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Abstract

An increasing body of scholarship, particularly in marketing, has drawn on a wide variety of theoretical traditions to address the implications of brands as social texts. Taken together this research proposes that: brands exist as symbols in popular culture with their meanings contingent on particular cultural contexts; that consumers may resist meanings originally conceived by managers or agencies; that brands embody stories constructed both by the companies that produce them and by their consumers; that brands have histories. In this paper, we engage these topics from the perspective of hermeneutical inquiry. The linguistic, historical tradition in hermeneutics — which continues to play a role in contemporary theory through, for example, reader response and reception theory — offers a rich interpretive tradition and method that contributes to our developing understanding of brands. Following from recent research in marketing, we regard brands to be one of the most text-like artifacts of contemporary business culture and therefore appropriate for a demonstration of the potential contribution of hermeneutics. To this end, we emphasise three hermeneutic concepts: intention, the horizon of expectations and reception. From these categories, we derive the more pragmatic terms of trace, arc and collective interpretation to move towards a hermeneutical theory of branding. This approach allows us to explain the ways in which the meaning of a brand changes over time (giving branding a historical dimension) and how managerial intention intersects interpretations made by multiple constituencies. We contend that a deeper understanding of brands in terms of their past and present meaning increases the opportunities to realise a brand's potential.Journal of Brand Management (2006) 14, 40–59. doi:10.1057/palgrave.bm.2550053
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40
www.palgrave-journals.com/bm
Mary Jo Hatch
McIntire School of Commerce
University of Virginia
P.O. Box 400173, Charlottesville
Virginia 22904-4173, USA
Tel: + 1 804 924 1096
Fax + 1 804 924 7074
Email: mjhatch@virginia.edu
paper, we propose studying the phenom-
enon of branding using the historical,
linguistic tradition in hermeneutics. In
doing so, we add interpretive possibilities
to the stream of research that considers
brands to be social texts and branding to
be a rich area for the application of inter-
pretive theory (see Hatch and Yanow
1
for
fuller discussion of interpretation in the
INTRODUCTION
It is often noted that the word Herme-
neutics is derived from Hermes, the
messenger to the gods. While strategies in
branding have become ever more sophis-
ticated, the question remains, in rapidly
changing competitive contexts, to what
extent and in what way are brand messages
being delivered and received? In this
The hermeneutics of branding
Received (in revised form): 19th December, 2005
MARY JO HATCH
is C. Coleman McGehee Eminent Scholars Research Professor of Banking and Commerce at the McIntire School of
Commerce, University of Virginia. In addition to her work on corporate branding, she has written books and journal
articles on the topics of organizational identity, organizational culture and leadership. Her textbook, Organization
Theory: Modern, Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives , 2nd edn (with A. Cunnliffe) is available from Oxford University
Press, as are Organizational Identity: A Reader (edited by Hatch and Majken Schultz) and The Expressive Organization:
Linking Identity, Reputation and the Corporate Brand (edited by Schultz, Hatch and Mogens Holten Larsen).
JAMES RUBIN
is an Assistant professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.
He is the Area Coordinator of the communication area and teaches Management Communication, Corporate
Communication, and Media, Entertainment and Sports Management. He is the author of many case studies and has
written cases and articles in the areas of investor relations, crisis management, corporate communication, corporate
branding and corporate reputation. He is currently working on branding, media and technology.
Abstract
An increasing body of scholarship, particularly in marketing, has drawn on a wide variety of theoretical
traditions to address the implications of brands as social texts. Taken together this research proposes
that: brands exist as symbols in popular culture with their meanings contingent on particular cultural
contexts; that consumers may resist meanings originally conceived by managers or agencies; that
brands embody stories constructed both by the companies that produce them and by their consumers;
that brands have histories. In this paper, we engage these topics from the perspective of
hermeneutical inquiry. The linguistic, historical tradition in hermeneutics which continues to play a
role in contemporary theory through, for example, reader response and reception theory offers a
rich interpretive tradition and method that contributes to our developing understanding of brands.
Following from recent research in marketing, we regard brands to be one of the most text-like
artifacts of contemporary business culture and therefore appropriate for a demonstration of the
potential contribution of hermeneutics. To this end, we emphasise three hermeneutic concepts:
intention, the horizon of expectations and reception. From these categories, we derive the more
pragmatic terms of trace, arc and collective interpretation to move towards a hermeneutical theory
of branding. This approach allows us to explain the ways in which the meaning of a brand changes
over time (giving branding a historical dimension) and how managerial intention intersects
interpretations made by multiple constituencies. We contend that a deeper understanding of brands
in terms of their past and present meaning increases the opportunities to realise a brand s potential.
Journal of Brand Management (2006) 14, 40 59. doi: 10.1057/palgrave.bm.2550053
Keywords
brands ; brand management ;
corporate branding ;
hermeneutics ;
interpretive theory
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41
HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
organisational sciences). We take the posi-
tion that hermeneutics is not a monolithic
approach, but rather incorporates contested
positions that are historically situated and
applied differently in different fi elds. In
this paper, we will defi ne the hermeneutic
terms we use in relation to their philo-
sophical origins and to their application
in branding theory. In what follows, the
hermeneutic categories of authorial
intention , horizon of expectations , and
reader response and reception will be
adapted into the pragmatic and more
methodologically accessible terms: trace ,
arc and collective interpretation .
We will argue that these adapted terms
point toward a hermeneutic theory of
branding. Our larger purpose in investi-
gating the hermeneutics of branding is to
address how brands acquire meaning. The
particular hermeneutic tradition we apply
views interpretation as an evolving process
that describes how and why meaning
changes over time. We see a brand s
contemporary signifi cance resulting from
collective interpretations by multiple
stakeholders over numerous but particular
historical moments. We take the arc of a
brand as the trajectory of brand meaning
from its early stages to its present mani-
festation. Through the notion of a trace,
we suggest that even through remarkable
changes in what a brand signifi es, or the
stakeholders it engages, a brand often
retains a trace of its original intention.
Recent hermeneutic theory envisions
a text for which the horizon of expecta-
tions for interpretation is a dialogue with
the past, present and future. Although the
predictive power of this interpretative
process remains untested, understanding
past and present brand meanings plays a
key role in developing a brand s potential.
To illustrate how a brand s past and present
meaning inform its future, we provide
close readings of two of America s most
iconic brands: Marlboro and Coca-Cola.
Not coincidently, these brands have
consistently been ranked among the most
valuable of intangible assets, although they
have both faced formidable challenges in
recent years.
From an interpretive, inter-disciplinary
perspective, the relationship between
brand managers and consumers has
become increasingly complicated, not to
mention the relationship with other
constituencies, such as regulators, NGOs
and the organisation s own employees. In
the context of quickly shifting media and
cultural environments, brands offer a
powerful way to convey meaning to these
multiple stakeholders. But they also offer
sites of resistance to corporate messages.
While highly focused brand platforms
seem crucial in the crowded sphere of
popular culture, recognising that brand
meanings proliferate in unexpected ways
is increasingly common.
The study of consumer behaviour has
served as the point of departure for some
of the most provocative recent discussions
of brands and we will begin with a review
of the most pertinent literature from this
eld and from literary theory. Following
this, we develop our case for a herme-
neutic theory of branding. We conclude
the paper by suggesting how ongoing
developments in the hermeneutic tradi-
tion, through their emphasis on multiple
constituencies and changing contexts,
might inform the relationship between
brands and culture.
