Consumption is existential
Consumption is complicated. It is existential. People do not only consume to live, but to exist. They consume the meanings and images of brands, rather than the objects themselves. Most of the time the functionality of an object is taken for granted. The meanings and images that people consume are used to produce a wide range of identities which can link them to others. That is why people value brands for their linking ability.
Authenticity is very important to people, but perhaps not in the way we might expect. Most of the time it is not about the material, or uniqueness of an object. After all people purchase degraded copies all the time. What is more important is the authenticity of social links. Consumption is about being linked to a certain group of people, that a person wants to identify with. 'Being real' with a group, is more important than the 'real deal' of an object.
Consumption is chaotic
Consumption is complicated. It is like a dance of polarities. At one time people tag along for the ride, and in the next they go renegade. For a while they play out their scripted parts on a commercial stage. They are aware that they are being manipulated, decide to what extent they want to be, and in the end they manipulate too. Consumption is played out within the confines of a stage which no one truly controls!
For example companies exercise very little control over how their brands spread and accumulate new meaning. Brands circulate like stories, in a wide range of contexts, and gain new meaning in each re-telling. When people start blending a brand into their life, they add their own dreams, goals, ideals, and meanings. By adding a little piece of themselves to a brand, people de-commercialize it and add authenticity.
Consumption is social
Consumption is complicated. It is social. People do not consume to exist on their own, but to belong. In the wake of individualism people are re-digging their roots and building community through tribes.
Tribes are not driven by rational ideas, or commercial interests, but strong passions and emotions. People are rarely passionate about being monetized, and the inertia within a tribe is not monetary capital, but tribal capital. They do things to build identity, 'be in the know', or more trivially 'be in'.
Tribes thrive along the outskirts of mainstream culture, producing their own cultural material, rituals, identities and meanings. They also partake in a dance of polarities, as they both resist and play with the market. They are artists, entrepreneurs, hijackers and plunderers – all at the same time. They pride themselves in their diverseness, but can also enjoy the attention they get from mass market and media. This exchange provides a fragrance of legitimacy and confirmation.
Tribes offer a powerful retreat to a primitive past, where humans banded in small groups, with tight bonds, and shared peace with one another, nature and their true selves. An ideal vision of the past when people were free to express themselves unburdened by various constraints. A tribe is, for it's members, a vehicle for authentic identities, community, and expression.
Tribes do not want to be approached by the protocols of mass communication. Their very existence is based on being a special group on the fringe of mainstream society. They can be uneasy of commercial involvement, because they are driven by other interests. At the same time they may enjoy the legitimacy and confirmation that a commercial actor can bring.
A company can never be as authentic as a tribe, but a company can signal openness. This calls for co-operation, and support rather than exploitation. Companies should keep in mind that if a tribe can help communicate their message, it will always be more authentic. Empowering tribal leaders in this endeavor can be a powerful strategy. To be successful companies need to understand how tribes work, and what they value. This implies myths, rituals, traditions, roles, codes, and ideals. In a time when people are becoming increasingly weary of classic advertising, and on the hunt for authenticity, tribes can be a company's best friend.
Cova, Kozinets, Shankar (2007), Consumer Tribes, Elsevier
Carú, Cova (2007). Consuming Experience, Routledge