with brand sociology sees the market as a system of alliances, not just as a field of sales opportunities. Brand sociology considers the brand manager as a creator of alliances.

Any alliance must be desired, or it does not exist. This is why alliances last only as long as the reasons which motivated them. On this point, we must make a clear differentiation. We have on one hand long-lasting, inescapable alliances such as the relation with our parents – on the other hand alliances which we create ourselves, such as my alliance with a company through the shares I acquire on the Stock Exchange. The first is an existential alliance, in which I am totally involved as a person, it is part of my destiny. The other is an alliance which I create as an expert, it is subject to my decisions. The first is duty, the second is choice. This difference will help us see the difference between the brief contact with a product and the lasting alliance with a brand.

In fact, this differentiation is a constant factor in our lives. We see the difference between the communities of our homelands and legally defined associations. The difference between belonging to a community and joining an association defined by law is not just playing with terminology, it really describes two distinct types of alliance. Communities were shaped by history and are subject to gradual modifications only. They are ways of life, habits and customs deeply rooted in the collective soul, they have taken possession of us as human beings. Our way of life is connected with familiar smells, with sounds and words of a language which helps our talents come to life. Custom shapes our preferences, and a preference may well last longer than love. The determination to live in a certain way affects our existence – our willpower happily adjusts to the community pattem. Even more: our individual will is shaped and developed by the will of the community.

This is how a national or a religious community, but also a community of taste or even the family community impact on us. Our cultural habits have influenced our personalities to the point that we seem to radiate them, and when we get in touch with other communities‚ as tourists or traveling on business, we are immediately recognized as ”different”. Today, the strong brands have become components of our cultural behaviour. No jubilee without Champagne, no socializing without Coca-Cola. Sorne brands have become parts of our way of life.

An associational alliance is an entirely different thing. I can create it myself, take the initiative, my intentions can become decisions. A foundation to help the victims of naval disasters is an associational alliance in the same sense as a stock exchange. Companies are creations of their founders, they are social creations with specific objectives, they are the ideas of entrepreneurial individuals in their fully organised form. In opposition to the habits perpetuated by the history and traditions of a community, the guiding instrument of Companies is the law. The activities of commercial firms are controlled by commercial legislation. A community controlled by shareholders is difficult to imagine.

Within these two forms of collectivities, the interaction between people is entirely different. Whilst in a community, even those who are physically separated remain connected by tradition, habits and blood bonds, corporate executives, connected by legal links only, remain separate individuals. Contractual relations can be resiliated, blood bonds not. The businessman as value-creating entrepreneur combines both attitudes.

Our daily work with commercial goods is precisely imbedded in these two forms of alliance: it deals with brands as well as with products. With the product‚ we have a associational relation. We are wide awake watchdogs, we are the evaluating homines oeconomici, testing quality‚ service, price and performance for every application. We are at the same time subjects‚ sovereigns and deciders. The opposite is true for the brand. The brand is the cumulated force of a value creating community. Over the years, the positive experience with all manifestations of life of an enterprise has cumulated to form a clientele.

This cumulation process presents a peculiar paradox. Usage of products and the way they are sold combine to build brand strength within a clientele. If the executives do it right. Product usage increases confidence in the brand. The initial doubts of the buyer-examiner become less acute, which means that argumented, justifiable and not only personal trust has been created. Now the brand has become subject‚ the client object. The client finds himself in a form of positive disponibility‚ he has developed a positive prejudice for the goods concerned, a conscious absence of doubts has taken over, which may even be passed on to the following generation. We have created real brand strength.

When dealing with goods, the two forms of alliance are always intertwined. Now the executive must decide which form of alliance he wants to give more weight. If he accentuates the associational alliance, it will generally be expensive, since the critical buyer will want ”reasons why” – and the strongest reason why is a lower price. Our executive will not create more than a company selling products. But if he puts the accent on the community alliance, then his objective will be to modify the relationship between the buyer and the goods: a relation based on positive experience, on high value connotation, on history and good reputation‚ on positive prejudice built over many years and the conscious absence of doubts of his customers. This will reduce price sensitivity. Consequently, brand strength makes the products more profitable while protecting the asset value of the brand. This way, the executive can manage to make his brand part of a way of life. He has then achieved the first part of his work: The goods, in the shape of products, have achieved maximum strength for the brand. The choice has become behaviour.

