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Market Mediations offers a fresh way to look at consumption practices, design and branding issues through analysis based on the French and European intellectual tradition. To account for this vast system of objects and brands, the book draws on the generative trajectory of meaning stemming from the structural semiotics of Greimas obedience.



Introduction: Market Medi(t)ations

The economy of brands truly came into being in the mid-19th century as a way for manufacturers to transform bulk sales and commodities markets into product markets with high added value. A brand that was already established as a sign of identification and differentiation thus became a driver of social mediation to form a fictional relationship between companies and their products’ end users. Initially, and in the end, the brand served to change the power relationships structuring the commodities markets, where products were sold in bulk. An unbranded market is a commodities market in which a manufacturer has difficulty creating added value because the products are largely undifferentiated. It is also a market where the manufacturer is completely dependent upon the distributor as well as on the wholesaler, who can choose his suppliers. Next come the retailers, who endorse the products they sell. A brand thus involves shifting the source of authority from the seller to the product and then on to the brand. In other words, a brand allows the enterprise to bypass the seller, as per the expression “silent salesman” that Vance Packard forged in his seminal book, The Hidden Persuaders, which remains the best introduction to marketing to date. A brand presupposes a means of symbolic mediation has been put in place, one through which the product can speak for itself and call out to the end customer’s nose and the beard of the seller. It serves to substitute symbolic mediation for human mediation, hence the importance of the phenomena of anthropomorphization, especially through the appearance of the brand spokesmen, whose role is to give life and an identity to the brand to increase its potential to attract.

Benoît Heilbrunn

1. Love and the Market

“Do things mean anything?” Considering that an object of consumption is inserted into a universe of signs and signifying practices, Barthes’s question determines the conditions for the existence of that object and its semiotic challenges. Studies on consumption have long favored a semantic approach based on the study of networks of meaning attached to the object, regardless of its consumption environment. Hence, the importance of the phenomenon of semanticization of objects, that is to say, the possibility for objects to become signs (which to Baudrillard is the conditio sine qua non of an object of consumption) and to signify beyond their use-value. The main virtue of a semantics of objects is to make known, for objects of consumption (like all objects) — in addition to their denotative and functional value — a connotative function related to their propensity to signify beyond their strictly utilitarian values. However, this semantic approach, though crucial to studying the role of objects in our consumer society, is not the only possible semiotic field of study for goods. Have not the instrumental and symbolic dimensions traditionally attached to an object in Western culture usually buried other alternatives of consistency and meaning of the object — alternatives which sometimes have tended to resurface, as if by error, in everyday life?

