Brand Mediation: something new to think about

The Preamble

Over the years, I've been training in the gym and my competence has grown exponentially. A big chapter in my development came from my first week at university where I turned up to the olympic weightlifting team's trials. To my surprise, with no experience in the sport, I passed the trials and got in - I was officially a varsity athlete!

Being a varsity athlete meant that I had to own university's kit and get whatever else I needed to be able to perform at the sport. Namely, we all needed weightlifting shoes. Because our kit was all Adidas, I thought it would only be appropriate to get some Adidas shoes. Ever since then, apart from on a handful of occasions, you wouldn't find me in a gym without them on.

But it was those handful of occasions which took my notice; every now and then I would find myself in the changing room without them in my bag. I would go into the gym, with nothing different apart from having normal trainers on, and something would feel wrong. I found my attention was divided, I was almost distracted by the lack of ‘rightness’ in my gym uniform. It wasn’t once, it wasn’t twice, it was every time I forgot my Adidas weightlifting shoes.

So, this got me thinking about other practices. Think of your own; what’s your hobby? What do you do on weekends? We all have a practice we’re committed to, or at least have friends or family who are. When it comes to thinking about practices, much like my weightlifting shoes, we find an abundance of objects or tools which make the practice possible.

Musical instruments allow music practices, cameras let photographers take photos, and an array of sports generally require an array of artifacts. When looking a bit closer, though, we find something else. Many practice materials come branded, so those adopting the product come to adopt the brand too. What was going on; why couldn’t I train properly without my specific lifting shoes?!

Seeing as Google wasn't giving me any answers I felt the need to try and figure it out. Fortunately, I had a dissertation to write and I knew that there was something worth researching here. I started to read through the practice theory literature, where I learned that a practice is a form of behaviour which is comprised of bodily activities, mental activities, things and their use, background knowledge as understandings, know-how, states of emotions, and motivational knowledge which directs how bodies are moved, objects are handled, subjects are treated, things are described, and the world is understood. Practices are established through performances, and all practices come with their own meanings, competences, and materials.

I decided to look into running practices particularly because all runners fundamentally need shoes with which to run, and because running shoes are near enough exclusively branded. But, I still needed an appropriate way in which to interpret what a brand was. This led me to the CCT research, where it became clear that brands are both technological and semantic devices which 'transform' meanings in order to 'super-cultralize' products. When particular cultures come faced with a brand, the culture itself lays a blueprint for how a brand will be appropriated by those within the culture. Once a community recognises that value of a brand, they start affording it utility, resulting in enhanced cultural capital.

We're all well aware of numerous brands which are trying to appeal to running communities. Brand communications and marketing set the scene for how some perceive a brand, allowing consumers to vest meanings into the brand. The presence of a brand that affords action doesn't guarantee it, though it contributes to the possibility of that activity. It was Peter-Paul Verbeek who came up with the theory of technological mediation, which proposes that artifacts-in-use transform human experiences because 'aspects of reality are amplified and others are reduced', 'inviting' or 'inhibiting' human actions. What was stopping me from taking Verbeek's conception and applying it to brands? Nothing.

To move toward a theory of brand mediation, it must be understood that brands can mediate human perceptions by amplifying or reducing the human experience of reality, which in turn can invite or inhibit human performances. This is all well and good in theory, but it was necessary to learn more about a runner’s lived experience in order to identify whether their experience or actions were mediated by a brand.

The Research

Brand mediated practice is essentially phenomenological: it emerges from, and is realised through, movement. This perspective allows brands to be understood with regards to the relations practitioners have with them, as they help to establish the relations between practitioners and their practice.

To study the lived experience of the phenomena, I wanted to gather the insider's point of view as described by the running practitioner. This brought me to arrange semi-structured interviews using a phenomenological interview method because it emphasises describing an experience as it is lived. It's a conversational interviewing technique with open ended questions in abundance. I started off by asking what Spradley would refer to as grand tour questions, just to get some context of the participant's running practice. Following this, mini tour questions were produced to focus in on the brand's role within the practice. The post-interview analysis went through a five step process of reading the data, breaking it down, and organising it. It asked me to bracket my point of view in order to focus on those words, phrases, non-verbal or paralinguistic communications which expressed a unique and coherent meaning.

