“Artistic masterpieces may be collected with the same regressive fanaticism as cheese labels.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects
(Stand hands in pockets + Intense stare + Odd background content to contrast ‘normal person’ look = ‘I am just a normal guy on the face of things, but with a weird little secret’ pose for ‘real people’ TV documentary press shot)
Baudrillard, like the BBC2 programme ‘Collectaholics’ I mentioned in my introduction to collector mentality, paints a rather bleak picture of collectors in his ‘System of Objects.’ He writes “So if non-collectors are indeed ‘nothing but morons’, collectors, for their part, invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.” If Baudrillard could have got away with writing ‘collectors are losers,’ he probably would have done so.
“Because he [the collector] feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.” – Baudrillard
These so-called losers have been marginalised by the world and thus refashion their own world of collected objects as some sort of therapeutic passive aggressive protest. They regain control of a world from which they have been outcast by deciding what is included and excluded in their ‘own little collectors world.’ Collectors re-articulate the meaning of objects they collect according to their own rules (ie. the rules of their collecting system, a crude example is beer cans, not cider ones) and ordering system that helps them control their meaning.
Sorry Baudrillard, I love you deeply in a platonic kind of way, but I am not sure I can fully agree with you on this one. I believe that we are all collectors. I don’t believe that we all feel, “Alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape [us].” Yes, a collection of Star Wars memorabilia or beer cans is a bit niche, or, (retch retch) quirky, but our more conventional way of defining what a collector and collection is has taken over. Baudrillard and BBC2 had only looked at the extreme manifestation/stereotypical view of a trait we are all liable to having.
‘A Measure of Discrimination’ : Choice
Most of us drink coffee, slightly less of us drink Nescafe, even fewer of us believe that persistently choosing Nescafe over Doewe Egberts means we are collectors. I can assure you, it does. Our fridges and store cupboards are collections, our bookshelves and magazine racks are collections, our internet search histories or iphone apps are collections, our itunes library or CD or DVD rack is a collection.
The word ‘collect’ comes from the Latin, colligere, which means ‘to choose and gather together.’ Choice and collecting go hand in hand. Choice is often preceded by two words: ‘freedom of.’ Choice is central to our feeling of freedom in Capitalist society. Choice is the main reason why advertising exists.
We all know that choice is both our best friend and arch nemesis. On the one hand, it is the dilemma of choice that paralyses shoppers in supermarkets confronted with hundreds of varieties of the same bog roll.
On the other hand, it is the luxury of choice that helps consumers to feel free. Free to ditch brands they have been unimpressed with, free to align themselves with others.
Planners are particularly astute as to the pros and cons of choice. Choice is why we construct ‘brand matrices’ (*shudder* – what a pretentious term) drawn up from competitor audits. Choice is behind spidery flow charts that inevitably descend into chaos as we plot a ‘typical’ consumer’s journey from which to derive a comms plan.
Collecting is linked to choice, but specifically to cutting down choice. Collecting is about discernment. Having the ‘freedom of choice’ in our modern world, stuffed full of shit to buy and things to do, is fucking intimidating. Collecting is merely imposing a defined rationale behind the choices we make. That rationale is very much intertwined with our personal values and interests: “I always buy Andrex Eco as part of my weekly shop. I like to do my part for the environment, this is why I also buy Ecover washing up liquid.”
Brands are also collectors. They collect consumers and the rationale behind their choice of consumers is what circumscribes a ‘target market.’ Planners guide clients when they choose which consumers to collect. Some consumers will make your brand look cool. Some consumers are short-term cash cows. Some consumers are more loyal. Some brands (particularly luxury brands) are very discerning in their choice of consumer. Some brands aren’t and might suffer from an ‘identity crisis’ when they realise that their collection of consumers isn’t very coherent. This is why Disney have subdivided their collection (and is why that horrible term ‘Brand Architecture’ exists): Marvel and Star Wars fans are clearly at odds with wannabe princesses and pirates.
Mainstream collecting is perhaps more about driving associations between brands. For example, Nandos might precede a trip to Cineworld. Jack Daniels + Coca Cola = Jack and Coke. You might order a Dominoes before curling up with Netflix. Planners might help consumers to curate their brand collection through carefully considered partnerships. GoPro and RedBull – for the adrenaline junkie’s collection. Pampers and Unicef – for the caring new mother’s collection. Google Glass and Ray-Ban – for the stylish and tech savvy individual’s collection.