Now begins his next task: to manage it without mistakes. Why?

The Dissimilarity

Because the brand will keep its strength only as long as it keeps its specificity.A brand lives because it is not equal.Whatever is alive is unique and this means dissimilar. You will not find two identical leaves on an oak, nor two identical cats in Paris, two identical voices in any choir in this world, two identical clouds in the sky. The force of the universe as a composer always expresses itself in unique forms.

The economic body of a brand results of a comparable determination to write your own symphony. Your company started with a product idea, you created your own brand appearance, your own clientele. Dissimilarity exists between brands as between ways of life. As we say: ”other nations, other customs”. This diversity is due to a human instinct: the desire of an individual ”Gestalt”. Dissimilarity is life, identity is death. The wish for individuality is so deeply rooted in mankind that it leads to increasing dissimilarity — and this trend is well and alive. It is true that people everywhere eat and drink, marry, build houses and sing songs. But in actual practice every one of these habits appears in a different form, has its own Gestalt. A Catholic mass differs from Muslim prayers‚ Notre Dame is not Westminster Abbey, Madonna songs arenot the hits of Adele.

Men and women live this desire to be different without inhibitions. In school yards, kids identify with their gangs by the jeans they wear, car owners join clubs according to the brand of their car. In Bangkok there is a pub where Black Label drinkers sit on the left, Civas Regal fans on the right. Such dissimilarity is not a handicap, it creates strength. Sociologists call this strength concentration through asocial behaviour. To know, to learn, the desire not to be or not to own something, confirm your system of values. Borderlines act as energizers. This is of course a paradox, as we are happy to have fewer borders than before. But though we are glad to see the fall of political borders, this should not mislead us: Borderlines are an important pre-requisite for brand vitality.

So: Ferrari is not Porsche (or even TESLA) and Wranglers are not Levi‘s. Brands must draw clear borderlines, they must not become interchangeable. This also applies to their customers. It is wrong for a manufacturer not to care who buys his products. The quality store must not offer all brands. Disciplined selectivity is required. Faithful clienteles are created by dissimilar offers. Organize yourself to allow your Clients to satisfy their will to be dissimilar. In the buying process, this collective desire for dissimilarity becomes a right, your right to be dissimilar. Your clientele will be strengthened by differenciation. People identify themselves with Gestalt and brands offer them the differences they want, individually and collectively. Another relationship becomes clear: The right to equality implies the underlying right to be dissimilar.

This right to be dissimilar is a highly significant reality of brand management in the market. The massive offer of interchangeable products suggests to the public the idea of similarity, as every product of a series is like the others. Technical factors lead many manufacturers to mutual similarity of their products. Many of them proudly state that functionality makes products interchangeable. ”Form follows function” is their belief, with all its dangers. The lowest Wind resistance factor drives all cars into the interchangeability zone. Supermarkets become uniform and dull due to a policy of the widest possible offer. Such practices affect the products themselves and interfere with the process of value creation.

The brand provides the only answer, if its products demonstrate the uniqueness of its underlying performance, of its historic development and its creativity, if it combines all these in a Gestalt of its own. A clear Gestalt implies discipline in terms of selectivity. Only non-interchangeability makes the brand dissimilar and shows its capacity to write its own symphony. The desire of men and women to be dissimilar is the anthropologic engine which drives brand performance in the market. The right of his clients to be dissimilar is the real potential of the brand owner. How should he forge this form of alliance?

