Communities As A New Consumer Movement Cultural Studies Essay

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Brand is a multifaceted construct and a vast area in scope. It has been defined differently by various researchers in course of time. The phenomenon of brand has long been studied largely because it has become one of the most salient components of the dominant culture in contemporary life. In its simplest sense, brand can be defined as the collection of perceptions of a product, service, idea or person in the minds of consumers (Fournier 1998). It is also an abstraction of some symbols, namely reputation, status and quality, and the signs that differentiate one from the other (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan 2006). There are multiple reasons into why consumers buy, consume or adhere to some particular brands. Consumers might buy or consume these particular brands just because of their physical features and functions. Furthermore, many believe that consumers are using and consuming brands in order to be able express themselves and to construct their self-concept and identities through these brands (Aaker 1999, Belk 1988, Levy 1959, McCracken 1986). Cova and Cova (2002) claims that consumers buy some particular brands because of their linking value effect or, as Fournier (1998) claims, consumers buy brands in order to establish a loyal and an affect-laden relationship with them. However, consumers establish relationships not only with brands but also with other network of consumers who use these particular brands, called brand communities (McAlexander 2002, Muniz and O'Guinn 2001).

Brand communities can be considered as a "practical means through which individuals can construct some aspects of their identities in relation to social networks that transcend geographic particularities and can participate in transnational dialogues grounded in shared connections to global consumer culture." (Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007). Brand communities share almost the same components of traditional communities. Three most important components of brand communities have been contended by Muniz and O'Guinn (2001); shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and moral obligations. These dimensions exist also in the traditional communities. However, the most important factors that distinguish brand communities from traditional communities are their non-geographical bounded and time-space free contexts (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan 2006). Therefore, internet and technological advances not only provide venues for consumers to reconstruct the many facets of social life but also have a vital impact on these brand communities; both in the formation, maintaining and proliferations processes.

The same applies in anti-brand communities as well. Anti-brand communities are non-geographically bounded, time-space free, and rapidly proliferating communities which also contains these dimensions of shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and moral responsibility. It is a new consumer resistance and a new social movement in our contemporary society (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan 2005). Today, there are numerous anti-brand communities operating twenty four hours a day online. These communities are directed at some brands and corporations, namely Anti-McDonald, Anti-Nike, Anti-Starbucks, Anti-Walmart, Anti-Cocacola communities and the like. These anti-brand communities are mostly formed around the most popular and salient brands with strong brand equity. Anti-brand communities are a reflection of brand rejection and consumer resistance in a collective level. Consumer resistance also exists in an individual level.

Especially, with the cultural transformations and technological advances consumer turns form passive consumers to active producers. They are more involved and participate in life at large including business processes. They are more empowered (Shankar 2006), more agent (Eckhardt et al. 2006), and more brand literate (Bengstton and Firat 2006) that can drop the masks of the brands (Dholakia and Zwick 2006). This new role of consumers can yield them to a numerous ways. Some of them may prefer staying as a passive consumer, some may prefer establishing relationships with other consumers forming around a commercial brand through brand communities, some may hijack the brands and add their own meanings and symbol into the brands (Wipperfurth 2005), or some may refuse this hegemonic market system and capitalism at the individual level or collective level by forming, involving and participating in anti-brand social movement mostly through anti-brand communities. There are some research conducted well on anti-consumption (Kozinets 2002, Kozinets and Handelman 2004, Lee et al. 2009, Binay 2005), brand rejection (Sandikci and Ekici 2009), consumer resistance (Firat and Venkatesh 1995, Klein 2009, Lasn 1999, Holt 2002), and brand communities (McAlexander 2002; Muniz and O'Guinn 2001).

Even though these areas still need and require some research due to their multifaceted natures, anti-brand communities phenomenon has just recently started to grab attention and the research been conducted with regard to it is scarce. Therefore, the central purpose of this conceptual paper is to investigate and increase the understanding of the anti-brand communities as a social movement and its role in consumer resistance.

Consumer resistance and Anti-brand Communities

Not all consumers espouse and embrace brands as they are taken for granted, and thus they question the role of brands in society, and they ultimately may develop some kind of individual and/or social antagonism. Forming and participating in anti-brand communities is a one way of expressing their social antagonism and resistance against brands. Consumers may refuse and resist brands for many reasons and in various means. One of them is that consumers might avoid a particular brand in order to avoid the undesired self (Ogilvie 1987) meanings, carried by this brand, to be attached themselves (Lee et al. 2009). Consumers may also avoid brands due to the fact that these consumers believe these particular brands is a reason of some societal problems (Iyer and Muncy 2009), namely environmental degradation and/or social inequlity. The other reason could be that consumers may simply become dissatisfied from that particular brand and therefore reject it. This indicates that this particular brand serves under their expectations and that yields to disconfirmation and negative disconfirmation yields to dissatisfaction (Oliver 1980) and dissatisfaction may yield to rejection with ease. The other reason of brand avoidance could be the inconsistency of the values of the brand and the values of the consumer. If a brand is perceived as representing an undesirable brand value for consumer, this particular brand will most likely be avoided (Lee et al. 2009).