All of my interviewees classified themselves as a runner and had an average age of 46. I found them by contacting local running clubs and by attending (but not participating in) a local ParkRun. All the interviews were conducted in the three hour window either pre or post running, and they lasted an average of 54 minutes.

The Brand Mediated Running Experience

Every practitioner ran throughout the week, rather than looking for time to run they made time to run, and it became clear that running was a part of their lifestyle. They would run individually or with their club on club nights, and they ran beyond just running's sake. Practitioners claimed running as a vehicle to be challenged, to find freedom, to travel, to improve mental health, to find social life, to avoid elderly care, to express passions, and for simple enjoyment from performance in itself.

From the interviews, two themes presented themselves: that brands make competent runners, and that practitioner and brand a compatible. Shoes were recognised as a pivotal tool for running, and the incorporation of a brand allowed practitioners to refigure their practice. Competences were also supplied by the brand, in that they provided practitioners with knowledge and understandings about their running. They would practice-through-the-brand, moulding brands in line with their practice.

Practitioners sought competent brands to serve their running, they wanted the brand to be responsible for the shoe part of running so they could concentrate on their performance. Brands were expected to have put enough resources into creating a product ideal for running practices, but beyond this, brands would also find alignment with practitioner's personal and practice ideologies.

Brands Make Competent Runners

A need to “have the right kit” emerged as practitioners shared the opinion that shoes are “the most important” material for their practice. Having the right materials enabled performance, diverting practitioner attention towards their practice and away from their materials. Successful employment of a brand lets practitioners feel empowered to perform more competently.

An excerpt from Sophie’s interview demonstrates this. She started running six years ago as part of a lifestyle transformation. She was getting married and didn’t want to look how she did on her wedding day. She even acknowledged how her running may not have improved, but it felt like it had improved.

Practitioners wanted shoes that felt like they were making a difference to their performance, of them contributing progressive practice, to allow more successful and competent performance. Considering that brands can be seen as technological devices, in this instance, they become technologies of optimisation. They hold the power to refigure a practice in order to maximise the brands function, whilst enhancing practice outcomes.

May, a veteran marathon runner late into her seventies, likened running shoes to ‘uniform’. Sophie said that not having the right trainers would feel like "the end of the world," and John shared that having the wrong shoes is “an experience you don’t want to be in.” To be a runner, practitioners must have the necessary props, which come from a brand's use-value. By recognising a brand's value to practice, brands provide a framework for 'key encounters' which practitioners then experience, shaping their understandings and competences at their practice, as they practice. That is what reinforces feelings of competence. The journey practitioners experience with their shoes, from selection to the present, means that the brand has been a part of their evolution as a 'runner'. Their understanding of their practice has been mediated by the shoe to some extent, and their fluency in practice comes in part from their relationship with the brand.

But those key encounters aren’t the only encounters practitioners have with brands. John, a university student who’s been individually training for his first marathon, admitted to using Nike beyond footwear. He articulated that Nike was directly providing him with knowledge and understanding about his individual practice, and he would use this information to reflect on and inform his future training sessions.

How did Nike do this for him? He owned Nike running shoes, clothes, the Nike Run Club app, and the Nike Series Apple Watch. The smartwatch and app would work in sync to give John data about his performances, across time. He would then analyse and readjust his performance in accordance with his goals. Plus, John would collect digital rewards which he claimed to enjoy collecting. Such a paradigm, with there being brand presence beyond footwear creates a situation where the brand becomes expected at particular points in the practice, and thus manifesting key encounters. In John’s case, Nike has a hand in how he tracks his competence as a runner.

Alan Warde pointed out that producers attempt to mould practices in like with their commercial interests, and one could say that John is an example of this. In adopting Nike, he began to refigure his practice as the brand contributed to his practice materials, knowledge, understandings, and competences. He had his own technique of using the brand, and in doing so, the brand became entrenched in his practice as far as him telling me that he has ‘created memories’ with his shoes.

