DMI mini-conference Day 2: Carolin Gerlitz on Mapping and Tracing Brands

Carolin Gerlitz, Made by many: Tracing and mapping consumer/brand interaction across online spaces.

Respondent: Anne Helmond, University of Amsterdam. 21 January 2010.

“Made by many” in the paper title refers to the way brands are increasingly shaped and expressed in performative spaced on the web by consumers along with producers. Brands are constituted by the people who use them and interact with them. This interaction with brands is described from what I would propose to call “user generated marketing” as a branch, or side-effect, of user-generated content.

Gerlitz wishes to map and trace how consumers interact with brands across different webspheres using both digital methods and sociological methods, including topology. Gerlitz writes:

The way these heterogeneous spaces relate to each other will be understood from a topological perspective which emphasises the distance/resonance between spaces, the speed at which the objects/brands/issues move through them and the openness of the assemblage of spaces. (1)

An example of the coming together of these heterogenous spaces is the website of the brand Crispin, Porter + Bogusky which shows the result of the brand query across different spaces. This reminded me of the rebranding of Skittles.com which overlays a small navigation block in the topleft corner as an overlay to the social media sites they present themselves on. The Skittles homepage currently shows their Facebook Group “The Wall” with the latest messages from their fans (often not related to Skittles). The question then is: Is this the performance of a brand or a brand image? What is the difference between a brand an an image if we’re talking about producer-consumer interaction?

The major task of brand management to be developed is described as

a variety of techniques that all aim at controlling, pre-structuring and monitoring what people do with brands, so that what these practices do add to its value” (Arvidsson 2006, 82).

Has brand management shifted into the realm of webcare? While not officially defined, webcare seems to deal with companies keeping track of their brand in a particular websphere or across different spaces. For example @UPC_Webcase actively monitors Twitter for complaints about their tv/webservice and passively monitors Twitter by answering direct questions about their services. Is there a shift from the common practice of search-engine optimization for promoting your brand to webcare, consisting of search-engine monitoring and responding?

Case studies
In order to to explore the activities of the brands in her case studies Gerlitz uses a combination of methodologies primarily derived from

object oriented methodology (2007) with its leitmotif ‘follow the object’ and a topological perspective as a methodological framework. […] Core element of the method is to abstain from reading, interpreting and analysing the object of interest but moving, navigating and unfolding with it, never exactly knowing in which direction it and therewith the research will drift. (5)

The question then arises: Don’t digital methods temporarily fix the object in time, by compiling a sample and taking a snapshot? While digital methods follow the medium do they also continue to follow the object as object oriented methodology does?  For example, one of the steps you describe in your paper deal with “the non-manual analysis of content” (9) which seems to oppose the object oriented method.

The second approach “The feedback loops between the consumers and the brand within and across these spaces will be explored by a mix of digital and qualitative social research methods.” A long list of research methods follows which feels like a broad mix. Specifying which research method belongs to which question (very likely addressed in future chapters) may give the reader some methodological coherence guidance.

Contribution
What Gerlitz contributes is a new area to apply digital methods to. Digital methods, due to the background of the program, are often used in research related to for example, human rights, controversy, NGOs, political issues,  while Gerlitz is associated with Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process at Goldsmiths, University of London doing research on brands. Her case studies, to me, showed that her paper on brands and my paper on identity are actually may be aligned through the notion of performative capacities.

Remarks
Additional research in spaces. Flickr: now: imagery, also: use of tags. YouTube: Trace embed codes. In which spheres do consumers place which videos?

How else to study consumer/brand interactions? By the actions consumers perform on social objects: +1, recommend it, love it/hate it, skip, next. There are certain typical actions consumers can perform on objects in the social web.

Questions
What is the role of bots in brand management? For example, automatic retweeting of brands by brand bots. What is the role of search engines in the feedback loops you describe?

Literature recommendation
Petersen, Søren. “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation” First Monday [Online], Volume 13 Number 3 (2 March 2008)

The examples in this paper outline two different strategies within the architecture of exploitation that capitalism can benefit from:

Through a distributed architecture of participation, companies can piggyback on user generated content by archiving it and making interfaces, or using other strategies such as Google’s AdSense program.
Designing platforms for user generated content, such as Youtube, Flickr, Myspace and Facebook. (Søren 2008)

To what extent do Dove and American Apparel offer the users interfaces or platforms for interacting with/uploading content?

Abstract previous paper: Gerlitz, C (2009). ‘Made by many. Tracing and mapping the affective topologies of brands.’ presented at ATACD conference, Barcelona.

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