The Influence of Branding on Social Norms and Stereotypes

Subject: Branding
Pages: 10
Words: 1727
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: Undergraduate

Branding has become an important concern for companies in the modern age. With the high availability of substitute products in most markets, customers’ preferences for a particular brand have become increasingly dependent on brand image (Sinha, 2018). This image is carefully formulated using various marketing strategies, such as advertisement. The extent to which advertisement is integrated into people’s lives has caused it to become a new form of popular media (Arvidsson, 2006). The messages transmitted by ads influence the perception of brands and the way people identify with certain brands (Arvidsson, 2006).

Moreover, these images also affect people’s views about themselves and others. Although many people believe that branding only affects brand image, it also has an influence on society as a whole by establishing, supporting and challenging the norms and stereotypes that persist in modern society. This essay will seek to examine the role that branding plays in relation to the construction of social norms and stereotypes, particularly those related to gender and class.

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Branding

Branding is concerned with creating “mental structures that help consumers organize their knowledge about products and services in a way that clarifies their decision making and, in the process, provides value to the firm” (Kotler and Keller, 2016). Hodkinson (2017) explains that, in the second half of the twentieth century, companies gained the ability to gather more data on their customers, which allowed them to create targeting and positioning strategies by profiling the ideal consumer. Along with this trend, companies also started thinking about how the initial design and orientation of their products contributed to consumers’ attitudes and preferences (Hodkinson, 2017).

Consequently, the focus on cultural and experiential dimensions of goods evolved, which led to the formation of connections between customer’s feelings about a product and their experiences with the company (Arvidsson, 2006). Marketing was no longer about a poster promoting a specific product; it was about the product as a whole and about the company producing it.

As companies started to attract more attention and customers began attributing company characteristics to products, branding developed in an attempt to create meaning behind products that stretched beyond their features and affected how customers saw all products of a specific company. According to Hodkinson (2017), “initially developed as a way to give meaning and appeal to products, brands have expanded to become broader sets of conceptual meanings with which companies wish to associate themselves” (p. 164). In this way, branding has become an ultimate source of value for many companies, and the goal of advertising transformed from product promotion to brand promotion.

This shift in the purpose of advertising and the popularisation of brands is crucial to understanding the broader impact of branding on society. Advertisements used by brands today are designed in a way that focuses not on product information, but on symbols that can be interpreted by consumers (Hodkinson, 2017). These symbols contribute to brand images through their association with consumers’ values, beliefs, attitudes, and identity. As a result of this integration between brand images and the broader social context, branding has become a tool for either supporting or challenging the norms existing in a particular society (Hodkinson, 2017).

The significant role of advertising in contemporary life, in turn, enhanced the reach of the messages created by brands, contributing to their influence. Contrary to popular beliefs, branding is no longer about the brand image itself; it is also about the norms and stereotypes prevailing society as a whole: “recent consumer research has come to emphasize that brands […] are important ‘cultural resources’ that people relate to as significant components of their own identities and overall life” (Arvidsson, 2006, p. 5). Hence, branding has an influence on society as a whole by establishing, supporting, and challenging the norms and stereotypes that persist in society.

Branding and Gender

Gender is among the core social constructs that exist in society. Despite the developments in gender studies and the efforts to contest the traditional view of gender, the binary gender system and the heteronormative perception of sexuality are still prevalent (Hodkinson, 2017). Hence, perceptions of male and female gender have a particular influence on consumers’ attitudes and preferences. Based on the paradigm of patriarchy, men are viewed mainly as strong, powerful, and ambitious, whereas women are perceived to be caring, social, and sensitive (Puzakova and Aggarwal, 2015).

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Women are expected to take on more domestic tasks, such as cleaning, food preparation, and caring for children, whereas men are expected to be focused on career and financial achievements (Timke and O’Barr, 2017). Women are also perceived to be more concerned with their looks – in particular, to attract men. The male gaze is a term that refers to the use of female sexuality as an object to attract the attention of men in advertising (Hodkinson, 2017). The stereotypes and norms discussed here are evident in various examples of branding strategies.

It is highly common for brands that target customers of one gender to rely on gender stereotypes in their ads. The most prominent examples of this trend can be observed in the automobile industry, where higher-class brands are usually advertised in a way that attracts male customers. Audi is among the brands that commonly tailor their marketing to the traditional perceptions of masculinity and femininity. For instance, the 2011 Audi A7 ad was based on the concept of jealousy and portrayed women vandalising the car (Audi A7, 2011). The images play on the stereotype of women being more emotional than men while also using the notion of the male gaze by showing women in short skirts of beautiful gowns. Along with other stereotypical media portrayals, ads like this strengthen the perceptions regarding gender roles and differences.

In contrast, many modern brands also choose to contest gender stereotypes in an attempt to translate brand values. Perhaps the most famous example of this strategy is the recent Gillette ad titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” (Gilette, 2019). The first part of the video shows the traditional view of masculinity by showing men harassing women and making excuses for violence. The second part of the ad, however, portrays men standing up to these standards by supporting women, preventing violence, and teaching boys to be more respectful and sensitive to others. The ad by Gillette fits into the general trend in advertising to show more positive gender role portrayals (Grau and Zotos, 2016).