Brand and Practitioner are Compatible

As previously mentioned, practitioners sought brands which they believed could best serve their practice. Meryl, a recent retiree who's spending her spare time getting better at off-road running, said she wouldn't wear any old trainers because she believes Asics can be responsible for the shoe part of running. Paul is a designer by trade and a marathon / triathlon competitor outside of his studio. He also used Asics, and found reassurance in Asics sponsoring the London Marathon.

Through such marketing efforts by Asics, or any other brand communications or advertising, brands became vested with meanings which addressed specific cultural needs. Being runners, practitioners read the brand through a cultural lens which determined how, Paul for example, appropriated the brand for their practice. Being found in such a context can provide a brand with certain affordances, and as practitioners enact what Akrich would call ‘prescribed activity’, they move closer to their practice-oriented goals or motivations.

Nicolini stated that practices are always oriented and organised around a telic dimension, and if a brand aligns with a practitioner's teleo-affective structures, it explains why some believed that their brand was helping them or giving them an edge. By assisting in a successful practice, brands become entwined within practice arrangements and their place becomes entrenched. However, with so many brands available now, practitioners are expressing more intimate reasons for their brand adoption.

In the example above, John explained how Nike’s ‘everyones an athlete’ slogan resonates with his practice ideology. He feels homed with Nike, in part because of this, which drives his consumption of the brand.

But there are more intimate examples of ideological alignment; Sophie, as part of her lifestyle transformation also became a vegan. From her discussion, we can see how Mizuno aligns with her practice ideology. In her own words, both herself and the brand have an ‘under the radar, get the job done’ role in the practice. However, she highlighted that the brand’s vegan attributes led to her adopting the brand. This was a very significant thing for her to mention because it opened the door for a strong relationship to occur between herself and Mizuno.

Consumer-brand relations occur through meaningful actions, and the above example shows that Mizuno's activity was meaningful to Sophie. By perceiving goal compatibility, space for a relationship between brand a consumer emerges. A way for this relationship to be characterised comes from Rosenberger and Verbeek, where a 'fusion relation' becomes apparent, manifesting a type of hybrid. Through actional and perceptual engagement, practitioners practice-through-the-brand, and out of this, comes a new practitioner with expanded perceptual powers and extended capacities for performance at a practice.

To Conclude

Brands were found to contribute to the elements of practice, particularly to knowledge, understandings, and meanings, which in turn invited competent performance by practitioners. The super-culturisation of brands from brand communications and marketing efforts means practitioners would afford brands a place within their practice, and when there was telic alignment, practitioners found compatibility with a brand. By practicing through the brand, fusion relations emerged as the practitioner and brand merged to enable new behaviour for the sake of competence and progress at a running practice.

This study wasn't attempting to propose a new ethical framework, rather, it is articulating a missing phenomenological aspect of the human experience. It became clear that brands become tangled within the ecosystem of practices, and Verbeek’s mediation framework provides an interesting lens through which to make this entanglement visible. It describes a practice process through which knowledge, understandings, and competences give rise to a successful practice, mediated by brands.

It's the scope of the brand mediation framework which is exciting. Other consumption practices undoubtedly have high brand involvement, and recognising the mediating roles within such practices could generate new insights into understanding the production/reproduction of those practices. Furthermore, by fully understanding this, brands may discover new ways to penetrate markets and provide consumers with products which mean so much more than the physicality of the product itself.

But, seeing as this is a pioneering approach, it is yet to be employed elsewhere. For now, a brand mediated running experience is all that can be described. As such, the human practitioner interprets a brand to invite competent action towards a practice. By experiencing the brand, compatibility becomes recognised and the brand becomes interwoven with the practice and solidifies itself a place within a practice. Accordingly, the experience of the practice becomes amplified, driving commitment to a successful performance.

That's probably why I feel the need for my Adidas weightlifting shoes whenever I'm in the gym.

Access the Research

My dissertation can be found on Research Gate and Academia.edu.

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