Leadership through Style

Leadership through style is the name of the game. The most important tool for marketing leadership is to develop differentiated styling Systems. Leadership by differentiating style means leadership through differentiating details. The principle ”Leadership through Style” implies: no tolerance in matters of Gestalt. The Roman used to say: principia obstate – watch the beginnings! Local politicians in America call it ”the theory of broken windows”: Do not tolerate the smallest damage, because if you allow a broken window in one street just for a day, you will find five of them next week and half a year later you will not get through the whole district unmolested. The rule applied in this case is genuine brandsociology: Watch the integrity of your Gestalt! If you observe Gestalt discipline, you will obtain and maintain a positive attitude. Government by style is active alliance engineering. We are attracted by the style of a brand as we can be attracted by an architectural style or continue to like a musical style for years and even generations.

It is a widespread misconception to think that people are finally impressed by factual arguments or even motivated by them in the long run. This illusion of the ”necessary explanation” also comes up in the debate on brand fidelity. Factual arguments are important, but inadequate to carry a brand over time. We are looking for a hotel and a bed, all right, but this is only the start: which hotel? We need a car, and every car offers a plus point. This is precisely the flash relation, which lasts until a better reason comes up. It is not the way to create brand fidelity.

Gestalt, which is finally decisive, is something else. It does not mean design, but a form of harmony between all manifestations of a product’s life. Clients evaluate Gestalt in terms of harmony, of ”fitting well”. Certain product features are right, they fit in. Or they did fit, but no longer do. Here or there a dissonance has crept in, something positively typical has disappeared. Mergers&Acquisitions supply many obvious examples of such misfits. Consumer dissatisfaction does not show right away. Evaluation in this sense is not factual, it relates to Gestalt. ”Emotion” does not describe this correctly‚ as we are dealing with a judgment related to the intentions of the user.

This is why the control of style is vital. The Chief Executive should not worry about details which may go wrong in his factories. His function is to make sure that all visible style elements of his brand are Gestalt-conform. He is not only responsible for communications, but also for product range, distribution structure, terms and condition, etc. The Chief responsible for a brand can be described as a social stylist‚ who worries about differences. Differences ensure dissimilarity. Variations in style ensure lasting dissimilarity.

Let us remember once again the delicate power of ancient customs. Their strength lies in the repetition of details. They are stylistic compositions of hundreds of details: movements, sounds, familiar smells. The energetic charge of communities is constantly renewed by details of traditional behaviour: the gestures of a priest, a wedding dress, musical sounds, the fragrance of a dish – all characteristic and repeated thousands of times. Our experience tells us that we are home. The world is in order and we feel well, because this is what we are used to. A way of life is like the living room of our souls. This is perfectly clear and additional evidence can easily be supplied. The same applies to the brand.

If – yes if two principles are rigorously applied:

First principle: absolute consistency of the brand’s overall Gestalt. To the outside world all details must fit with such harmony that the public always gets the impression of a single ”thing” consisting of naturally connected, not artificially assembled elements. The strict application of style does not cost money, it just needs a lot of detail-obsessed willpower. The more strictly you manage your Gestalt, the more consumers will sense its specificity. This will make users proud of their brand. Once such pride has been created‚ it is difficult to unload the energetic Charge or to reverse it in favour of another brand.

Second principle: in order to remain effective over time, style must be based on serious performance. Then only can it activate the latent energy in its human environment. Then only will it cause the reflex to convert others to your brand and its style. Then only will it create in a market of potential clients enough self-motivating energy. When a clientele looking for brand performance has been created and the style system has confirmed its performance-induced loading power, then the clientele itself will start to become stylistically active.

It happens the way it does in the community: The personal will is happy to develop in line with the community’s will – to follow it, to submit to it. Strong automobile brands more easily become your own, are easier to individualize by modifications or accessories, than everybody’s brands. Why? Because value creating communities do not only win customers, they make customers willing to convert others to the product. Such actively communicating customers help making the brand better value for money. They become the most important members of the value creating community. This is when a brand starts contributing to national prosperity.

Now the business executive also has to address the third part of his work: after building the brand universe and securing it by dissimilarity, he now has to organize the management of the system by determined specificity of style in daily activities. This is why we call the process brandsociology, the technique of branding.


For further information on brandsociology please contact:

Büro für Markenentwicklung, Hamburg, Germany


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