The Tribal Review

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I just found out about another book review of our book, Consumer Tribes. This one was written by Alan Bradshaw of the University of Exeter. I thought this was a wonderful review, and wanted to share it with you. The review is great not only because it’s very positive and complimentary about the book (which is always nice) because it’s clear that Alan read this book very carefully. And although the book is designed to be browsed very effectively, as all of its chapters stand well on their own, he read all of it. He synthesized. He really “gets” it. And that makes his review very valuable because I think his review conveys some of the big central points of the book extremely well.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the review is a perfect substitute for actually reading it yourself….

Here’s the reference: INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ADVERTISING, 2008, 27(2). And here’s the review (thank you, Alan!).

Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets and Avi Shankar have edited the excellent collection Consumer Tribes detailing the arrival of tribalism as a core conceptual contemporary framework in consumer research. Containing a neat geographic spread of contributors, and even a chapter by the founding father of tribal social theory himself, Michel Maffesoli, this text must surely be regarded as essential reading that pushes beyond conventional framing devices such as subculture, brand communities and cultures of consumption towards the exciting and sometimes strange worlds of consumer tribes.

Rejecting traditional polarities of control versus freedom wherein consumers are either manipulated marionettes or fierce freedom-fighters, Cova, Kozinets and Shankar argue for a hybrid model in which consumer tribes are tacit compromises where consumers collectively determine to what extent they are to be manipulated by and to what extent they, in turn, choose to manipulate brand meanings. Market resistance and engagement become reframed as a dance between brands and consumer tribes with neither truly in control, and as a balancing act where escape becomes a game to play rather than an essential cause. Consumer tribes are presented as harbingers of an age that updates the marketing challenge of knowing-your-customer to one where consumer tribes know-the-corporation and emerge as guardians of brand authenticity; if brands are symbolic resources for the construction of personal identities, consumer tribes will want to be more than mere customers and become actual stakeholders and even partners in the co-creation of brand equity. As the editors surmise, what is at stake with Consumer Tribes is essentially a new way of thinking about the relationship between producers and consumers, and this is deeply significant for any advertising scholar or practitioner.

A strong and rewarding aspect of the book is its collection of contributors. While mostly consisting of the great and good of the consumer research community, the book contains chapters by a manager of a pharmaceutical company (Fabrizio Cocciola), a market researcher (Pamela Nancarrow) and, wonderfully, a student who was a shining light of the class of 2004 at Stirling University (Stephen Treanor). Fans of the written word will be pleased to read Stephen Brown’s latest offering, but surely the editor’s masterstroke is the inclusion of a chapter on tribal aesthetics by Maffesoli himself. And if Maffesoli’s contribution leads readers to become plagued by self-doubt in their ability to comprehend, then they may be grateful to Canniford and Shankar, whose follow-up chapter reminds us that being a primitive savage can actually be a virtue and a form of capital in itself.

Indeed the pot-smoking surfers to whom Canniford (who, we read, is about to pupate) and Shankar refer perhaps set the tone for the empirical studies into the extraordinary tribes that follow as consumer research continues its focus on the marginal and the downright weird. Tribal activities explored here include the pleasure of writing bootleg Harry Potter homoerotic adventures (as described by Stephen Brown), the fun of leather-fetish nightclub revelling in Copenhagen (Roy Langer), the thrill of video-taping Sir Cliff Richard as he sunbathes (Henry and Caldwell) and, of course, the excitement of breakfasting across the table from a life-size cardboard cut-out of the crown-clad
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband as they sit frozen, regally waving back (Otnes and LacLaran).

To be sure tribal consumers are decidedly extraordinary, as are the complex social relationships that emerge between tribe members who wrestle with questions of legitimacy and authenticity. The problems faced by tribes can include contentious relationships with the relevant corporation; for example, the problem of copyright restrictions can put tribes into dispute with corporations (as described by Brown’s discussion of Harry Potter tribes) though Kozinets notes the compromise that forms the basis of the mutually rewarding relationship between Paramount and online Star Trek bootleggers. At other times tribes can be entrepreneurial (as described by Goulding and Saren’s review of the burgeoning industry that surrounds gothic gatherings), though commercialisation comes at a price. As one gothic respondent nicely puts it: “How can our scene continue to develop and thrive when everywhere you look the same themes resound without the cutting edge or distinctive flare that made it exceptional?”

