Social Memory and The Brand


Nation-states are powerful social institutions and have demonstrated their power and reach through colonial activities. Benedict Anderson’s observations on the effects of census and map-making demonstrate that nation-states, in their interactions and activities purposely and incidentally legitimize and demonstrate power over groups of people (Anderson, 1991 p.163-185). Today, technology brands like Google, Apple Computer, and Amazon have remarkable influence on the planet, perhaps more than contemporary nation-states. Anderson writes that museums and archives have been mechanisms with which nation-states influence social memory. Identical mechanisms can benefit other social institutions such as the modern commercial brand, technology focused or otherwise. It is beneficial to study what has been effective in manipulating social memory to explore how a brand may use similar strategies to remain relevant. This post offers two explorations: to identify methods of creating social memory and brand building by comparing nation-state and museum activities to the activities of  modern commercial brands such as Nike, Google, or Microsoft. Secondly, challenges to a brand’s position as a social institution are explored through the lens of contemporary museum issues and I discuss individual experience capture and user-centricity as methods to provoke innovation. I find that making bold, unchangeable, declarations and aggressively defending a static definition of social institutions like brands, countries, and museums is dangerous in an evolving digital society. It is imperative that these institutions maintain a level of definition but also remain highly adaptable to societal change.

Early in my career, I was fortunate to be involved in the acquisition of a small brand from a larger publicly traded company. In negotiating the value of the brand I discovered that the monetary value of a brand is only loosely tied to its definition. A brand cannot be accurately defined and valuated by examining a list of assets or money in a bank account. There is an element of subjectivity in a brand valuation where its character and potential growth are judged and appraised. A brand exists as a social construct or a mutual understanding as do other social institutions. The shared understanding of a brand’s character and the products it produces enable the brand to charge a premium for its product. Mitchell and Hansen (2010) use the following categories to describe media studies and memory: collective activity, technical capability, and individual subjectivity (p.xix). Social institutions influence what Rinehart describes as ‘social memory’ (Rinehart, 2014/ p.14-18) and by categorizing the characteristics of social memory as memory per Mitchell and Hansen (2010) the categories provide a framework for activities these institutions engage in.

I think of collective activity as what the members of a brand or social institution align to put out into the public domain as a broadcast of a brand’s function: products, marketing, and sales management. Sales management refers to the channels through which a brand may sell its products. Keeping historical records of a brand’s resellers is important because they capture brand presence and penetration. Higher-end retailers choose to do business with well-established brands while down-market retailers may damage a brand’s credibility. Historical marketing preservation is valuable to brands; they record how brands see themselves and how they intend to be seen by the public. Anderson points out that map- making has functioned as a means for colonial powers to mark territory and project a shared vision of nation (1991, p.173). What colonial powers do with flags and the shapes of their claimed territories (Anderson, 1991 p.175) brands do through the placement of trademarks and logos. It is important for a brand as a unified social construct to align itself with contemporary cultural events by sponsoring activities as a means of staying relevant to its perceived target market. The presence of logos show the geographic and cultural reach of a brand and indicate the attempts at brand maintenance in a territory, the recording of which can be valuable when quantifying brand-building investment.

Sharon Macdonald (1996, p.5, p.9) writes about the possibility of objects a museum collects as defining a culture. Macdonald uses the term ‘cultural objectification’ to warn against the oversimplification of culture by reducing it to a collection of the objects it produces or leaves behind. I feel that brands themselves have a capacity to behave as objectified social institutions. The product a brand produces creates internal and external alignment on a brand’s history and shared narrative that can span geographies and time. This alignment can also be used to extrapolate and create a shared vision for new product. The historical preservation of product can be used to guide iterative design to avoid repetition. The management of a brand can be overwhelmed by the need to reduce ambiguity in the brand’s own identity and to centralize internal vision. Oversimplification of a brand’s identity will result in lost innovation opportunities and a failure to adapt to changing social conditions. The management of a brand of elastic bandages that stubbornly holds only to their view that their brand is an elastic bandage producer will most likely ignore an opportunity to produce cloth bandages or ointments even if their own users indicate a need for these items.

