The Essence of Products

I spent the weekend downsizing my wardrobe. I was in one of those “I just read a book of minimalist essays” type of mood.

I had three piles for shirts: Keepers, could-go-either-way, and no. As that middle pile continued to grow, I began to feel incredibly nostalgic.

While they were all old and collar-stained, they had history. There was a bit of my past, a good part of my past, stitched into their being. Simply put, they were purchased in Savannah.

Savannah has been the only city that has had a very defined sense of place for me.

Somehow these shirts carried that town with them. I found it incredibly hard to part with them.

Objects and Pleasure

Paul Bloom described our ability to derive pleasure from an object, outside of utility, as extracting its essence. In How Pleasure Works, Bloom defined essentialism as “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters”.

We ascribe meaning, or essence, to objects. It creates a thread of value between the history of that object, the owner and the object itself.

The true nature (or essence) of those shirts was the memories and associations they carried with them.

From a rational point of view, I should have never had three piles of shirts. I should have simply had two piles: one “yes” and one “no”.

History and Performance

According to Bloom, pleasure and meaning underline the concept of essentialism in two ways. First, we often imbued a sense of history into objects. If an item is used, it may carry the essence of the person who owned it before. Similarly, an item can carry history in context. Growing up I owned a cherry red Gibson SG. I owned it because the guitar players I looked up to played them, as well (Hopesfall anyone?). The context was the very specific music scene that I belonged to.

Secondly, items can carry a level of performance. Pleasure is derived through the ability to showcase to others. The performance aspect signals a person’s cultural, social and economic fitness. For example, owning a Harley Davidson is more than just owning a bike, it is a performance of escapism. A Harley owner can prove to others that they are not bound to their middle-of-the-road circumstance.

In the case of my shirts, the brand didn’t matter. So, this begs the question, how can brands encourage essence creation?

Brands and Assigning Meaning to Products

As Grant McCracken argued, meaning is ultimately produced by culture. We create worlds, in this case the essence of an object, that doesn’t exist without being informed by culture. He wrote: “Meaning is constantly flowing to and from its several locations in the social world, aided by the collective and individual efforts of designers, producers, advertisers, and consumers”.

In his model of meaning transfer, McCracken described advertising as one mechanism that can transfer meaning from culture to consumer goods. Drawing from cultural cues, brand communicators aid in the development of essence.

According to McCracken, there are four rituals that consumers employ, that may be influenced by advertising, that creates essence within an object.

Exchange Ritual (Gift exchange):

Gift givers become agents of meaning transfer. When a person gives a gift to another person, they are cognizant of what makes the gift meaningful. As a new father, baby products carry the essence of a symbol of love and my desire to nurture. There is a reason why all of my baby books and my wife’s baby books have survived the past 30 years. Companies that sell products aimed to enhance the lives of young children, try to build similar meaning into the marketing of their products (see also: Baby Einstein).

Possession Ritual:

Consumers often claim an object to assert ownership. By asserting this sense of ownership it becomes a marker of time, space and status. McCracken argued that performance could also become the maintenance, customization, displaying or discussing the item. Cars are products meant to be displayed. I specifically remember a car commercial where once couple is watching their neighbors drive home with a brand new car. The woman watching the couple get out of their new car remarked: “Lucky her”. The commercial reinforced the purchasing of new car as a performance. Tom’s was built upon the performance of social awareness. The Tom’s logo is a performance of the owner completing an act of good.

Grooming Ritual:

Items may have an essence that is perishable. The idea is that continual meaning transfer is needed. McCracken used the example of one’s “going out clothes”. I distinctly remember how Red Bull was built into most college students’ concious as the drink one consumed before going out. N64, Red Bull and alcohol. A much better mantra than “gym, tan, laundry”.

Divestment Rituals:

Divestment ritual involves the buying and selling of used items. The new owner attempts to extract new meaning from an old object. This ritual explains why a person would purchase Napoleon’s reproductive organ or a shirt worn by Jennifer Lawrence. I wonder if the return to artisan goods supports a similar notion. Artisanal is seen to represent craftsmanship and return to tradition ways of making things.

These rituals are essentially fantasies played out in our consumption of goods. Objects take on an essence through a transfer of meaning once owned. To paraphrase McCracken, products serve specific purposes of utility and meaning. We anchor ourselves to both.

For the next few days this pile rested, undisturbed. I seemed to be frozen in indecision. It took me a couple more days to finally whittle down my collection of “could-go-either-way”. I told myself this new pile was different. And it was. A pile with one less shirt in it.

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