Apart from empirical studies, Consumer Tribes revisits a seminal study as Schouten and McAlexander, together with Martin, interestingly note how their 1995 “subculture of consumption” paper was limited by their previously held masculine-centric world-view.

A distinctive and rewarding aspect of Consumer Tribes is the degree of authorial excitement that permeates the book, not least in the passionately written opening chapter by the editors. This is often caused by the insider status and participant observation of the scholars in the tribes –for example, we learn that Hope Jensen Schau is an avid Tom Petty fan, Diane Martin is a biker, that Brownlie, Hewer and Treanor went to cruise events over a six-month period (though Goulding and Saren are keen to point out that they are not in fact goths themselves!). The subject enthusiasm leads to impassioned writing but may come at the price of critical concerns being eclipsed at times; notably Marxian concerns of fetishisation and commodification become worked into the coping strategies of tribal members rather than a critique of the tribes themselves.

In other cases consumer tribes are presented as re-enabling in a post-consumption/production nexus (Szmigin, Carrigan and Bekin; also Kozinets). The editors make a strong case in their leading chapter by arguing convincingly that structuralist and Marxian concerns belong to the limiting polarisation that their book seeks to transcend. Yet it is worth noting that Consumer Tribes appears at the same time as the sociologist Charles Leadbeater°s We-Think, which also explores communal consumption activity, though gives greater emphasis to the often tightly controlling fabrics of the social movements.

Consumer Tribes pulls together a considerable amount of empirical studies and conceptual development that reveal the robustness of tribalism as a conceptual framework. For advertising, the consequences of brand equity and meaning emerging from wider tribal activity that exists independent of, and even in conflict with, marketing management help us to re-imagine the practice and study of advertising in an age that transcends traditional business-customer relationships. Therefore, while not a book about advertising, its implications for advertising, and indeed right across the social sciences, mean that this excellent book is to be heartily recommended.

Alan Bradshaw

University of Exeter

The Costco Conversation

i’m lovin itI love blogging. It is so incredibly interesting to be a part of the phenomenon you are studying and thinking about. It’s very ethnographic, being an anthropologist who writes about this technological revolution by participating from within it.

So yesterday “Mable” from Costco called me back at about 5:30pm. Working late, those Costco folks do. If you haven’t been following my little Coscto saga, “Mable” is “Trudy’s” supervisor in the Coscto.ca web-site customer service center, and she called me the day after I posted a pretty long and detailed blog about the customer service experience I had at Costco when I tried to get a set of missing screws.

Mable and I had a long talk about the experience. It was never confrontational, but quite enlightening for me. Mable made it clear to me that she would have called me had I been more persistent. I apparently waited too long between messages to request her. And apparently if I had used harsher language I probably could have reached her. There seems to be a sort of “freak out factor” that comes into the calculation. So if the customer is totally insanely angry then they reach a supervisor pretty fast. Or I could have just called them, she pointed out. Which is certainly true. And yes, I wasn’t freaking out, just annoyed. I don’t know if I could feel good about freaking out over a set of screws for my chair when there are so many more important and awful things happening in the world right now.

I talked to Mable about the fact that this wasn’t personal, and she did tell me again that Trudy was upset by the blog post. I asked her to apologize to Trudy. This really was never about anyone in particular.

In writing my blog, I’m still learning about the appropriate tone to take. Blogging is a new kind of freedom. Unlike my other writing, I’m not sending it out for reviews and revisions. I think it, I write it, and off it goes. And I guess that when I included people’s first names, and when I included nasty, biting side comments, that this was crossing over into a sort of cruelty that I feel uncomfortable in reading and think was wrong. I’m still just learning and I make mistakes.

I’ve gone back and edited those posts. I’ve tried to make them more humane and compassionate to the people like Trudy and Mable on the front lines. First, I’ve anonymized the first names of the people I corresponded with. Probably should have done that from the start. I’ve also added some material that can help all of us to empathize with the people who perform this difficult and under-appreciated work. I didn’t do this because anyone asked me to, but because I think that it is the right thing to do. I didn’t soften the stance against shutting customers out or acting like there is no transparency when there actually is. I just made it clearer where the problem is: not with the people, but with the system. But the way the system is set up we need to complain to the people in order to affect the system. Only people can change the system that they’re in.

Very Marxian-ideological, isn’t it?