Sometimes brand partnerships work the other way around. Brands loudly proclaim what values they hold by who they decide to partner with. Above we see Ben and Jerry’s calling any self-respecting collector of gay-friendly brands to add Ben and Jerry’s to their collection. Was their partnership with Freedom to Marry opportunist? Not in the slightest. Ben and Jerry’s has forged a deeper relationship with certain consumers and may have even acquired this ‘loyalty’ at the expense of cutting loose anybody who disagrees with their values. They start a debate, then divide and conquer people accordingly.
Geeks and their Pronounced Collector Mentality: a.k.a ‘Consumer Loyalty’
My long-suffering boyfriend often says “I don’t care about brands.” He never wears designer clothes, he shops at charity shops, he thinks big brands are exploitative faceless corporations. In shunning brands, my boyfriend actually has a clear rationale behind his purchase decisions which reflect his personal values. It probably won’t surprise you that my boyfriend considers himself to be outside of the system – he works as a night duty worker in a homeless shelter. My boyfriend also avidly collects and builds speakers.
People who collect strange things don’t feel that they can represent themselves through more conventional means, whether these be sports teams allegiances, political parties or, as concerns us, brands. This is because they feel that brands don’t represent them, that brands don’t ‘speak’ or ‘relate’ to them. If somebody doesn’t collect ‘normal’ things like designer clothes or movies or music, and chooses beer cans or speakers, then we are inclined to call that person odd. We label a beer can collector ‘weird’ merely because we don’t understand his perspective on the world, or understand why beer cans in particular ‘speak’ to him. We don’t understand the rationale behind his choice.
Baudrillard was partially right in thinking that people who collect ‘odd’ things may feel “alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him.” These types of collectors, who we might call geeks, however, are only alienated from one social discourse, the ‘mainstream’ or (shudder) the ‘normal’, and choose to follow another that is in line with their values. Geeks are more fanatical – but that’s hardly surprising when proportionally less of the world that surrounds them ‘speaks’ to them. They will ‘collect’ what they can relate to with a pronounced fervour. Many geeky brands, such as KidRobot or StarWars, will leverage their audience’s collector mentality and are happy to consider themselves as geeky brands. Sometimes this turns into geek chic.
I recently did some work on a free video on demand service that hosted particularly bizarre, ‘challenging’ content such as Anime or fetishistic soft-core porn. At first there were calls to position the product to the ‘hipster’ market. I felt that this was lazy marketing which would alienate our real audience. Our real audience aren’t ‘cool’ or ‘hipster’: they’re loveable oddballs who were (wrongly) bullied at school for reading Manga. Arguably this slightly introverted, possibly even freakish, less conventionally artsy audience are more genuine in their interests than the fickle hipster market, who move with the ebb and flow of what’s deemed ‘cool.’ Hipsters, in a way, are pseudo-artsy clones who involve themselves in a bizarre parade of oddness-one-up-manship around Shoreditch on the weekend. Give me genuine odd and pseudo odd and I know which one I’d choose.
I knew that my client would probably have preferred to have attracted the hipster market. Like a nerdy kid’s desire to be acknowledged by the cool crew at school, those cool kids would have dropped the nerd as soon as they wanted. There would never have been a real relationship there.
I don’t know why clients will circumscribe their market as social category ABC1, age 16-35, ‘tech-savvy’ ‘early adopter’ males and females. Not everyone is young, tech-savvy and middle to upper middle class. We’re emerging from a recession in which young people, having racked up 9K+ debt per year as a student, will now have to undergo a dearth of gruelling unpaid internships living on less than £100 a week. Brands, ‘the youth’ are not your always your audience, you just want them to be. We live in an ageing population and these are the ones who are most likely to be ABC1. Will Butterworth has a great ‘thinkism’ on ‘Early Adopters’, he writes: “Guess what, every dick and his dog thinks he is an early adopter based on the understanding that he adopts every new thing he hears about. Trouble is most of these people aren’t looking for anything.”
Brands need to learn that not everyone aspires to be a hipster. Not everyone is a ‘wholesome’ mum, and not every person with a child wants to be. Not everyone aspires to be a ‘time poor, money rich’ jet setter who loves designer labels. Mainstream aspirations are dwindling, fast. Do brands hold up these sorts aspirations in order to appeal to some sort of mythical mass consciousness? No, I think brands hold them up for themselves, because they want to say they are liked by all the cool kids, the best moms or the top professionals.
But what about the rest? What about ‘old’ people or all those women whose children aren’t the be-all and end-all of their existence? What about nerds, or people who see their jobs as a way of earning money to do their hobbies and not for climbing to the top of the career ladder? These people are arguably swelling in numbers, swelling in dissent and disregard for brands and advertising, and they deserve to be heard. They are indifferent to brands. This is why the ‘voice of the consumer’ needs to pipe up and sell the consumer to the client as much as the client to the consumer.