BRANDS AS SOCIAL TEXTS:
A LITERATURE REVIEW
A growing body of scholarship, particu-
larly in marketing, draws on a wide variety
of theoretical traditions to examine brands
as social texts. Most importantly for our
purposes, this work has established two
HATCH AND RUBIN
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points: (1) that brands have a dual status
as expressions of management strategy and
as symbols within popular culture and (2)
that brands are read and interpreted as
texts. We wish to enter this ongoing
discussion of brands and branding from
the position within the hermeneutic
tradition that was initially developed by
Gadamer
2
and Jauss,
3
and that runs
through both reader response theory and
reception theory.
It is worth noting that semiotics and
structuralism have been more often
employed by marketing scholars to address
brands than has hermeneutic theory.
These theoretical approaches provide what
seems to be a more direct path to add-
ressing brands as symbolic objects (mani-
fested for example in the visual component
of advertising) or as expressions of cultural
codes of meaning. Mick, for example, sees
semiotics as offering a method for creating
interpretative frameworks.
4
Although it
underpins a few studies, hermeneutics, as
developed in cultural studies, has been less
explicitly addressed in marketing. One
factor at play may be the perception that
hermeneutic theory aims to fi x the
meaning of individual texts and to defi ne
a given body of texts as canonical. For
example, in his infl uential book Validity in
Interpretation , literary theorist ED Hirsch
draws on a hermeneutics indebted to
Husserl to seek consensus for plausible
interpretations .
5
Hirsch correctly foresaw
that the rise of deconstruction would desta-
bilise current methods of interpretation in
literary studies and sought to assert criteria
of validity. Needless to say these ideas have
been roundly dismissed by postmodernists.
But hermeneutic method has continued to
play a role in contemporary criticism not
only through non essentialist reader response
theory and reception history, but also
through primary close readings of new kinds
of texts (eg, brands).
Interpretive approaches to branding
include hermeneutics as well as ethnog-
raphy (eg, Fournier
6
), semiotics (eg,
Floch
7
; see Mick
4
for a general review)
and corporate narrative (eg, Van Riel
8
).
More specifi cally, culturally based
approaches link branding and identity in
business contexts (eg, Balmer
9
; Cherna-
tony
10
; Davis and Chun
11
; Hatch and
Schultz
12,13
; Schultz et al.
14
). This research,
however, makes limited use of the
methods commonly found in cultural
studies that explicitly deal with the
problem of historical context. A notable
example that combines perspectives taken
by management and cultural studies can
be found in Olins
15
when he draws on
historian Eric Hobsbawn s work to
compare the invention of tradition in
India (ie, by importing and imposing
unifying symbols of British culture) with
the invention of corporate identity and
brand symbols.
Fournier s landmark study in marketing
uses ethnographic methods to describe
relationships three individual consumers
maintained with the many brands that
populated their lives.
6
While her careful
descriptions of the role these brands
played, and on the stories these consumers
wove around them in the context of their
daily lives give important insight into the
meaning vested in consumer brand rela-
tionships, Fournier s study does not address
the collective interpretive processes that
contextualise consumption within society.
By contrast, a study from literary criticism
that predates Fournier s, does this convinc-
ingly. In Readers and Their Romances , Janice
Radway combined ethnography, reader
response theory and reception studies to
look at women readers and their complex
relationship to romance novels in the
context of feminism.
16
Radway s study
provides a key example of how herme-
neutic theory in the form of reader
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HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
response and reception theory continually
opens onto new interpretations.
In her provocative discussion of adver-
tisements as texts, Scott writes that the
advertising text is the pathway through
which brand information must be
accessed .
17
That is, brand is mediated
through media. Grounding her argument
in key representatives of the hermeneutic
tradition, such as Fish
18
and Iser,
19
two of
the main contributors to reader response
theory, Scott covers a wide range of theo-
retical points. Casting the consumer
explicitly in the role of reader, she explores
the implications of this combined perspec-
tive for approaches to brands and adverting
that include metaphor and storytelling.
Approaching consumer research through
literary criticism and communication
theory, she calls advertising the literature
of consumption arguing especially for a
reader response approach and a theory of
advertisement as a genre.
In much of hermeneutic theory, genre
establishes the horizon of expectations
within which interpretation takes place.
Scott s argument opens up the intriguing
possibility that different genres of ads serve
various ends. Another strong inference of
Scott s claim of advertisement as genre is
that, by nature, advertising represents a
mixed or hybrid genre combining vari-
ously text, images, music and so on. Thus,
to a signifi cant extent, interpretations of
ads may lie in the particular juxtapositions
of these generic elements. The use of what
were originally counterculture rock songs
as sound tracks for ads, particularly for
cars, is so prevalent now that it is easy to
forget that a rock music soundtrack for a
lm like Easy Rider (released in 1969) was
a radical departure from the norm of
composed fi lm scores. Or consider a
recent Danish ad for Mercedes showing
the silver luxury car in a forest clearing
bathed in ethereal light under the caption
Oh Lord alluding to Janis Joplin s Oh
Lord, Won t You Buy Me a Mercedes
Benz . Has the original irony of the song
been erased, or is it part of this post-
modern play?
Following Scott s notion of ad as genre,
we would observe that there can also be
substantial power in inventing what
amounts to new genres of ads such as
those for Silk Cut which show, for
example, a sumptuous sheet of purple silk
sliced through by a pair of scissors. Abso-
lute s endlessly prolifi c but mostly clever
turns on the Silk Cut punning motif (the
Mercedes ad plainly fi ts this category) has
been one of the most successful adver-
tising campaigns in history. In Nice Work
David Lodge stages a set-piece in which
his academic heroine deconstructs a Silk
Cut billboard for the novel s businessman
protagonist, alerting him to the sexuality
in the ads (as well as underscoring her
own). Here, as so often, deconstruct really
means interpret .
The Absolute ads link interpretation
with the emotional and aesthetic connec-
tions consumers have with brands, and
with interpretative communities. In an ad
featuring the caption Absolute Shelly the
visual depicts a crudely stitched together
bottle that takes the famous Absolute
bottle s shape. This ad assumes that one
knows that Mary Shelly was the 19th
century author of Frankenstein , but it also
suggests that by ordering an Absolute
martini, you are in the community of
educated people who get the pun (and,
just in case, the ad was run coincident
with the release of a fi lm called Mary Shel-
ly s Frankenstein ). Absolute occupies that
odd space where students decorate dorm
rooms with the ads and art galleries display
and sell their original graphics in the pop
art tradition of Andy Warhol s Campbell s
soup can. Thus Absolute art widens the
cultural systems that branding intersects.
HATCH AND RUBIN
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McCraken describes the formalised
ways in which consumer goods take on
wider cultural signifi cance.
20
Drawing on
structural anthropology, he argues that, at
the level of cultural signifi cance, brand
meaning is indeterminate as well as
constructed by interactions between the
creator of an ad (eg, an advertising agency
account manager or brand manager) and
the consumer. These activities are in turn
shaped by social constructs such as the
advertising system and the fashion system.
McCracken s paper de-centres managerial
determinism and demonstrates the impor-
tance of mediating systems such as adver-
tising or fashion in the creation of cultural
meaning.
By examining consumer resistance to
brands and their meta-narratives, Holt
presents another challenge to the notion
that the message is always simply received
as sent.
21
For Holt, popular writers such
as Naomi Klein,
22
Eric Schlosser
23
and
Thomas Frank
24
(we would add Alisa
Quart
25
) demonstrate the extent to which
the dominant managerial narrative
embedded in brands may be questioned.
The books these authors have written
show that brand itself has become a
contested site for oppositional positions
and a particularly vulnerable one for
companies unwilling to respond to
their critics. Holt s discussion of the need
to go beyond assuming a mere acceptance
of dominant narratives leads him to
promising lines of inquiry such as an
extended case study developed at
Manchester Business School. Juxtaposing
a 1950s sense of fi xed narrative to the
postmodern conception of fragmented
narrative, Holt s study shows how
consumers complicate and resist dominant
brand narratives.