The problems with the system became clear as I was talking to Mable. It was clear that emails were responded to by emails. Even if the customer requested a phone call (unless they were freaking out requesting…). It was clear that one person’s case file stayed with the person, and that emails sent to them stayed with them when they went on holidays and didn’t get answered by anyone else. It was clear that Coscto was acting as a middleman for other companies, and directing them to ship products from its Coscto.ca web-site, and they had little control over those companies and the way they responded to later customer service requests. Costco and its service people didn’t want to be held accountable because the company whose responsibility it was to send me the screws was not doing it.

I talked a lot about the kind of system that Mable was working within. I knew that it would be impossible for her to change it. She would need to talk to people higher up in Costco. Or have them read my blog. Respond to it. Post on it. It’s easy to do.

As I say in the post, this isn’t about Coscto. It’s about accountability and transparency in a new age of consumer-to-consumer communications. It was good to have that conversation, where I shared how I felt as a customer at one end, and she told me about what it was like to live within the constraints of being a service employee at the other end. I think we ended the conversation learning a bit about each others’ worlds. The walls had really come down. We were speaking person to person now, and the conversation had been prompted by this service incident and the blog, but it went beyond it.

Mable told me that Costco was going to be sending me a $25 gift card in the mail for my troubles. That’s very nice of them and a great gesture to help restore some faith. I’m going to match that and donate a corresponding $50 to Aid Darfur to keep things in perspective. This was a silly little set of screws. An inconveniently disassembled chair. There are much bigger problems in the world. But it’s also important to run our businesses well, and to service each other well as a set of organizations, as a society, as a community.

Costco Epilogue

If you haven’t read Thursday’s blog entry about Costco, you’ll probably need to check it out to make sense of this one.

On Friday, the day after I posted my little nag about Costco, my mobile rings during a meeting. I pick it up. Guess who? Yep. It’s “Mable” from Costco. Trudy’s supervisor. And she’s like, you wanted me to call, so I’m calling.

She seemed to be really curious about what I wanted. I had my screws. So what else did I want? I told her, I think I got what I wanted. Inspiration for a tale. Material for the blog. I made a reasonable story out of a bad service experience. And it tells a story about the way businesses don’t know how to deal with empowered customers today.

She tells me that “Michelle was very shaken up” by what she read on the blog. Well, I didn’t do it to try to upset Michelle. I really don’t mean this to be personal (So I’ve gone through and taken out her actual name and called her “Trudy”). And if “Trudy” is taking this personally, I’d like to apologize to her and hope that she understands that this is about the decisions that her bosses at Costco are making, the systems they are putting in places, rather than what she specifically did. I know that, of course.

This is about Costco, and customer service more generally, and the way companies do things, and the way they really don’t understand that when they talk to one consumer they are talking to thousands or more of them now, and that this was what this was about.

“Trudy did everything above board,” she said. “Everything she did was by the book.”

“Well,” I said, “have you looked critically at the book lately? Does that include leaving customers in limbo for an extra week while your employees go on vacation?”

What a great illustration of the power of the web and of blogging.

Most companies, it is widely claimed by interesting business authors like Lois Kelly and Joe Jaffe that businesses really don’t know how to engage in a conversation with their consumer groups, particularly these groups online. In Citizen Marketers, by O’Connell and Huba, they give plenty of examples of companies that are completely flat-footed and staring-like-does-in-the-oncoming-headlights in the face of consumers’ posting complaints or similar customer service issues online in places like forums and on YouTube videos. It’s awfully hard for them to handle the fact that the wall is down.

How can companies plan in a world where there is transparency and where consumer communities gather and think about how to hold companies accountable for what they do? That’s a major and important question for business today.

That blog entry about the Circus Elephants at Costco is getting about 1400-1500 unique visitors a day since I posted it, far outweighing all of the positive personal word-of-mouth I’ve given to Costco over the last decade as a devoted customer. Which in a way is too bad, because this wasn’t the hugest complaint. Certainly not on the order of the people who were forced to post about and then sue Terminix because they missed a huge termite problem in their home appraisal.

And I’m hearing from all kinds of people in emails and now posts about their own Costco and other service experiences, and how this one resonates. Thanks to everyone who has written and posted. I think it’s very important that we keep in perspective the importance of having a voice as consumers. If we demand more from companies, and try to do it as humanely as we can while showing the people who are working on the front lines respect, and trying to maintain their dignity even when we are angry and faced with a broken system, then I think we can improve business and through it our entire social experience.

It means persistence. It means reaching out. It means humanizing the entire business experience. That’s what two-way communication is. That’s what happens when walls come down.