I Shop Therefore I Am:
Consumer Identity and Culture
I shop Therefore I Am:
Consumer Identity and Culture
Throughout the contemporary culture, people are guided to find their identity in their belongings, because media promotes different life-styles in advertised products. Media consumers ultimately become product purchasers, and it is this process of shopping that decides who people are, or who they want to be. Within this context, consumers are identified, classified and analyzed according to the products they purchase. However, there is another essential piece needed to complete the purchase puzzle known as “consumer identity”. How old is the potential consumer; where does he live; where does he work; how much money does he make? These questions create an identity, ready to reveal subconscious information regarding how the consumer wants to be perceived in society.
Society creates a culture through merging different groups of life-styles, creating identities that follow the same concepts, sharing the same traditions, believes and eventually sharing a similar purchase pattern. Even though, these media cultural groups are often separated by social classes, at some point, all share a part of an identity and a part of a culture. Exemplifying this affirmation, it can be stated that even though French people may be divided in social classes, they all possess the same cultural understanding of the Eiffel Tower and its semiotic significance.
Symbols are attributed meanings, which people perceive as parts of their life-styles, in other words, parts of whom they are. When symbols create significance for multiple groups, consumer culture is created. This culture translates in the belongings of a society, of a group and implicit, of individuality.
The consumer’s identity, created through the products he purchases, has been a long-time concern of many researches in consumer behaviour. Elliott and Wattanasuwan (1998) focus on the narrative identity of the consumer, which he actively creates through purchase. The authors describe the “self”, not as defined by belongings, but as created through the process of purchase and autonomy. However, in light of past research, the authors admit that autonomy is partially existent, since values attributed to specific life-styles are projected by advertisement.
In order to become a part of the contemporary society, the consumer must position himself in time and space. As Elliott and Wattanasuwan (1998) confirm, this can only be achieved through narration. To give meaning to a story, the consumer must use symbols which organise the narration in intangible structures. At this point, “internal-external dialectic of identification” is created. This concept defines the “self” only through collective identity, stating that self identity cannot exist without a social identity.
Considering the analysis of Elliott and Wattanasuwan (1998), the clear link between identity and contemporary consumer culture can only be defined by influence. Through this spectrum, as consumer culture heads towards a concept, the same direction will be taken by self identity. Furthermore, autonomy seems to be a concept that exists only in theory, as consumers take their values from the media messages they are exposed.
To confirm this theory, the report released by WPP (2011) states that once media began to promote positive messages about healthy food and environmental-friendly products, a significant number of consumers became increasingly interested in products that promoted healthy life-styles. Even more than this, this message was so redundant that it created negative responses to fast-food, or products that could pose a threat to the environment (Appendix, image. 1).
Contemporary consumers changed their values so deeply, that they manage to force the whole advertising industry to redefine the notion of brand, and thus regain a part of their autonomy in consumption (WPP, 2011). If comparing this consumer with the consumer of 1998, the difference created resides within the link between identity and consumer culture. In 1998 consumers were driven by media, which drove the masses, who influenced the individual self. Today, the consumer has awakened and claims the importance of his identity. Within this context, there is a considerable decrease in the influence the culture once had over the individual. However, we see that the values promoting the individual as the main focus, as well as the concepts which shifted the world of brands, came from the same source: the media, implicit advertising.
Conclusively, the main link between identity and contemporary consumer culture is based on feed-back, where once culture had more significance over identity, and where now tables have turned. For companies to maintain the loyalty of their clients, a new direction was needed, one that will allow the brand to become a part of the consumer’s life, and satisfy his new need of feeling unique and memorable (WPP, 201).
Another link between identity and contemporary consumer culture resides in a different influence, this time coming from a smaller structure of society. Groups have a strong influence among their members, but also among aspirers for a position in the group; who will attempt to display a similar behaviour with the members of the collective, in an attempt to become a member (Solomon, 2010).
Solomon (2010) claims that the strongest influence coming from a group towards its members and sometimes towards outsiders is possessed by the leader. This singular person, holding vast experience in a particular area, will ultimately alter the purchaseing behaviour of group members and aspirers. Nerveless, the group leader as an individuality would no longer be a leader without the group to support him. In his case, the influence is bilateral, even though he is capable of manipulating purchase decisions.
Cashmore (2006) sees absolute power of influence in celebrities, who are referred to as a famous group, to which the majority of common people aspire. For this reason, their image seems to alter the purchase decision, from goods purchased for long-term such as cars, to ordinary day-to-day purchases, such as coffee (Appendix, image 2).
Unlike Solomon (2010), Cashmore (2006) believes that his group of famous people is not only an aspiration, but a deep behavioural influence among individuals. In other words, people buy products promoted by celebrities, to identify themselves with a piece of their good fortune and uniqueness, and not exclusively with hopes to become a star.
Preceding the analysis of how society influences the identity of a consumer, as well as the assessment of group influence on identity, we head our attention towards global, contemporary consumer behaviour and its influence on “self”. Although connected at a superficial level to identity, global consumer culture still manages to influence individual purchase decisions.
De Mooij (2011) argues that the creator of a global consumption culture is a global communication. This process is similar to the one occurring in society or in groups; however, in this case, the resistance factor is encountered. Similar to global resistance, this global consumption culture resistance creates what is known as consumer resistance. Through this spectrum, an individual may oppose particular behaviour patterns inspired by society at a global level. For example, as the WPP (2011) report mentioned, there is an emerging trend for healthy food all over the world; by which consumers become more aware of the negative effects fast-food has on their body. At the other end of the line, there are fast-food companies claiming that their food is healthy, and their supporters believing their arguments. These supporters create the so called consumer resistance to the tread of healthy living.