Holt s insight into narrative as multiple
and historically situated leads directly to
our position that brands, taken as texts,
can contain elements of the 1950s narra-
tive alongside a postmodern one. A brand
narrative may combine some aspects of
the managerial narrative and its frag-
mented opposition. This is especially plain
when there are competing narratives
about a corporate brand such as the
company s heroic foundation narrative, as
opposed to its current labour practices.
Still, the ads of the 1950s do seem to
suggest a compliant and collective partic-
ipation in a meta-narrative of consumer
fantasy involving more stylish cars, time-
saving appliances, whiter teeth and fewer
cavities. But as Frank argues, Madison
Avenue was quick off the mark in co-
opting the 1960s opposition to 1950s
conformity, such as through the use of
iconic countercultural messages.
23
Indeed, to return to our earlier refer-
ence to using the soundtrack of 1960s
rebellion to sell cars, it is fair to say we
are in the realm of free-fl oating pastiche,
that key signifi er of postmodernism in
which all popular culture is available to
the advertiser as well as the consumer. A
rich perspective on the particularly inter-
esting phenomenon of retro-brands is
introduced by Brown, Kozinets and Sherry
Jr.
26
In looking at several case studies,
these researchers investigate the intriguing
issue of how retro brands as brand exten-
sions reveal the paradoxes involved in
nding the kernel of brand meaning .
They write brand stories are partly
composed of the meanings and associa-
tions emanating from advertisers and
marketers, however, they are also
constructed by the mass media, press
releases, news stories, and related celebri-
ties , thus retro brands are redolent of
historical periods .
27
Films like the remake
of The Italian Job are remarkable examples
of feature length product placement for
retro-brands like the Mini Cooper and
make plain how particular associations
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HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
render this car a hit while relegating
Rover to the back pages of Country Life .
But don t the insights highlighted by
retro brands extend beyond them? A
Burberry and a Camel, for example, are
not retro brands in a strict sense, yet an
unfi ltered cigarette and a trench coat
would still evoke the fi lm noir of
Casablanca or The Long Goodbye . These
examples point to how brand meaning is
acquired over time, not only by individual
consumers and the originator of a brand
advertisement or campaign, but by
multiple audiences and collective inter-
pretations. A brand s kernel of meaning
in psychological terms is exactly what you
can never have but always desire. This
remains the core logic behind advertising:
acquiring the product cannot fully satisfy
the depth of emotional memories and
historical associations. On the other hand,
Denmark s Bang & Olufsen pioneered an
interactive chronology on its website that
allowed clicking on a year like 1920 to
produce the music of Louis Armstrong;
images of fl appers; and descriptions of
technological advances, signifi cant corpo-
rate events, and products. Here, brand as
text takes meaning directly from its histor-
ical context so that, on the level of the
organisation, the brand story is part of
technological and cultural history and
thereby has relevance for both consumers
and employees.
HERMENEUTICS AND ITS LINKS TO
BRANDING
Where the role of history is made plain
in retro brands, a hermeneutic process
emphasises the role of history in all brands.
Hermeneutics originates in historical
practices for interpreting legal and sacred
texts as guides to appropriate action. When
originally applied to philology and literary
texts (at fi rst classical ones rediscovered in
the early Renaissance), hermeneutics
served as a means to determine the correct
bibliographical content of texts taken as
canonical and was thereafter extended as
a method of interpretation. The theolo-
gian David Klemm summarised herme-
neutical understanding as that which
allows texts to speak again .
28
But by the
mid to late 20th century, notions of the
canon and of correct interpretations
could not account for postmodern frag-
mentation and came under intense critical
scrutiny.
Scholars found a basis for interpretive
multiplicity in the work of German
philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. It is
important to differentiate Gadamer s ideas
(originating in Heidigger) from the
phenomenology of Edmund Husserel.
Rather than seeking an essential (universal
or true ) meaning, Gadamer wished to
explain how texts come to mean different
things at different moments in history. For
Gadamer the meaning of a text emerges
from the multiple, layered interpretations
that are made of it over time. Gadamer
writes: our historical consciousness is
always fi lled with a variety of voices in
which the echo of the past is heard we
have, as it were, a new experience of
history whenever a new voice is heard in
which the past echoes .
29
The notion of the co-construction of
brand as text in recent marketing litera-
ture, as we have seen, creatively applies
reader response criticism drawing on
well-known theorists such as Iser and Fish.
The central premise of contemporary
literary hermeneutics that we will now
apply to branding is related to this litera-
ture in that it follows Gadamer, through
Iser, to Jauss. In this sense of hermeneutics,
the brand as text remakes itself with each
new reading even while the history of
previous readings never disappears
completely. It is thus that the reader /
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consumer creates the text / brand with the
author, the horizon of a text becoming
framed by the dialogue that transpires
between past, present and future. If, for
Gadamer, hermeneutic interpretation was
in part the transmission of tradition, he
anticipated postmodern interests by
acknowledging that any reading of a given
text incorporates past readings. Reading
is ongoing and mutable.
The tension between continuity and
discontinuity in hermeneutics can be seen
when Jauss writes that hermeneutics is by
defi nition, a process directed toward the
determination of meaning; it postulates a
transcendental function of understanding,
no matter how complex, deferred or
tenuous it might be, and will, in however
mediated a way, have to raise questions
about the extra-linguistic truth value of
literary texts .
30
In our approach to brand
as text, brands respond to change by
speaking again in new contexts and
thereby can adapt old meanings to new
circumstances. They also open themselves
to the infl uence of others who take part
in the dialogue of interpretations that
sustains them. We fi nd this application of
hermeneutics to branding useful because
it combines new and old meaning. The
many texts of branding processes may
retain some sense of intention placed in
them by their authors (those who
promote the brands) but they also respond
to interpretations produced by multiple
readers (stakeholders such as consumers,
the public, social and political activists,
employees and managers of the organisa-
tions that promote the brand). Even this
does not capture the panoply of activities
that include, among others: events
promoted by fan clubs, collecting signs
and old advertisements, and photographing
the vestigial and fading signs painted on
city walls (a kind of metaphor for brand
as palimpsest). In a more direct way,
Joachimsthaler and Aaker showed almost
ten years ago the importance of nonmedia
brand building through, for example,
Cadbury s theme park and Swatch s
collectors networks.
31
As we have seen in the fi rst two sections
of this paper, central issues in the inter-
pretation of brands are: the extent to
which brand meaning as intended may be
modifi ed or resisted; the processes through
which brand meaning is constructed by,
at the very least, managers, agency execu-
tives and consumers; and the role of
history in brand meaning. To further
address these issues, in the remainder of
this section we take management terms
such as managerial strategy, competitive
context and stakeholder perception as
roughly analogous to the hermeneutic
concepts of intention, the horizon of
expectations and reception.
Intention
Authorial intention traditionally refers to
what an author means when writing a
text. While it seems unlikely that one can
with any accuracy think like, for example,
a 19th century poet, intention became a
theoretical problem when new criticism
(Leavis, eg, in the UK) wanted to treat the
text on its own terms. On the other hand
if a 17th century poet wrote in praise of
the king it seems likely he intended to do
so. It is seldom observed that postmod-
ernism s skepticism over the role of author
was a continuation of an aesthetic position
taken by new criticism. In the case of
branding, authorial intention applies most
directly to designed aspects of the branding
process: from strategists directives to
marketers working with ad agencies and
logo designers to create meaningful
symbols that will, they hope, suggest
desired emotional associations to customers
or communicate strategic intention into
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HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
reinforcing messages (such as the new
black IBM logo suggesting separation from
big blue ). In much the same way that
modernist literary scholars assumed that a
text s meaning was defi ned by its author s
intent, many business managers optimisti-
cally assume that strategic intent drives
brand creation, and promotion defi nes the
brand s meaning.