Mitchell and Hansen (2010, p.xv) also list technical capability as a category of memory and media studies. In the context of social institutions technology can include operations and organizational competencies including management, product development expertise and logistics. Anderson (1991 p.164-170) offers the census as a tool often used irresponsibly in nation building. From my experience as a product creation executive working with medium and large ‘lifestyle’ brands, the irresponsible use of poorly formed demographics, psychographics, and user personas is common and dangerous. Consumers are often classified as oversimplified personas or in groups designated glibly as the ‘target market’ or ‘target geography’ the definitions of which are usually vague or laced with  and difficult to recognize interdependencies. Consumer tastes and how they self-identify change quickly, not knowing one’s consumer to the greatest possible individual detail creates uncertainty and the potential for misalignment to market needs. The building of monuments and their preservation is identified by Macdonald (1996, p.4) as a way of legitimizing status and creating an elevated class of experts. In the context of the internal workings of a social institution this is also the case. Intentionally or not, a colleague of mine was successful at becoming an extremely effective voice within a large consumer brand by maintaining his status as the brand expert by maintaining an extensive brand archive in his department. It is common practice for creative directors such as myself to use a similar strategy of leveraging a brand’s history to advance a departmental agenda. Creating a brand archive, retrospective display, corporate museum, or organizational monument solidifies and elevates the status of those participants who were advocates of the project within a brand. The idea of owning such a department or instructing for the preservation of the brand places that member in a position to evaluate strategy based on history and to be the owner of historical objects that some would argue define the social institution, these legitimize and elevate member status.

Lastly, Mitchell and Hansen (2010, p.xvii) list individual subjectivity as a category within memory and media study. Sharon Macdonald (1996, p.12) writes about the importance of contests or challenges to the validity of museums as culture defining social institutions. Museums put forth theories or opinions on how we perceive the world. Brands express intended image but cannot behave as the top-down, definitive expert on the real-life brand experience of their own consumer. Active contests to legitimacy should be encouraged as a means to continue open and energetic dialogue. The planning and operation of the social institution and museum should involve the participation of contemporary cultural practitioners. Preserving individual interactions as a history of a brand’s footprint such as preserving blog posts and web presence are important to capture and document modern reach. Capturing and reacting to the individual end-user stories of a social institution allows that institution to maintain relevance in a changing social environment.

Efforts to preserve a social institution may freeze it and keep it from adapting because the act of preservation requires the institution to envision theories about its own identity, which are often erroneous. Historicizing itself is critical for the social institution; it provides alignment, value, and definition. A record of the past provides a foundation on which to extrapolate and build future vision. Conversely, if the self-identity of the brand is non-negotiable and frozen then it may die as quickly as influence spreads on the Internet. A brand can stay relevant by taking continuous and detailed user feedback and maintaining an adaptable definition of self. Other social institutions would be wise to follow similar recommendations. The ‘institution’ portion of the phrase ‘social institution’ requires flexible strength in meaning because it is paired with ‘social’- which in our contemporary context, means people that are attempting to evolve as quickly as they can miniaturize circuits on silicon.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Benedict R. OG. 1991. “Census, Map, Museum.” In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Mitchell W.J.T. and Mark B.N Hansen. 2010. “Introduction.” Critical Terms for Media Studies, Edited by W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen. Chicago: U. Chicago Press. Pp. vi-xxii. Course Reserves.

Macdonald, Sharon. 1996. “Introduction,” in Theorizing Museums. Representing Identity and Diversity in a Changing World, ed. Sharon Macdonald and Gordon Fyfe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Pp. 1-18. Course Reserves.

Rinehart, Richard. 2014. “Chapter 2: New Media and Social Memory” in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, edited by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito. Cambridge: MIT Press. Course Text.



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