Even global brands share the issue of consumer resistance. It is quite difficult to please an enormous number of people who share contrasting believes, and even more difficult to find values that unite them. From this perspective, the global, contemporary consumption can be viewed only through the perspective of technology improvement, healthy life-style trends as well as financial security trends (WPP, 2011). Thus, at a global level, culture can only influence identity in general terms. The links discovered here strictly refer to terms known and desired at a global level. For example, if the media promotes safe, economic strategies, in light of present global economic collapse, consumer resistance to such messages (and implicit to advertising presenting the bank as a secure way to preserve funds) will be considerably reduced.
I shop therefore I am
As Arvidsson (2005) states, consumption can be perceived as generating value, and even though some theories attribute this value production to labor, the act of purchase and consumption is, in fact, a part of the circulation. To further extend this idea, it can be stated that, by the act of consumption, consumers capture the values of products they purchase and not only the items they buy. To illustrate this with an example, the war between Mac and PC represents the perfect image of how consumers connect their “self” with the expression of a brand. The popular image showing PC as a dull, fat man in a suit, as an opposed to the young, rebellious man dressed casual representing the brand image of Mac, clearly displays the idea according to which people tend to identify themselves with brands they purchase (Appendix image 3).
From a cultural perspective, McCracken (1990) argues that human practice is the only sustainable force of culture, as people and their beliefs are the sum of the objects they posses. On the same line of thinking, individuality may only be expressed as a cultural fragment, and not perceived as a singularity.
My own concept of the world resumes to my culture, my traditions and my beliefs, however, they are not my own, but they come from a larger segment, in which sometimes, my own tradition is facing my living environment. As I am from China, the effects of globalisation are affecting my purchase decisions in an “Americanized” manner. For example, foods, I purchase. Although I enjoy a traditional Chinese dish, I still buy fast-foods or fruit smoothies.
In my day-to-day life, I have observed that older people tend to keep their traditions alive, while us, the younger generation, seem to indulge ourselves in the new tradition of globalisation. As De Mooij (2011) argued about the concept of a global consumer, I tend to find myself in this description, from clothes I purchase to the technology I use and even in the food I eat.
Of course, these decisions I take regarding to what I choose to buy, and what I refuse to consider purchasing are related to my group. A brief example of this may be learning materials, such as books I purchase on the influence of my tutor (leader), and that are purchased by my colleagues too. On the other end of the line, my group of friends tends to influence the decisions I take in purchasing cloths or technology. Most of the time; our own concepts of clothing styles come from celebrities and what they wear.
Through this spectrum, I tend to see my ideal self as a person who enjoys using to her own benefit the concept of modern and contemporary. At the other end of the line, I prefer for my colleagues to see me as a conservator and professional student. Combining these two distinctive life-styles creates conflict rather than similitude. Furthermore, even my behaviour changes when I am around colleagues compared to when I am around friends. For example, I would not wear my professional suit in a meeting with friends, but rather when I am meeting colleagues or potential employers.
Considering my national identity, there are various aspects in my purchase behaviour I have lost, and merge in Americanization. I will not purchase on a regular basis ingredients or Chinese foods. Even more than this, my clothes are far from what may be considered as Chinese traditional wear. However, when I am around my family, celebrating our own beliefs, I tend to wear such clothing, leading me to an instant change in my purchase behaviour, as I may buy a new Chinese silk jacket instead of a t-shirt.
If considering my gender, I am a consumer of make-up and beauty products, which I also use by different categories according to my group and according to where I am. Even though, this aspect of my life does not create identity conflicts, I become a different purchaser and consumer every time I need to look different. For example, I may buy a red lipstick to use in the evening, while I may purchase a more natural colour to use during the day. I tend to purchase these products to appeal my friends also to show a positive good-looking image to my colleagues, however; when I am with my family, I tend to use them less, or not at all.
In light of the above stated, my purchase behaviour can be analyzed based on the model of Pam and Higgins described by Ratneshwar and Mick (2005). Initially I determine a need I have. For example, one of my friends purchased a new iPhone, and I realize I may need one too, because I enjoy its practical use, as well as concepts sold with it, such as youthful, creative and fancy.
Before I will engage in this purchase, I will gather some information about the product. I may look for this information online, or I may simply ask my friend how he/she feels about the product. Following this process, I will evaluate all information I have, and decide to buy or not to buy the product based on alternatives. For example, my colleagues may say that the BlackBerry is a better option due to the possibility of sending emails faster and easier and that it appeals more as a professional phone. From this point of view, my ideal self comes in conflict with my professional self when I intend to make a purchase. Eventually, once I purchase the iPhone, I may experience a negative post-purchase behaviour, as my professional self would consider having a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone.
People create culture and culture creates identity. This never-ending circle of “who I am” is what “I buy” and vice versa, is connected by multiple links established between identity and group, identity and society; and identity and global culture. Within this context, the concept of constant feed-back influencing who people become or what they want to become creates the root of consumption. As consumers, people evaluate themselves through what they purchase. Because of this constant influence, people no longer buy items or services; they buy parts of their identity, real or imaginary, as they purchase the idealistic values sold alongside the products.
All decisions taken for purchase or for the refusal of purchase comes from the smallest segment of influence: the group and its leader. Ultimately, these are the strongest links connecting people with contemporary consumer culture. What is considered to be modern will be brought into the group by the leader. This group will bear influence on aspires who desire to attain membership. Eventually, this transcends to society and global culture of consumption. As such, emerging from an individualistic need to belong to a particular group, the desires and aspirations that create individuality become the desires and aspirations of the whole society leading to the concept of consumer culture. This relationship is possible only through the means of human nature, always aspiring to an ideal identity, in which values such as security, beauty, wealth, health and belonging are a global need.
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