But, consider the case of Hormel s
Spam, the processed food product pack-
aged in a distinctive rectangular can with
a key on the bottom. The associations for
this brand range from something good to
have when camping to the antithesis of
nouvelle cuisine , an example par excellence
of processed American food. The latter
association was clearly not intended by
the manufacturer or those marketing the
product. Looking outside the business and
consumer contexts of the Spam brand, we
nd Spam cans on t-shirts worn by self-
described computer nerds who thereby
reference the contemporary practice of
spamming (broadcasting unwanted email
over the internet) and thus conjoin their
meaning with the brand. The Spam t-shirt
is just one instance of the way in which
the history of meaning for this brand
expands over time through the variety of
uses to which brand symbolism is put.
Although management may not have
intended or approve, and may not even
be aware, of many of the uses of their
brands symbols, these interpretations are
still part of the text that is the brand.
Iser s work, for example, suggests not
only that a text s meaning becomes co-
constructed by authors and readers.
18
A
given text may itself imply a reader. A
devout reader of Pilgrim s Progress familiar
with Scripture (probably through its
popularity well into the 19th century)
would see specifi c allegorical meanings in
Pilgrim s journey. A 17th-century reader
would see the political resonances as well.
Advertisements seem particularly amenable
to positing an implied reader to the
extent they imply an original pitch such
as the aims of Pepsi s new generation
campaign. Ads, or brands, may be read at
a given moment with a sense of what is
intended or met with resistance. Today
soft drinks may stand more for over-
weight youth than a new generation. We
here introduce the notion of trace to
suggest that even in dynamic brand
meaning systems, some remainder of
intention will be found in later evolutions
of a brand.
Horizon of expectations
If intention raises the notion of strategist
as author, the horizon of expectations
introduces the cultural context within
which stakeholders / audiences read the
brand / text. Historic horizons do not
mean passing into alien worlds uncon-
nected in any way with our own, but
together they constitute a horizon that
moves from within and beyond the fron-
tiers of the present .
32
Iser found in devel-
oping reader response theory that to
construct consistency in narrative tech-
niques: The reader is forced to discover
the hitherto unconscious expectations
that underlie all his perceptions, and also
the whole process of consistency-building
as a prerequisite for understanding. In this
way he may be given the chance to
discover himself, both in and through his
constant involvement in home-made
illusions and fi ctions .
33
For Hirsch expec-
tations are set by historical notions of
genre or what a genre meant at the time
(eg, what Shakespeare may have reason-
ably meant by a revenge tragedy). For Iser
readers take an active part in the compo-
sition of a novel but the structuring and
potential meanings also imply a reader.
The horizon of expectations is individu-
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alised and internalised but also draws on
a larger web of social infl uences.
The traditional notion of horizon of
expectations gives depth to the idea of
brand as promise by including social
context and the changing of expectations
over time. Jauss defi nes the text’s horizon
in terms of an imagined reader who
performs the score of the text. As a result
of earlier readings, the text is read with
perpetual anticipation of what is possible
in terms of form and meaning. Conse-
quently a reader may become aware that
a text has not yet fulfi lled signifi cance, let
alone its whole meaning .
34
It is in this
sense that for Jauss the horizon of the text
is a dialogue between past, present, and
future. The concept of horizon suggests
the notion of arc the movement of
brand meaning through time.
Reader response and reception
Hermeneutics not only accounts for
intentionality, it takes account of its limits.
The limits to brand intentions, exempli-
ed by the Spam story, are imposed by
the third aspect of the hermeneutics of
branding reader response and recep-
tion. Iser emphasises how meaning is a
collective effort between reader and
author that occurs as the reader moves
through the text (an idea that inspired
Fish s Self-Consuming Artifacts
35
). Gadam-
er s work argues that a text s meaning
changes over time and in differing histor-
ical contexts. A central idea in this
approach is that texts cannot be isolated
from earlier interpretations. To take a
famous if well-worn example, it is possible,
even though it is diffi cult, to imagine
through a thick knowledge of historical
context what Elizabethans made of Shake-
speare s plays given their belief in, for
example, ghosts and the hereditary role of
kings. But it is nonetheless hard for
modern audiences to altogether ignore
Freud or Laurence Olivier s interpreta-
tions of Hamlet s central character. Here
the notion of historical audience, no
matter how implied, contingent or imag-
ined, is a collective notion of the way
readers collectively saw a brand at a given
time.
As we have seen, marketing researchers
have found reader response theory helpful
in pointing to how readers / consumers
co-construct a text with the author /
advertising agency or product brand
manager. Reception is a closely related
topic that should receive more attention
since it reveals how brands construct
meaning through their histories, in partic-
ular, infl ection points in the brand or text s
history that shape collective interpreta-
tions. If we take the James Bond movies
as a brand, Bond was often known through
the specifi city of his likes and dislikes, for
brands of cars, watches, suits and martinis.
Originally, Ian Fleming was criticised in
Britain for being too caught up in Amer-
ican consumer culture in his characterisa-
tion of a gentleman spy. Bond was vulgar,
Connery a bit rough. In today s treatments
of Fleming s stories, Omega watches,
Jaguars and Aston Martins fl ash by in
(almost tongue-in-cheek) product place-
ments that celebrate Bond s brand obses-
sions at the same time that they promote
the luxury brands. As brand managers talk
about retaining the DNA of the Aston
Martin brand (now owned by Ford),
posters of Sean Connery hang from
showroom walls, keeping the brand sepa-
rate from the parent company. Pierce
Brosnan revised Roger Moore s campy
Bond with a return to a greater toughness
under the sophisticated veneer that
harks back to Connery but with enough
high-tech stunts to satisfy opening
weekend audiences in the 1990s. Each
new version of Bond revises how the
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HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
earlier ones are viewed, just as the earlier
versions inform how we take present
versions.
Dealerships for the revived Vespa brand
are lined with posters that might have
come from La Dolce Vita or other great
Italian fi lms of the 1950s and 1960s.
Customers probably do not need to be
Fellini fans to have some sense of the
brand s romance and can appreciate the
posters with or without cinematic asso-
ciations. Nonetheless, exposure to the
posters layers the meaning into the brand
and carries it forward. The other day, in
accidental fi eld research, one of us encoun-
tered a young woman smartly decked out
with jacket and helmet matching her mint
green motor scooter returning to a video
store her rented copy of Roman Holiday .
The cover of the video depicts Audrey
Hepburn and Gregory Peck on a tour
of Rome on a Vespa. To be sure, Vespa
could be considered a retro brand, or
it could be said to be a brand that speaks
again in new ways through the savvy
use of inter-textual associations and a
youth culture seeking both retro-chic
and authenticity, as well as a bit of rebel-
lion symbolised by the 1960s association
of scooters and British youth culture
(see Dick Hebdige
36
for a cultural
analysis of scooters, youth culture and
rebellion).
TWO DEMONSTRATIONS
In order to develop a hermeneutic theory
of branding, connections between the
elements of trace, arc and collective
interpretation need to be established.
We move in this direction by presenting
two close readings of brands. Our
readings of Marlboro and Coke as social
texts will show how these three herme-
neutic elements describe interpretation
processes that create and sustain these
brands.
Marlboro
In his biography of Edward Bernays (a
founding fi gure of public relations and
Freud s nephew), Larry Tye tells the story
of American Tobacco s public relations
coup named the Torches of Freedom
campaign.
