It’s been observed that people buy a product because of the functional value that owning and using the product provides to them, but they purchase a brand because of its meaning, which may have nothing at all to do with the purpose of the product. But meaning exists in two dimensions – “what does this brand mean to me?” and “what does my consumption of this brand mean to others?” The second is the social dimension of a brand.
This is most obvious with conspicuous consumerism: people associate specific qualities to a person who consumes a brand, and assume that other people will associate those same qualities to them when they consume it. If they believe that sophisticated people consume a specific brand, then they consume it in order that they may be perceived as sophisticated by others who observe their consumption of it. And this may override both the functional benefit and the meaning of the brand in these instances.
The social dimension of a brand thus attributes qualities to the individual, but these qualities are of secondary importance. There are two fundamental purposes to any social action: to associate oneself to one group or distinguish oneself from another. The person who wishes to appear sophisticated by consuming a brand is making an overture to a reference group of people whom he believes to value sophistication among their members, or to distance himself from another reference group of people who disdain sophistication.
That is to say that the consumption of a given brand leads the consumer to have a sense of belonging to a society of people who use the same brand, and a sense of being separate from (and generally superior to) the group of people who consume a different brand. This behavior can even be seen among young children: they demand a specific brand because they wish to “fit in” with a desirable group and shun a competing brand because they want to make it clear that they are not members of a group of undesirables.
But marketing in the social dimension can be exceedingly difficult because these perceptions and associations are arbitrary: what a product “means to me” is entirely subjective, and what a product “means to other people” is both subjective and speculative. The consumer often does not know what a brand means to others, and is merely guessing, except in instances where an influential member of the social group has directly communicated the association (and even then, it may be an individual who is not influential, but aspires to become so).
It is further complicated by the proliferation of brands: there are so many choices that there is no clear indication of which is correct. And while the advertiser may attempt to convince the market that its brand is associated to a specific social group, it remains the decision of that social group whether to accept the advertiser’s suggestion (and often, they do not). Moreover, the same brand may have different meanings in different social groups – the brand that is favored by the “in” crowd at one junior high school may not be the same as that favored at another, and in fact may be a stigmatized brand in that social group (particularly if the two schools are rivals).
And to complicate matters further, there is the unconscious or semi-conscious mind, which often misleads individuals into thinking that they have acted on their own judgment when, in reality, they may have been influenced by external sources of which they are unaware or against which they are practicing denial: the choice may be rationalized, but it is inherently an irrational one.
There are rather few products in which the social dimension is entirely irrelevant – those that are purchased and consumed out of public view are entirely immune, but so much consumption is social, by virtue of the manner of consumption or by open declaration of consumption, that the social dimension of brand is worthwhile to consider, and to consider it in the context of a specific individual and the reference groups they encounter.