Interestingly, Gillette faced social backlash for its ad, whereas Audi did not. It could be suggested that this was because the carmaker’s ad fit into the overall trends in car advertising, but Gillette’s message was different from those conveyed by other men care brands. Responses to Gillette’s ad were largely polarised, with some praising the brand for its take on toxic masculinity and courage in defying the stereotypes and others criticising Gillette for “telling [its] customers that they are the problem and need to change” (Smith, 2019). This example illustrates that, while brands can reinforce stereotypes, they are also expected to comply with them. By refusing to meet these expectations, Gillette and other responsible brands might be able to influence social views positively or at least draw attention to issues of discrimination.

Branding and Social Class

Social class is of ultimate relevance to branding since, in many cases, brands use socioeconomic characteristics to model their target consumers. According to Kendall (2011), the distinctions between high- and low-class people are evident in all forms of media, from television to advertisement. A particular concept that is essential to understanding social class stereotypes is cultural capital. Gauntlett (2011) explains that cultural capital refers to “the ways in which people would use cultural knowledge to undergird their place in the hierarchy” (p. 2). Income is one of the most common factors that shape the hierarchy in society.

In this way, people with lower income levels tend to be at the bottom of the social ladder, whereas more affluent ones are placed closer to the top (Kendall, 2011). The connection between class and social standing forms the foundation for stereotypes that contribute to the division between the classes. Branding can play a significant role in encouraging these stereotypes and supporting the hierarchal division between poverty and affluence.

In an effort to appeal to consumers from the lower class and coin the image of an affordable or urban brand, many companies contributed to poverty stigmatisation. One example is the collaboration between Puma and JD Sports, wherein companies hosted an event called House of Hustle. As explained by Coulter (2018), the layout and style of the occasion alluded to poor urban neighbourhoods, and various themed features were used, including graffiti, drug dealer phones, and invitations full of street gang jargon. The stereotype conveyed here was that people from poor neighbourhoods are more likely to be uneducated, use drugs, and follow subculture trends. In the same year, H&M also made T-shirts and hoodies with words such as “unemployed”, “broke”, and “working class” printed on them (O’Flynn, 2018). While these branding efforts show examples of stereotyping, they also engage in poverty fetishisation (Stewart, 2018).

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Poverty fetishisation reinforces the stereotypes while also enhancing the division between social classes. For this reason, both brands faced backlash on social media and were threatened with boycotts, leading them to issue public apologies (Coulter, 2018; O’Flynn, 2018). For people from low-income backgrounds, these examples of branding strategies are offensive and affect their self-esteem. For the more affluent people, however, such ads and items can become the source of jokes about the poor. Therefore, the effects of using social class stereotypes in branding are significant, and brands should take these cases as examples to prevent class discrimination in their advertisements.

Conclusion

Overall, branding plays a significant role in relation to the construction of social norms and stereotypes because it contributes to stereotypical images and perceptions. Consumers are influenced by the images that branding strategies translate, including the images of class, race and gender. The examples discussed in the paper show how branding can both support and challenge stereotypes, eliciting different responses from consumers. Brands using their marketing efforts to translate positive messages and reject stereotypes may contribute to society as a whole by causing people to rethink their biases or attitudes. Brands supporting stereotypes and social division, on the contrary, are likely to be criticised since they can impair the progress in terms of social values, equality, and people’s rights.

Reference List

Arvidsson, A. (2006) Brands: meaning and value in media culture. Abingdon: Routledge.

Audi A& advertising campaign (2011). Web.

Coulter, M. (2018) ‘House of Hustle: Puma apologises for throwing party “glamorising council estate poverty and drug dealing”‘, Evening Standard. Web.

Gauntlett, D. (2011) Three approaches to social capital. Web.

Gillette (2019) We believe: the best men can be | Gillette (short film). Web.

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Grau, S. L. and Zotos, Y. C. (2016) ‘Gender stereotypes in advertising: a review of current research’, International Journal of Advertising, 35(5), pp. 761-770.

Hodkinson, P. (2017) Media, culture and society: an introduction. 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Kendall, D. (2011) Framing class: media representations of wealth and poverty in America. 2nd edn. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Kotler, P. and Keller, K. L. (2016) Marketing management. 15th global edn. Boston, MA: Pearson.

O’Flynn, B. (2018) ‘Class struggle: when did ‘unemployed’ become a T-shirt slogan?‘, The Guardian. Web.

Puzakova, M. and Aggarwal, P. (2015) ‘To wink or not to wink? The role of anthropomorphism, power, and gender stereotypes in luxury branding’, Advances in Consumer Research, 43(1), pp. 667-668.

Sinha, A. (2018) ‘Six reasons branding is more important than ever before’, Entrepreneur India. Web.

Smith, T. (2019) ‘Backlash erupts after Gillette launches a new #MeToo-inspired ad campaign’, NPR. Web.

Stewart, R. (2018) ‘Working class Brits want brands to stop ‘caricaturing’ them and ditch the stereotypes‘, The Drum. Web.

Timke, E., and O’Barr, W. M. (2017) ‘Representations of masculinity and femininity in advertising’, Advertising & Society Review, 17(3). Web.