37
Society women smoked ciga-
rettes as they strolled down New York s
Fifth Avenue to dramatise women s inde-
pendence both in the freedom to
smoke and to vote. If dangerous women
smoked, as Klein suggested in his reading
of Carmen in Cigarettes are Sublime , adver-
tisers and cigarette companies of the early
20th century were well aware of the
power of a name to change this associa-
tion and the necessity to change this
perception to reach 50 per cent of the
population.
38
Brands such as Pall Mall,
Viceroy, Raleigh, Chesterfi eld and Marl-
boro all have plain aristocratic associations.
Pall Mall, for example, in the 1940s, was
where people of discernment chose to
congregate and its ads featured hotels like
the Copley Plaza, an American equivalent
of the kind of hotel found in Pall Mall. If
cigarette manufacturers wanted women to
smoke, smoking had to be socially accept-
able. Women could then use cigarettes to
symbolise their demands for independ-
ence and erase anxiety since many ciga-
rette ads of the period featured testimonials
from society women. A Chesterfi eld
advertisement from 1933 shows a beauti-
fully dressed skater in fur-trimmed green
silk inscribing in the ice they satisfy .
In 1935, Marlboro cigarette advertise-
ments placed in the New Yorker show a
young model in cloche hat and bobbed
hair, at once seductive and sophisticated,
using the very modern seeming and, as
feminist writers have pointed out, prob-
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lematic technique of showing only part
of the woman, three quarters of her face.
It almost seems post modern since this
fashion of cutting out parts of the face or
gure is often seen today as edgy . The
models retain a bit of Carmen s racy asso-
ciation with tobacco, but also a fashion-
able woman who from this perspective
looks still a bit of a fl apper. The models
smile in three ads, their lipstick fl awless
the tag reads ivory tips protects the
lips . The cigarettes, by Phillip Morris, are
mild as May . In one of a set of three ads
the young woman withdraws an ivory
tipped cigarette from a white package
which says ivory tipped around the top
and we can see the brand name Marlboro
written on the packet itself. The ads are
at once strikingly modern and of their
time in the dominance of the partial and
lovely face.
A second series of ads from 1942 1945
follow a similar path but are a more
familiar balance of copy, photo and
product (in the 30s the product as packet
did not always appear). The packet remains
white but Phillip Morris s signature now
appears to be written diagonally across the
crest positioned at the centre. We see in
these ads a tall and elegant woman dressed
in the high fashion of the 1940s, one
walking while clutching a handsome bag
(1942), and one with her back facing the
reader talking on the phone (1944), one
leaning over a piano as a gent in tails plays
(1945). In the last of the three the new
tag line The cigarette of distinction
appears. The equal block letters of the 30s
Marlboro graphics are now replaced by
the more familiar font of the later Marl-
boro brand with only the M capitalised.
They are billed as America s luxury ciga-
rette . Yet it is attainable luxury, the 1942
ad announces clothing by Marshall Field.
The ad of 1945 substitutes this co-
branding with the tag line the cigarette
of successful men and women . Rather
than using photos, the women are repre-
sented as drawings in the same style as a
high-fashion sketch of the period. But
even more telling is the small buy war
bonds stamp on the later two. The war
would change more than the color of
Lucky Strikes from green to white (the
dye was needed for the war).
We can posit that these cigarette ads
still targeted women as a brand of social
aspiration. Men were no doubt already
hooked, and as Klein points out, cigarettes
like Lucky Strike became a focal point of
male bonding and shared hardship. We can
see a bit of anticipation in the idea of
America s luxury cigarette in 1942 for
Marlboro was about to become America s
cigarette, period. At fi rst, the Marlboro
man was not just a cowboy but also a
sportsman and other kinds of manly men.
These transitional ads of the mid-1950s
look to our eyes like old Television
commercials since they are again head
shots with text that could serve as voice
over in the new medium of Television.
Now the new red and white fl ip top box
prominently displayed you ve got a lot
to like, lter, avor, ip top box (it must
have been a jingle). But from where there
is a man there s a Marlboro it was but a
short ride to Marlboro country, where
the fl avor is .
By the 1960s and 1970s, we have pano-
ramic shots of the western, the aristocrat
of American mythology, the cowboy, is
shown roping, herding, riding and smoking
come to where the fl avor is, come to
Marlboro country . He is, as a good Amer-
ican hero, alone, and one ad shows a
cowboy whose hat covers his face, lighting
a Marlboro against a wall where his
shadow blends into the shadow of the
brand name. The myth and the brand
are as one. In 1970 a cowboy advertises
Marlboro 100s: smoke more. Of course,
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51
HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
the small reminder to buy war bonds is
eventually replaced by the surgeon gener-
al s warning, but as John Wayne once said,
I beat the big C , except that he didn t.
A well-known actor who usually plays
western heroes plays an ex-Marlboro man
now dying of cancer in the satiric fi lm
Thank You for Smoking .
America does not have trouble inventing
cool or perhaps is obsessed with it. Jazz
musicians and fi lm detectives from the
1950s and 1960s are seldom without a
cigarette. But what accounts for the arc
from a woman s cigarette to its association
with the quintessential symbol of mascu-
linity? No doubt there is the intention of
a marketing move back from having
secured a new demographic (women) to
attracting a larger one (men and women).
Still, there is continuity in the theme of
aristocracy, now of a home-grown kind.
Tapping into the collective myth of
American independence for men as well
as women made the brand the world s top
selling cigarette. But at the top of the red
and white box is the gold crest from the
rst white packets a trace of the past.
Marlboro, of course, became ubiqui-
tous. Brand recognition was so high that
although China (a vast market for ciga-
rettes for companies in post cigarette
America) banned the advertising of ciga-
rettes, simply placing pictures of the
cowboy on billboards and posters resulted
in villagers literally walking a mile for a
Marlboro. Few could envision a future for
Phillip Morris after tobacco CEOs testi-
fying before the US Congress, one of the
actual Marlboro actors becoming an anti-
smoking activist, or class action lawsuits
reaching the billions. In the 90 s however,
when Phillip Morris wished to send the
message that the company was diversifi ed
in order to reassure investors, they displayed
their many branded products on the cover
of their annual report. Marlboro was posi-
tioned at the very centre and depicted at
the centre of that famous red and white
package remained a very un-wild-west
golden crest, the crown jewel of the
corporation.
The Marlboro story encompasses a
reversal of gender moving from the Marl-
boro vamp to the Marlboro man. Both
obviously evoke the American myth of
independence, the fl apper and the quin-
tessentially aristocratic cowboy the
American popular culture s knight-errant.
The meaning of the brand now also
contains its deadly content, covered up for
too long. The effect of the tipping point
at which it became so widely unaccept-
able to smoke in the US is perhaps unique
in American corporate history. Neverthe-
less, if for Americans thinking about
tapping out a Gitane from a crumpled
pack can evoke caf é life, the young Parisian
still very likely picks up a carton of
Marlboro Lights whenever she visits New
York. The Marlboro story is ambiguous.
The ending is not happy but Altria still
makes money from the brand that, wher-
ever it remains culturally acceptable to
smoke, people smoke in spite of the warn-
ings. Brand equity can vanish in a moment,
but in this case it seems to have staying
power even as the story twists and turns.
The brand s arc shows incredible resil-
iency as it moves from a woman s luxury
cigarette to the epitome of the macho
man. The reversal in gender prefi gures the
brilliant thesis of TBWA s Jean Marie Dru
that to revitalise a brand there must be
disruption.
