This post is part of my paper ‘The Evolving Role of Creativity in Brand Management’. You can see the other posts and the table of contents here.
Just as complexity, structural coupling is a key term of systems theory. Usually used to describe the structural relationship between cognition and communication via language and media (Tropp 2004, p.64), this concept may be used in brand management to denote the relationship between companies that produce brands and consumers and bridge the before mentioned dichotomy between producer- and consumer perspective – or image and identity (Tropp 2004, p.65). Structural coupling in that context means that while a company as a social system and a consumer as a cognitive system are to be strictly distinguished, no company is possible without consumers and vice versa (Tropp 2004, p.64).
To specify and manage this structural coupling between a company and its consumers via the brand as realm of knowledge is one of the most pressing issues of brand management and again, able to integrate mostly consumer-oriented trends and pressures. For example, there is an apparent contradiction between an increasing brand consciousness and an at the same time decreasing brand loyalty with consumers (Essinger 2001, p.66 qt. in Tropp 2004, p. 66) that also taps into the debate about consumers’ increasing unpredictability. Using data from a global, longitudinal survey that runs since 1993, Gerzema and Lebar (Young & Rubicam) have found out that since 2004 all consumer attitudes towards brands over the globe were in decline.
“Across the board, we saw significant drops in the key measures of brand value, such as consumer “top- of-mind” awareness, trust, regard, and admiration. This was true not just for a few brands, but for thousands, encompassing the entire range of consumer goods and services, from airlines and automobiles and beverages to insurance companies and hoteliers and retailers.” (Gerzema & Lebar 2009, p.2)
They argue that a brand bubble has developed for the fact that while the valuation of brands as done by financial analysts is steadily increasing, this overall value that these brands actually deliver for consumers, is provided by less and less (stronger) brand in the overall brand universe.
This contradiction does not put an end to the structural coupling of consumers and brands, but it suggests that the relationship between them has fundamentally changed. Since the 1980s, until then mostly unidirectional relationships have transformed into interactive and multi-directional relationships, as signified by developments such as relationship marketing, one-to-one-marketing, direct marketing, permission marketing, customer relationship management or the developments happening under the umbrella term of social media marketing. As research conducted under the relational paradigm (MacInnis et al. 2009; Fournier 1998) is striving to provide scientific insights into the company-brand-consumer relationship, branding has moved from what Tropp (2004, p.67) calls the effect phase to the communication phase.
Essinger, G., 2001. Produkt- und Markenpolitik im dynamischen Umfeld: eine Analyse aus systemtheoretischer Perspektive, Dt. Univ.-Verl.
Fournier, S., 1998. Consumers and their brands: Developing relationship theory in consumer research. Journal of consumer research, pp.343–373.
Gerzema, J. & Lebar, E., 2009. The Trouble with Brands. strategy + business, 55(Summer 2009). Available at: http://www.strategy-business.com/article/09205 [Accessed February 4, 2011].
MacInnis, D.J. et al., 2009. Handbook of brand relationships, M.E. Sharpe.
Tropp, J., 2004. Markenmanagement: Der Brand Management Navigator. Markenführung im Kommunikationszeitalter, VS Verlag.