Benoît Heilbrunn

2. Simplexities

The rise of brands has helped to structure the market as well as to deploy a market culture that is based on five principles: A logic of semanticization consubstantial to the consumer society, which consists of enhancing market goods with an imagined dimension for staging them to make them desirable and therefore consumable. The strength of Marlboro lies in symbolically assimilating the cowboy smoking in America’s wide open prairies by endowing him with the values of adventure, freedom and virility through a story, that of the Wild West, which is both a founding myth in American culture and a metaphor for the chance offered to the consumer to surpass his own limits. It is mainly through the use of symbolic code or logic of signs that goods acquire meaning. Hence the importance of brands which, by attaching values to products beyond their functional value, represent a key feature in the development of this code through an ongoing process of attributing meaning and re-attributing meaning. Smoking to become masculine or adventuresome, smearing oneself with cosmetics to dress up the faces of womanhood or using perfume to enhance one’s romantic potential — these are all myths of an essentially symbolic economy of brands. Consumer society is thus based on the perpetual questioning of the concept of needs, even if it means the difference between real and artificial needs becomes impossible to discern due to the logic of social construction of needs. By substituting signs for goods, capitalism inexorably placed consumption in relation to attributing meaning more than to use and production.A logic of differentiation: the brand is primarily a matter of deviation and variance — in fine, displacement. One may especially consider two types of displacement at work in any brand: the first refers to a type of ‘transportation’ relationship linking the signifier to the signified; as Peninou said (1972), the brand ensures the passage of realism of the matter (the common name) to the symbolism of the name (ownership). The second displacement is the gap that the meaning of each brand must produce compared to the discursive productions of so-called competing brands. This is what we may call the brand’s style as far as we are able to define style as a deviation from a standard.A logic of premiumization: the semanticization ability of a good for sale offers brands the opportunity to create goodwill and generate a premium, otherwise known as a brand premium, that is to say, a price differential the brand is likely to add compared to competing brands. The economy of brands is therefore essentially based on logic of premiumization of selling a product at a higher price than the reference retail price by casting it in an imagined dimension. The coupling of the symbolic function and premiumization function leads directly to the brand’s ultimate function: to defunctionalize a commercial product by focusing attention on dimensions other than the product’s functionality, doing so in order to make people forget the price and, paradoxically, also the product itself. This is the price where we are desensitized to the cost to increase awareness of the brand. It is what we call de-commoditization. In this way, Swatch does not sell watches, but “fashion accessories that incidentally tell the time.” The same goes for Nike having literally transformed the sports shoe into a must-have accessory for trendy everyday wear.A logic of market segmentation and benefits: How indeed can brands claim a “premium effect” if not via positioning based on a clear, differentiated and specific benefit? Marketing’s answer to this economic issue is the segmentation of benefits, from which is derived the famous dogma of the well-known USP (unique selling proposition), consisting of a brand claiming only one type of benefit in highly competitive markets. In other words, marketing ideology has long recommended that brands specialize in just one type of benefit: oral hygiene for brands like Elmex or Fluocaryl, sold in pharmacies; an active social life for Email Diamant or Ultra Brite; good taste for children’s brands or a good price for most store brands (SB). In this way, the value-creation mechanism is historically linked to a segmentation of expectations logic and, therefore, a typology of consumer values.A logic of rhetoric based on the principle of non-contradiction: the brand’s ability to defend a singular position is not sustainable in a Western cultural context unless from the moment the brand claims clear choices that rely on consistent principles. The very idea of an underlying conflict or contradiction that would decrease the brand’s benefit is dismissed out of hand, hence the recurring difficulty of brands simultaneously to claim enjoyment and low calories, comfort, low price, and so forth. The rhetoric of Western brands is built on a series of oppositions based on the a priori exclusion of antagonistic principles.A logic of expansion that allows brands to benefit from their reputation, expertise and image to broaden their range of products (Diet Coke, Coca Cola Zero, Coca Cola Lemon, etc.) and enter into a new world of products. Thus the Bonne Maman brand, the brand of reference for jam, very successfully expanded into categories such as cookies, chilled desserts and ice cream. Another prime example is the Bic brand that we know has successfully conquered the pen market, razors, lighters, surfboards and cell phones. This expansion strategy proved less fruitful when Bic was inspired to enter the fragrance market or underwear market. These examples show that a brand extension is likely to work if three conditions are met: (a) Customers must perceive a link (in expertise or image) between the parent brand and the product emerging from the expansion; (b) the brand must have enough legitimacy to launch in this new market; and (c) the product must make a real contribution to the market and not be an existing product on which we are content to affix a logo (badging logic). Weight Watchers, for example, is much more legitimate in the healthy options market than is Colgate; Lego has failed to make a real contribution with its range of clothing for children.