39
The trace shows continuity
in the fl exible meaning of aristocracy,
from British peers to the aristocrat of the
American plains represented by
retaining the packet s gold crown. During
the days of the Cold War, collective inter-
pretation made Marlboro not only the
symbol of American masculinity, but of
worldwide yearning for the style of Amer-
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52
ican freedom embodied in the cowboy
hero and the freedom to consume.
Marlboro shows how the arc of ever
changing meaning carries traces of a
brand s heritage that can never completely
be forgotten. And as past mingles with
present in ongoing collective interpreta-
tion processes, the meaning shifts in
continuing accommodation. Thus the
hermeneutic circle can be seen in terms
adapted from the concepts of intention,
reception and the horizon of expectations:
the arc, the trace and collective interpreta-
tion.
Coca-Cola
That the Marlboro man became a symbol
of American brand power is oddly fi tting
since tobacco was the cash crop that
sustained Jamestown, the original colony
in the new world. Coca-Cola has similarly
deep roots in the travelling medicine show
of the west and the PT Barnum ethos that
anything can be sold (see Brown (2002)
for a discussion of the marketing of Harry
Potter in the manner of pre-scientifi c
showmanship in the spirit of Barnum). It
is generally conceded that the fi rst
consumer brands as we now know them
begin with Lever and Sons Sunshine Soap
and Lifebuoy. Advertising is a bit older. In
18th-century English newspapers, aside
from cures for the French disease , the
most prevalent genre of ads, displayed
together on the front page or at the end,
were for quack remedies, followed by
printers announcements of plays, and
novels. Coca-Cola, one of the most
successful brands of the 20th-century (like
its rival Pepsi Cola) fi nds its origins in the
advertising and marketing of a medicinal
remedy for dyspepsia and other mala-
dies.
For those of us who fi nd in brands a
force for potential good (companies will
live up to the values their brand repre-
sents) it is disquieting to contemplate that
some of the most successful brands and
branding campaigns seem to depend on
the fact that the product is more or less
nothing, a syrup with seltzer (Coke) or a
clear spirit (Absolute). They are a blank
screen on which to project fantasy. Culture,
of course, can intrude in negative ways,
but the success of these brands has not
obviously been connected to culture
beyond savvy marketing. To take a snap-
shot before its recent troubles, Interbrand
estimated Coke s brand equity at 64
Billion, a fi gure that, according to their
calculations in 2002, represented 61 per
cent of the fi rm s market capitalisation
( www.interbrand.com , Feb 2002).
Like cigarette brands with aristocratic
names, Coke in the 1930s and 1940s
emphasised its status as the kind of leveling
product in which all might participate
anyone might have access to owning
a branded product. Just like ordinary
people, many early Coke ads stressed,
members of high society used the very
same products underscoring the uniquely
perverse version of American egalitari-
anism everyone can be either rich or
use the same products that the rich use
(Marchand)
40
. A Coke ad from 1941, for
example, depicts a well-dressed busi-
nessman enjoying a Coke on his daily
commute. His dapper suit can only be
called Coke brown, a waiter hands him a
silver tray on which is placed a glass of
ice and the famously shaped bottle you
can trust its quality just as you can trust
the social quality of the gent on the train.
Like the train refreshment arrives and it
is, in the 1930s, the pause that refreshes .
An ad of 1947 features clean-cut kids
clustered around the soda fountain, rein-
forcing a notion of community based on
the mixing of syrup and seltzer. The land-
mark that greets every visitor to an
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53
HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
American town is not the drugstore, but
the bright red Coca-Cola dispenser. It is
still the pause that refreshes and can be
served up by the smiling soda jerk in a
jiffy . Here is introduced the corporate
brand notion that coke = Coca-Cola
which can be a refreshing moment at
everybody s club the neighbourhood
fountain . Unlike Marlboro s, Coke s logo
has remained a constant symbol of brand
equity displayed on the fountain and the
red circle in the corner of the ad which
employs the familiar Coke imperative
drink Coca-Cola (what happens if you
do not?). The trademark drinking glass
appears instead of the trademark bottle
and this ad is particularly revealing since
it shows how Coke draws on a powerful
fantasy: the untroubled community of
American youth. This soda fountain ad
provides a peek into the real business. The
company has made many people rich
selling seltzer, syrup, and stories about
themselves.
During the Second World War, Coke,
again like American cigarettes, became a
highly charged symbol of home comfort
and exchange (Klein)
22
. An advertisement
from 1944 shows GIs sharing Coke (like
they did Camels and Lucky Strikes) with
our allies in Panama emphasising the
bonds of democracy Have a Coke =
Que Hay, Amigo? Here the round Coca-
Cola script on a red circle is shown along
with the 8-ounce bottle and remarkably
the Coke circle shows in a dark red the
globe Coke, to coin a phrase, in 1947
declares we are the world ! Still, the pause
that refreshes, it demonstrates American
ideas of friendliness and good neighbour-
liness so it is the soda fountain writ large.
When a soldier says Have a Coke , the
native knows he means We are friends .
In the same global vein, a quartet of
Americans and what looks to be Swiss
nationals, if a Tyrolean hat signifi es
anything, all get to acknowledge the
goodness that the whole world knows .
The post-War period showed a good
many brands such as Swiss watches
getting back on their feet and re-estab-
lishing sundered markets, but there is
audacity in Coke s claim that in more
than 100 countries, over 58 million times
a day, people enjoy the good taste and
welcome lift of this unusual refreshment .
The round Coke disc is followed by the
declaration that Coke is a sign of good
taste everywhere . The intention was
plainly to establish an unprecedented
global consumer brand. Placement on the
back of National Geographic meant for
many readers their fi rst experience of a
wider world associated with the primary
symbol of American brand power. This
does not mean Coke meant to give up its
status as an American brand.
In 1955 a Coke ad shows a nuclear
family so clean cut that even Ozzie and
Harriet might be envious. Coke fl exes its
brand power claiming fty million times
a day at home, at work, or on the way.
Under a red and white striped awning the
perfect American family endorses the red
circled logo again commanding drink
Coca-Cola . It is the ultimate conquest of
square. As Thomas Frank suggested in The
Conquest of Cool , Coke and its imitators
became associated with conformity to
such a degree that 7-up, the un-cola ,
could be marketed as a choice for 1960s
nonconformists.
A key moment in the reception of the
brand s history was the famous introduc-
tion of New Coke which unintentionally
reasserted customer loyalty to the original
secret formula that then had to be renamed
Classic Coke (Pendergast).
41
Consumers
wanted the secret formula that was the
real thing , that was it with the imperative
to enjoy . The frequent depiction of the
vintage 8 ounce glass Coke bottle on the
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Coke Classic can is a kind of shorthand
primer in postmodern reading. The very
shape of the bottle resulted in a retrofi t
when plastic 16 oz bottles were reshaped
to repeat the Coke curve and revenues
increased by US $ 16m. The apex of Coke s
brand power can be seen in the 1994
Annual Report. The background is blue
sky, not red, the logo is not to be seen,
and on an anonymous highway is a bill-
board with a silhouette of the 16 ounce
plastic bottle with the heading Quick.
Name a Soft Drink . The competition was
not Pepsi but liquid.
But when consumers in Belgium
reported becoming ill after drinking the
soft drink (as a result of benzene), the
company s deaf ear to European concerns
over GM foods and the Americanisation
of European culture slowed the brand s
momentum. Worse was to come. Coke
was swept up, along with fast foods, in
concerns about the weight epidemic in
the US. At the same time the global
markets that once could not get enough
of pop culture America, now, especially in
hyper-branded Japan, wanted almost
weekly change in new products. Coke
responded tepidly with cherry Coke and
vanilla Coke.