Consumer boycott is another example for consumer resistance and brand rejection. Consumers might start to stop buying from a particular brand when some ideological inconsistencies occur between the brand and the consumer therefore consumers decide to stop buying from that particular brand until the brand changes its policies. After the policy changes, consumer may start setting relationships with the brand again (Hirschman 1970). Other reason could be that consumers, with some counter-cultural stance, might express their adversaries to capitalism and oppressive market forces by reducing their consumption (Penaloza and Price 1993). The other reason occurs when market segments fragment into unique lifestyle or subcultures of consumption (Firat and Venkatesh 1995) or even when subcultures themselves fragment and create a venue for consumers where they are empowered and create alternative ways of living and being for themselves (Ulusoy and Firat 2010).

Anti-brand communities indicate some differences from aforementioned brand avoidance and consumer resistance forms. This type of consumer resistance occurs mostly as a backlash against capitalism and hegemonic market order (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan 2006). These communities usually take companies unethical practices into consideration and attempt to fix these issues by playing a social activist role in order to save the human and animal rights, and to avoid some more environmental degradation. Besides, even though the dynamic dyadic relationships between the brands and consumer are thought to bring equality and power balances (Holt 2002), the reality is indicating a huge imbalances with the existence of multinational and transnational corporations (Hardt and Negri 2000). Thus, apart from aforementioned issues, equality, justice and liberty are other issues that play role in the emergence of anti-brand communities.

Consumer culture is one of the most important issues targeted and taken into consideration by anti-brand communities. Consumer culture is problematized because it is interwoven into the very fabric of our everyday life and the culture has become very advertising and brand friendly. Therefore, all facets of culture has begun to revolve around the selling, buying, promoting and consuming the products and services along with the experiences, images and meanings coming with them. Consumers are forced to conform to the identities established by marketers and advertisers. Since most of the social relations have been constructed through this paradigm, consumers, who don't want to be excluded or discriminated, feel the need to conform, for those who couldn't afford this conformity, feel oppressed and depressed (Firat and Dholakia 1998). This manipulative, oppressive and discriminating consumer culture, that has been constructed primarily by advertising, marketing, and branding activities, also brought forth and generated its opponents. Anti-brand communities can be considered as one of them.

These consumers, constituting these communities, are resisting this prefabricated identities that they are forced to conform through brands; the market hegemony under capitalist economy that is diffusing and dominating all facets of social life; artificial and shallow consumer culture in its entirety; and unethical practices conducted and disseminated by greedy corporations around the world by ignoring the human rights, animal rights and by exploiting the natural sources and detrimenting the environment and ecology. Most of the new social movements emerged as a reaction to the values of consumer society, consumer culture, corporate greed, capitalism, market economy, and profit-oriented and mere economic interested businesses because this market hegemony is dominating all facets of life and act as a cultural authority in our contemporary society. In the next section, anti-brand movements will be examined through a lens of theories of social movement.

Social Movements and Anti-brand Communities

Social movement is a multifaceted and dynamic phenomenon and it has wide variety of meanings, therefore, it has been conceptualized differently at different times by various scholars. Social movement is referred to "a collective form of action to challenge the exploitation of political and economic power and to change the political and market institutions." (Binay 2005:14) Social, political, and personal transformations are at the core of new social movements (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan 2006). In its simplest sense, social movement refers to collective cause and strife for a social change. In its broadest sense, social movement refers to a continuum where one extreme being fully bureaucratized and formally organized movements focusing on institutional and political change, and the other extreme being highly diffuse, decentralized and fragmented movements devoid of any bureaucracy and formality focusing more on cultural and lifestyle-based change (Haenfler 2006). While the former has been called as old or traditional social movements, the latter has been called as new social movements. For the latter, Haenfler (2006:61) claims that "a strong collective identity is the foundation of diffuse movements, providing structure, a basis for commitment, and guidelines for participation." In this spirit, new social movements can be considered as more reformist than revolutionary (Cohen 1985) and taking aim at social reproduction (Habermas 1981).

The proponents of new social movements challenged the formal, bureaucratic, stable, homogeneous and class-distinction oriented structures of traditional social movements that have focused on merely outer political and institutional change. According to this relatively new school of thought, traditional social movements can not adequately explain today's contemporary new social movements because it has been claimed that new social movements revolve around the components of ideology, lifestyle, cause, individual and collective identity, and culture (Buechler 1995, Melucci 1985, Touraine 1985), namely civil rights movement, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racist movement, anti-war/anti-military and peace movement, womes's movement, feminist movement, green/environmentalist's movement, animal rights movement, human rights movement, labor rights movement and the like.

