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When totems beget clans: The brand symbol as the defining marker of brand communities


Journal of Consumer Culture

Published online on


The veneration of brands as part of "brand communities" reflects the expansion of consumerism in advanced capitalism. But what is it about brand communities that set them apart from other community types? It is argued that brand communities differ from other types of communities in one important respect – the community is a secondary, rather than primary, effect of brand community association. In other words, the brand as symbol precedes the emergence of the brand community, rather than the symbol being employed (in a totemic fashion) to represent a pre-existing community as in other types of community. This realization opens the way for understanding the specific dynamics that characterize brand communities, particularly in their relationship with the corporate entities that legally own brands and market the branded products, and also with wider social trends where the brand comes to possess an iconic, mythic significance. It will be argued that, contrary to the recent trend in the brand community literature to view all manner of brand-oriented group activities as examples of brand communities, there are specific features that set brand communities apart from other types of community configurations. As a consequence, some of the examples put forward by analysts as brand communities might have brand community aspects, but are in fact primarily other types of community formations, such as subcultures and hobby groups. It is suggested that brand communities be viewed as a part of a continuum, with some groups according with the ideal type of brand community more than others. This is not merely important for classification purposes, but is important analytically, as it is contended that brand communities have a unique set of dynamics that sets them aside from other types of community formations.