The Titanic Museum in Branson, MO. Note the iceberg, via Wikimedia Commons
To understand “interpretive consumer research movement,” you’ve got to drop some skepticism and expand what “brand” means.
There’s a brand as a company’s intellectual property, then there’s the fact that a brand is symbol. It’s designed to make meaning—in theory to guide consumer choices—but in the end no one can control meaning. Just ask Skittles, whose brand became tied recently to the Trayvon Martin case. Or the White Star Line, whose most public failure is now the only reason they're remembered.
“There are lawyers and brand managers who have ideas what their brands are and what they stand for, but ultimately the brand meaning is determined in the marketplace and in the minds of consumers,” said Clifford J. Shultz II, a professor at Loyola University Chicago’s business school.
Shultz came to teach marketing and about transitioning economies after getting a PhD in social psychology. Along with colleagues from Ireland and Northern Ireland, Shultz published a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research on the unsinkable brand of the Titanic, and I had the pleasure of chatting with him about interpretive consumer research, how the Titanic is like Kurt Cobain, and when brands transcend their products and become myth.
For over a century now, the story of the Titanic and its half-of-a-maiden journey has captured imaginations and attracted dollars. According to Shultz’s paper over 100 Tin Pan Alley songs were copyrighted about the Titanic in 1912 alone—the year it sank. A century later, the 3D re-release of the movie Titanic grossed $57.8 million domestically.
The paper addresses the fact that the Titanic is a brand—there are Titanic-themed dinners, hotel suites, breweries, everything—while it also approaches the level of myth: It's man's hubris meeting an ironic end the romance of a band playing while it goes down, a thousand questions about how the disaster could've been avoided, the class divide, John Jacob Astor giving up his spot in deference to "women and children first." As The Onion observed, "The World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg."
In my younger, more earnest days, I’d say that the language of the market suffusing society is total bullshit. But in my older, more cynical days, I’d say that the language of the market already has suffused society. How we move within that sphere is just as telling as, say, a ballet. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s way more telling about people today than a ballet, because this is the world that no one leaves at the end of the night. We breathe the market. So let's take a deep breath.
In spite of working at a business school, Shutz’s research isn’t designed prescriptive for businesses. “There’s a whole area of research called ‘interpretive consumer research’ and we study how people interpret brands and marketing initiatives and life generally,” Shultz said. There are no suggestions like “start invoking the Hindenburg” or anything like that in the paper.
"[The Titanic] was not that big a deal. The Olympic was the important one, a step change. Olympic was the greatest ship of its day, not Titanic." Quote from the paper. Photo of Olympic and Titanic via Wikimedia Commons.
The Titanic’s century of relevance is enviable, even if the reasons for relevance aren’t. But this is where Shultz specializes, in so-called “dark marketing.” After all, we don’t talk about the Olympic—the Titanic’s sister ship who crossed to ocean successfully many many times—these days. We do talk about the ship that sank. And the art of “dark marketing” is more pervasive than you might think.
As part of his course on emerging markets Shultz takes students to Cambodia and Vietnam. One of the highlights for students in Vietnam is visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City. During the Vietnam War, the tunnels were the base of operations for Viet Cong, and it was where they planned and launched the Tet Offensive against American troops.
Shultz said the students always really enjoy their visit. “They get to crawl around where the Viet Cong were, they got to drink coffee and have snacks and shoot guns, and got to buy some memorabilia–get a Cu Chi tunnels t-shirt. And as we’re leaving I tell them, ‘You know, I want you to have some mild appreciation for why these tunnels were built and what’s happening here 30 years ago.’” he said.
To say things have changed in the Cu Chi Tunnels since the days of "Hanoi Jane," would be an understatement, via Phil Whitehouse Flickr.
In London, there’s Jack the Ripper tours. In Chicago there’s Al Capone tours. In New York, there’s Ground Zero. There are spectator-friendly Gettysburg reenactments on the very ground where 100,000 people died. It’s the lucrative and sensitive art of marketing dark death.
I’ve done the Chicago Gangster Tour and it’s not grisly; it’s fun. Yet it’s clear that marketing death can take a turn for the repulsive. Interpretive consumer research reveals our sense of propriety as a fairly permeable membrane, with outrage, indifference and reverence all within reach of each other.
“There are no big black lines, but there is a spectrum and there are things that are the proverbial third rail. You just wouldn’t go there,” Shultz said. He compared the reverence shown to sites at Auschwitz and Dachau to the comparatively marketed killing fields of Cambodia, where the country’s auto-genocide took place. “I think the world’s sensitivity and awareness is such that it would be unthinkable to market Auschwitz like the places in Cambodia [are marketed].”
The economics also enter into our outrage. “I’m sure people were telling t-shirts and things steeped in patriotism—Ground Zero, America, Never Forget,” Shultz said of Ground Zero. “But where are the profits for those sympathetic thoughtful mementos going? To the children of victims of 9/11 or Joe Schmoe’s bank account. That’s another variable in doing dark marketing—who is profiting from someone’s suffering? If it’s for scholarship funds for the children, that makes it feel a bit more palatable.”
It’s hard to imagine too much outrage towards people exploiting the Titanic. It sank 100 years ago, and the beneficiaries are so varied—Harvard got a library, Marconi’s wireless became standard, James Cameron got rich enough to go down in the Mariana Trench. Still, Cameron's movie caught flak from the Scottish home town of First Officer Murdoch for how their lost hero was portrayed on screen.
The pathos is an essential part of the Titanic story, but death alone doesn’t explain its on-going fame. Other tragedies have surpassed it in number of casualties, and there’s so much more to the story than the trip to the bottom of the ocean—which allows Cameron’s film to be longer than the boat’s actual sinking.
What does interpretive consumer research say? “Our research suggests that Titanic’s explanatory ability—the insight it provides into particularly resonant brands—lies not in monolithic monumentalism but in multifariousness, in nebulousness, in confusing, contradictory, cumulative ambiguity... Titanic’s status as the archetypal disaster is due to its amorphousness.”
While brand managers and those who own the brands want to keep the message controlled, the biggest and most resilient brands skew toward an amorphous, vague elsewhere. In the same way that myths don't have one set meaning, neither do brands.
Coca-Cola isn’t about being the brownest or fizziest water; it’s about drinking a bottle of Americana. McDonald's isn't about hamburgers and fries. Starbucks isn't about sub-par coffee. It’s appealing to this mythical other quality that allows a car designed by Nazis to become the symbol of a peaceful counterculture.
Famous Volkswagen ad via Alden Jewell/Flickr
As a marketing professor, Shultz is fairly critical of marketing, if deferential to its powers. "Look at fragrances," he said. "Alcohol, some sweet smelling stuff, and it costs three to five dollars to bring to the marketplace. Yet it might cost $100 to $200 an ounce because of the attributions that the consumer invests on it based on the star who wears it or the imagery that it supposedly transforms it. That’s all very interpretive as to how we interpret the brands—what do they mean to us?"
The link between brands and their relationship with—or as different name for—symbolism isn't new. The flirtation between the two has been addressed both by the marketers and by artists from Warhol to David Foster Wallace. It is interesting, if not surprising, to know there's an academic discipline devoted to studying this interplay–I guess there's an academic discipline for everything.
As a practice, “interpretive consumer research” seems sort of bizarre—it’s a marketing class that seems at home alongside humanities. It’s not really about the practical suggestions it can bring to a company—it’s about how people interpret brands around them.
I ruminated on it for a long time before it occurred to me that this transcendent description of what Shultz taught was becoming an example of what he does. It’s only fair enough, I guess. If you’re elevated to the level of myth, how can you not get tenure?