As Haenfler (2006:61) states, new social movements theorists "have brought renewed attention to movement culture, the role of expressive action, how movements construct an ideology, the connection between individual and collective identity, and how participants interact at the micro level of movement activity." Identity aspect of the social movements has gained wide attention because as Haenfler (2006:80) points out "movements are more than organizations raising funds, holding demonstrations, and lobbying politicians. They include identities that shape people's lives in the most personal ways, while simultaneously making a collective statement." He also states that this link between individual and collective identities will likely to increase the members' commitment to the cause. The characteristics of new social movements involve advocacy for single causes, group identity, and individual survival (e.g., green movement, new peace movement). Johnston and Lio (1998) claim that with the waxing of postmodernity, social movements are becoming more widespread and weaving into the very fabric of everyday life with the cultural changes and transformations in the contemporary society. They also set forth that lifestyle-based, identity and cultural challenges are more effective than mere political challenges in bringing about social change and making the world a better place to live in.

Collective identity is crucial for all movements but since new social movements provide a venue for cultural change it gains even greater importance because without collective identity there will be no sense of belonging and a connection among the members of the movement, therefore a social movement will have "no formal structure to ensure continuity, consistency, action, and commitment" (Haenfler 2006:195). The success and the emerging reasons of new social movements lies behind the fact that these movements are less structured, non-hierarchical, non-authoratarian, non-bureaucratic, participatory, autonomius, lifestyle oriented, ideology oriented, and most importantly (sub)culture oriented. Further, these movements involve moral concern and most importantly provide connection between personal and collective identity.

This collective identity can be said to be a challenge to the dominant order because it is also a reaction against the alienating and objectifying individualism dictated by capitalist market order (Ulusoy and Firat 2010). Therefore, non-structured, culture-based new social movements may also bring significant social challenges as do more formal, organized, bureaucratic movements. Additionally, they also pose a meaningful cultural challenge (Haenfler 2006). New social movements bring symbolic challenges to the dominant culture (Binay 2005, Melucci 1985) by decoding the mainstream codes of the culture. However, new social movements can not explain all facets of a social movement.

According to Eyerman (2002), social movements are venues for political and cultural experimentation and, echoing Habermas, a means for consumers to take their lifeworlds back from the market hegemony and to protect them. That is, social movements present a venue for consumer to be an agent in social life. Consumption involves both cultural and political challenges. In order to be able to change culture and politics, both types of social movements are necessary. While social movements are providing venues for people to construct individual and collective identities and challenging dominant cultural codes and values, they can also look for equality, justice, liberty by challenging the political and economic structures. Collective identity empowers consumers and shapes and gives meaning to their personal actions where personal actualizations and social transformation are complementing each other in the manner of making a world a better place to live. Anti-brand communities involve characteristics from both traditional/old and new social movements. Similar to hybrid consumer activists (Firat 2004), anti-brand communities can provide consumers a platform to construct and negotiate their individual and collective identities and at the same time cause for a social change. Therefore, members of anti-brand communities are both serving for the cause of the movement and also enjoying their experience and existence in that movement through constructing collective identity.

Many believe that resistance is futile and all efforts given for resistance just feed the system and make it stronger (Heath and Potter 2004, Holt 2002), this may partially accurate to some extent for subcultural, countercultural, and social movement resistance forms including anti-brand communities. For instance, anti-brand communities provide a free information source for brands/companies, that is, they may work like market research consultancy firm for free that can help business to improve its functions. In line with this, Hollenbeck and Zinkhan (2006: 484) state that "the internet provides an open forum for discussion about branding activities and it also serves as a free marketing research tool". However, these antagonist communities are also challenging some vital components of the structure of hegemonic capitalist market economy. It poses a meaningful social and cultural challenge to an alienating and objectifying trait of modern capitalist economies by constructing collective identities and collective behaviors. They may have an impact on some socio-cultural and political issues; such as racism, sexism, human rights, animal rights, prevention of environmental degradation (e.g. green movement is one of the most important and rapidly growing movement today) and the like. Social movements may not be bringing revolution but they are providing a venue for consumers to contest the consumer culture and the ideology of consumption and create their own alternatives; such as voluntary simplicity, downshifting, simple living, eco-communities, etc.

Thus far, these movements pose a challenge to the dominant system from the inside with reformist steps for inner change, but it may also pose a challenge to the entire system with a focus on external social and political changes. Since such movements with their reforms are also thought to be increasing the social consciousness at large, which is necessary for a revolution, it can also be considered as a means to an end.