Benoît Heilbrunn

3. Oneself as Another

A brand immediately raises a paradox because of the often-contradictory expectations customers develop with regard to it. Indeed, the primary function of a brand is to enable clients to find it — in an uncertain world saturated with news and information — by providing guarantees and reassurance. This inertia pushes brands to maintain some longevity, both in its products and in its actions. However, a brand cannot afford to continue making the same products and sending the same messages infinitely, at the risk of boring its customers. Paradoxically, this constraint leads brands to continuously renew themselves in order to surprise, engage and entertain their customers. A necessary innovative strength thus obliges any brand to break away from its old habits while not losing any major character traits. It is precisely at the crossroads of this inertial force and the force of tearing away that one may understand the issue of identity. Managing identity requires any brand to guarantee consistency over time, while always knowing how to surprise its customers to maintain their curiosity and desire in keeping the right pace between repetition and surprise, reassurance and the unexpected. This consideration of two principles that may appear antagonistic raises the question of brand identity. How can a brand meet these two contradictory constraints imposed by marketing ideology? The answer: stay up to date to be recognizable, while incorporating the necessary scansions and breaks to stimulate consumer interest.

Benoît Heilbrunn

4. Ethics Despite Amorality

Capitalism is not the natural result of market activities. As Karl Polyani has shown, market activities are embedded in a large set of inextricably political, religious and cultural conditions which organize their meanings and limits. Historically, the capitalist system only appeared once it was capable of assuming its own presuppositions (for example, the widespread dissolution of man’s links to the earth and to his tools), and thereby to obtain the opportunity of developing according to its own laws. The question remains what combination of circumstances made possible the emergence of a world dominated, as it is today, by the conceptualization of economic growth. Going further, if “a human being’s supreme wealth and the key to his happiness has always been the agreement with himself” as postulated by Michéa (2008) how does this fit into the “broken world of victorious liberalism”?

Benoît Heilbrunn

5. Narrativities

The brand is a device whose basic function is to tell its customers stories (in the literal and sometimes figurative sense!). Now, what is a story if not the confrontation of different characters through a certain number of stages? Speaking of tales concerning the brand is to assimilate it to other types of stories such as fairy tales, detective stories and more generally, any process based on the resolution of an initial intrigue.

Benoît Heilbrunn

6. I/Materialities

Marketing talks often about products, but seldom about objects. Moreover, when people evoke products, they are often referring to sign systems. The semantic approach makes a clear distinction between the material dimensions of objects (the signifier or the expressive level) and their idea-related dimensions (the signified or the contents level). This perspective analyzes objects in terms of their specifically ideological dimension, to the detriment of their corporeal and sensorial dimensions. Have the instrumental and symbolic dimensions that are traditionally associated with objects in our Western culture put paid to all other possi- bilities for ascribing coherence and meaning to objects — despite the fact that these other possibilities continue to crop up, as if by stealth, in people’s daily lives? But how is it then that objects are still able to surprise us time and again, enchanting us despite the familiar place they have in our daily lives? By no longer focusing only on the symbolic dimensions of products and brands, the experientialization of consump- tion may pave the way for an approach that will do a better job of incor- porating the specifically material embeddedness of our relationships with objects. Now is probably the time both to try and understand the infra-ordinary mode that surrounds us and also to transcend the satura- tion of the effects on our senses as well as the tyranny of symbolism.

Benoît Heilbrunn

7. Embodiments

It is paradoxical that French poetry, through the intermediation of Francis Ponge, managed to side with things, while French design seems to have sided with images and signs, through being forced to deal with a sort of semiotic diktat and the hypertrophy of the figure of the designer. How then are we to describe, circumscribe or even approach the idea of French design? Is it even possible to define the characteristics of the French approach to design? Is it even possible to speak of French design or should we be talking about French designers? It would appear that this list of questions poses a certain problem, as it is tricky to try to envisage common ground between the work of someone like Philippe Starck and that of Martin Szekely, for example, or the work of Roger Tallon and that of Marc Sadler. If we are to believe what we read in mainstream magazines on the subject, French design can be characterized by the “art of plundering the past to constantly reinvent itself,” or even, to quote the photographer Mario Testino, we can recognize French design by its “blend of precision, elegance and sophistication that always harbors an element of surprise, bold ideas and an impeccable ‘savoir-faire’.” However, does the same not apply to Italian, Swedish and Japanese design? Decidedly, whatever we say about it, design is always a question of balance between the past and the present, between stability and disruption.

Benoît Heilbrunn


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