Daily Archives: April 30, 2008

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