The arc of Coca-Cola is from a soda
fountain elixir, to one of the most powerful
brands in history, to a brand negotiating
new competitive contexts and external
challenges to the core brand. Its trace
remains in an early 20th-centrury logo
that became indistinguishable from Amer-
ican brand power and the secret formula
(which it turns out is altered to meet
different local preferences). Collective
interpretations in the US and elsewhere
made these mixtures of syrup and soda
water a signifi er of American good inten-
tions to the world in the pre- and post-
War periods reaching a kind of na ï ve
apogee in the famous I want to buy the
world a Coke ad. In Nepal at the foot of
Everest there is a sign that says real moun-
tains, real people, the real thing . In one
sense the real thing is the perfect post-
modern brand when nothing is taken as
the real thing, but in an age of hyper-
branding its monolithic identity has
become diffi cult to negotiate.
In a highly nuanced case study, Csaba
and Askegaard
42
tell the story of how
Denmark s local Jolly Cola used narratives
connected to local myths in an attempt
to counter the mythic globalising brand
of Coca-Cola. As they point out, Coke s
business model of American marketing
combined with local bottlers and distrib-
utors has long been diffi cult to compete
against. While Jolly Cola did not move
ahead in market share, Askegaard and
Csaba show through their perceptive
close reading of Jolly Cola s advertising
campaign how interpretive methods are
central to competitive analysis. Since 2001
it is possible that monolithic brands like
Coke have become more vulnerable. To
take a different example, General Motors,
where Alfred Sloane invented endorsed
identity, has been unable to reconnect the
American dream to consumers attaining
ever more luxurious cars under the
umbrella of GM. They have so far been
unable to fi nd a thread in the brand s
narrative more compelling than the reli-
ability and value of their Japanese compet-
itors, which is a collective interpretation
now solidifi ed in consumer s perceptions.
The Jolly Cola study suggests, however,
the importance of offering a counternar-
rative to what may at the moment be
dominant interpretations.
CONCLUSION
A hermeneutic approach to branding
draws attention to the interplay between
managerial intent and stakeholder recep-
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55
HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
tion, and to how elements of past and
present interpretations play a role in a
brand s meaning. Coke s reliance on
monolithic identity may have turned its
primary strength into a weakness if the
youth market continues to rapidly respond
to new hyper-brands and the company
does not fi nd ways to allay health concerns
over their core brand. MacDonald s has
had some success in this regard as a result
of its need to conform to local appetites
and regulations (eg, Denmark s regulations
on the level of fat in French fries). To what
extent did Marlboro s brand power make
it more diffi cult to admit the harm it was
infl icting on its stakeholders? Why did
the new corporate entity Altria retain
the brand? Although its shift in brand
identity from the 1940s to the 1950s was
only aimed at repositioning Marlboro as
a men s cigarette, could that change
suggest a level of willingness to take
risks that would allow for a reconceived
company?
While this paper has used iconic brands
to suggest the implications of close reading
in the hermeneutic tradition, the exam-
ples provided show how these brands
were built into highly valuable assets but
also how they were vulnerable to changes
in context and to oppositional constituen-
cies. The future of strong brands lies
in aligning brand values with internal
stakeholders such as employees and
making more meaningful connections
with external stakeholders such as
consumers. In this way the brand s text is
an expression of organisational identity, a
base from which dealing with changing
contexts should be more likely and more
creative.
In William Gibson s novel Pattern Recog-
nition (a science fi ction novel set in the
present) the heroine is allergic to brands,
almost passing out whenever she glimpses
a Tommy Hilfi ger ad. This sensitivity leads
to her work as a highly paid brand
consultant. She might also serve as a
heroine for Naomi Klein or Alisa Quart,
for she is scrupulously without logo and
unbranded herself. She eventually recovers
from her allergy, a moment realised when
she is unaffected by passing teenagers clad
in Burberry plaid. Pattern Recognition , the
concept that serves as Gibson s title, might
also serve as a metaphor for the close
reading of brands where the interpreta-
tions given to brands over the course
of their history form the patterns of
meaning we take to be brands. Brands
have value not only because they are used
symbolically to make and communicate
meaning, but also because of the variety
of interpretations they invoke across time
and place. Because they are constructed
and indeterminate, they are mutable. This
can be so even if interpretations retain
a trace of the strategic intent that
originally might have aimed at quite
different registers of meaning among
other audiences.
As Olins points out in On Brand , since
their origins as a vehicle to market ordi-
nary household commodities, brands and
branding have become the most signifi -
cant gifts that commerce has ever made
to popular culture .
43
Beyond serving as
an unprecedented way for business to
connect with consumers, brands differen-
tiate products and services, and manage
expectations of attributes such as consist-
ency.
44
What Olins continues to observe,
however, is the extent to which brands
have intensifi ed and proliferated as a way
for individuals to mediate a sense of self
in postmodern society (to the extent
people become almost walking brand
billboards) as well as a primary strategy
through which organisations express core
values and create value. In response, brand
managers have developed more and more
refi ned techniques for dealing with the
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evolving status of customers and brands,
especially in studying consumer behav-
iour and in using techniques such as cool
hunting . But to what extent have compa-
nies used the potential of brand meaning
to engage their internal and external
stakeholders?
If brands are a way for individuals to
mediate between self and society, the
mediating social construction of brands is,
as Scott points out, most frequently
media.
45
Marshall McLuhan wrote that
the commercials of the 20th century,
much like the stained glass windows of
the 14th, are the richest and most faithful
refl ections that any society ever made of
its entire range of activities .
46
McLuhan
would hardly have been surprised by
BMW s series of fi lms starring Clive
Owen as the driver since the content of
a new medium (here the internet) is at
rst that of the medium preceding it (in
this case fi lm / Television). From a tradi-
tional perspective, the BMW fi lms are
simply a device to reach a new demo-
graphic to pre-position comparatively less
expensive luxury cars. Yet the set of asso-
ciations each director evokes in the fi lms,
as well as their presence on the web, invite
a new way to think about a brand known
for precision engineering, a gesture
towards loosening control since the fi lms
are open to so many interpretations. To
use another McLuhan aphorism, after the
movies, media can have no meaning
except in relation to other media.
A logical development of this has been
the invitation by Converse sneakers to
post short fi lms made by consumers on
their website. Converse, one of the last US
sneaker brands still made in the US, was
acquired by Nike as a hedge when there
was some question that they were slipping
in coolness and under critical scrutiny by
NGOs for labour practices (issues which
the company has addressed in substantial
ways that many other companies with
similar issues have not). At the same time,
Nike acquired the retro-chic brand of
canvas sneakers Converse, now made in
China, with its countercultural associa-
tions of grunge and punk musicians and
their fans the very audience who might
boycott Nike. But to be successful the
videos on the site cannot be overly
managed by the company, and issues of
authenticity and control immediately
arise.
Managers and brand analysts spend
considerable time and money trying to
solve the problem of brand asset valuation
in order to account for what comprises
this value and how to measure it. For
instance, brand asset management models
indicate investment strategies and stra-
tegic choices such as either investing
brand assets in new lines of business
through brand extensions, or investing
other assets in brand-building efforts (eg,
advertising, customer relations or employee
training). When accompanied by assess-
ment of the return on investment using
outcome measures such as reputation
quotients or brand equity formulae, brand
asset management models create a sense
that brands are under control. But these
measurements do not fully account for the
insight necessary to effectively manage
brand communication, stakeholder rela-
tionships to the brand, or brand support
from employees. Brand mangers of prod-
ucts, and the corporate brand at all levels,
need models that allow engagement with
the collective interpretive processes that
defi ne the brand s meaning, determine its
value and account for how that value was
acquired. A linguistic, historical herme-
neutic model adds to recent marketing
research by showing how authorial inten-
tion (or the strategic branding processes)
accounts for only a part of what is required
to sustain a brand s economic value. The
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HERMENEUTICS OF BRANDING
ability to read context and draw on the
right elements of brand heritage will
increasingly play a key role establishing
and maintaining brand value in an altered
competitive landscape.
Brown points to the limits of traditional
marketing s scientifi c and predictive goals.
For centuries the basis for prediction was
historical example, a notion that seems
lost in building predictive models.
47
By
engaging the processes of collective inter-
pretation and historical layering involved
in the construction of brand meaning,
managers may better perceive both oppor-
tunities and limits to their infl uence over
these processes. Infl ection points in recep-
tion, such as consumer s rejection of the
New Coke, or the success of the gender
reversal in Marlboro s brand image,
contribute to taking a historical point of
view.
Current trends suggest that managers
shape brand strategies (at the product and
corporate level) to widen the involvement
of all the company s stakeholders in
contributing to brand meaning and
serving as ambassadors for the brand.
From this perspective, product and corpo-
rate branding will be central considera-
tions in managerial decision making.
Brand communication will increasingly
be seen as a primary representation of
corporate values in the context of the ever
expanding availability of information.
Highly visible and valuable brands, like
Coke and Marlboro, have long histories
that reveal how they became cultural
icons by attaining a prominent place in
popular culture. But managing brands as
assets unconnected to their symbolic
power to engage all stakeholders and
guide management practice may be on
the wane. Using a hermeneutic approach
to branding assumes that interpretive
richness and the wealth of symbolic mean-
ings associated with a brand will translate
into economic value as well as building
organisational cultures that live up to what
a brand stands for. Skillfully managed,
these cultural symbols add economic value
by involving all stakeholders, especially
employees, in brand story and brand
history.
Since those who make brand meaning
include but go beyond those who manage
the company, the value of the brand
should be conceived not as an asset that
can be wholly controlled by management,
but as the result of multiple interpretations
that evolve over time. The processes
involved in understanding the connec-
tions between brands and consumers, and
in interpreting product brands hold many
lessons for corporate branding. For us, the
most engaging interplay between past,
present and future inherent in a herme-
neutic approach comes from evolving
conceptions of the corporate brand. In
theoretical terms, this means that much
work needs to be done to understand the
reception history of a brand that also
considers its corporate history and the
infl ection points that give the brand real
power in what would otherwise be mere
chronology.
What is gained by an emphasis on the
historical, linguistic thread in herme-
neutics is a dual axis for interpretation,
one which is both synchronic and
diachronic. Synchronically, we see the set
of interpretive conventions as a way to
understand the contemporary meaning
of a brand. By interpreting the evolution
of iconic brands, we see the way the
symbolic meaning of these brands alters
over time (ie, diachronically). Through the
arc we can see the ways brands change
over time but also how they deepen in
levels of signifi cance, suggesting both
where they have been and where they
might be heading. Through collective
interpretation we can see that brands
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acquire meaning in terms of social context
at particular historical moments and that
they are interpreted by numerous stake-
holders whose multiple narratives all
contribute to brand meaning, some domi-
nant, some less so. The trace accounts for
a key factor in brand management the
balance of continuity and discontinuity
and strongly suggests that even radi-
cally altered brand meaning retain some
of the brand s earlier interpretations and
even its original strategic intentions. These
terms place the text of brands in context
in ways that may not only be of theo-
retical interest but, combined with the
other interpretive approaches discussed
here, have been crucial to building and
sustaining meaningful brands. All this
contributes to a fuller sense of a brand s
meaning and greater appreciation of what
may be drawn on symbolically in order
to realise a brand s future potential.
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... Layton (2015, p. 306) recommended that macromarketers recognize "the significance of meaning and symbol generation in the study of marketing system formation, growth, and adaptation." Brands are commodified meanings (Hatch and Rubin 2006;O'Reilly 2006), and dissemination of meaningful information is associated with both positive and negative externalities (Bomsel 2013). ...
... Brands as Marketing Systems: "The business of marketing is to place meaningful assortments in the hands of consumers" (Alderson 1965, p. 27), and the output of a marketing system is an assortment that may be tangible or intangible (Layton 2007). Brands merge tangible commodities with intangible meanings as representational and cultural texts (Hatch and Rubin 2006;O'Reilly 2005). Layton (2015) described that system stakeholders bring certain social mechanisms into action when individual micromarketing systems form. ...
... Brands as Agency for Value Co-Creation: Brands are multidimensional constructs. Brands and branding are used in different contexts and involve a variety of stakeholders (Diamond et al. 2009;Hatch and Rubin 2006). Table 1 summarizes the dominant conceptualizations and different stakeholders' views of brands. ...
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Brands are ubiquitous and adorn contemporary marketing systems. Modern branding practices spawn contradictory social mechanisms, value co-creation and value co-destruction. This paper considers the societal implications, including personal, psychological, social, ecological, and economic consequences of branding. It posits brand externalities as meaning-led discrepancies and symbolic spill-overs igniting mechanisms detrimental to the integrity of the social system. Brand externalities accompany the assortment of brands in contemporary marketing systems. We propose a taxonomy of brand externalities and elucidate societal consequences of branding upon brand exchange actors themselves, their immediate others, future others and general others. This stakeholder orientation sets a future research agenda and calls for redefining branding from the system’s perspective.
... (3) meaning beyond semiotics and hermeneutics alone (see Hatch and Rubin 2006). ...
... In other words, brands are not only comprehended and interpreted but also felt and lived (and vice versa). While the "reading consumer" (Hatch and Rubin 2006) requires special cultural knowledge in order to understand the semiotic codes of a brand the "feeling consumer" and "interacting consumer" (who is also in that sense always a "co-creating" consumer) does not necessarily need such sophisticated knowledge in order to nonetheless viscerally and precognitively "get" the brand meaning in an aesthetic way (as an affective, sensuous and embodied experience; see Damasio 2006Damasio , 2000 for a general scientific argument). The latter, of course, does not preclude collectively shared and culturally impregnated aesthetic sentiments and sensitivities (e.g. ...
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ABSTRACT This conceptual paper explores and articulates the theoretical bases of (corporate) brand heritage design. It is conceptualised as the multifaceted actualisation of a (corporate) heritage brand's quality of omni-temporality and as a purposive instrumental creative act of translating it into material and ideational manifestations. These intended manifestations are said to imbue a brand with an "aura of heritage" affording a specific "heritage atmosphere" that enables consumers or other stakeholders to experience the heritage brand in a multi-modal and multi-sensory way. The paper argues that design is a relevant but often overlooked or taken-for-granted dimension of (corporate) brand heritage, which is not only of instrumental strategic efficacy but constitutive for (corporate) heritage brands and identities per se. Based on a reading of the extant literature a tentative theoretical framework is developed that may guide future conceptual and empirical work in the field of corporate and brand heritage scholarship. The framework is illustrated by selected case vignettes of (corporate) heritage brands. The findings suggest that corporate/brand heritage is actualised in and by design through an ongoing translation of the omni-temporal into the omnipresent via four interlinked dimensions. The paper advances extant scholarship in conceptual terms in that it shows the central significance of (corporate) brand heritage design for the pertinence of (corporate) brand heritage as a strategic resource for brand management.
... The meaning of a brand is dependent on the sender (brand manager, advertiser) and the receiver (consumer or shareholder) having a common frame of reference. Brand image and reputation develop over time and brands (such as Coke) have histories of their own (Hatch & Rubin, 2006). The alignment between the intention of the brander and the interpretation by the consumer is not always direct. ...
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