In one of his most recent songs, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), David Bowie shared his thoughts about contemporary celebrities: they are everywhere, it is impossible to get rid of them, and they have the double role of being looked while also looking at their very observers. Bowie’s lyrics can easily be applied to brands. As many scholars have suggested, one of the main characteristics of brands is their ubiquity. People encounter them in a variety of spaces, media and contexts, and it appears that it is impossible to escape from them. But brands also seem to observe people, reacting and changing according to the behavior of individuals they want to address.
As discussed during the preconference Beyond the Brand, this ubiquity of brands poses a series of challenges for academics. From a methodological perspective, it means that researching brands is particularly demanding, due to the need of collecting data in a multiplicity of sites, media and contexts, and in which the concrete expression of these brands can be especially fleeting.
However, the most relevant challenge may be how brands are understood. While it was admitted that there is no consensus about what brands are, several academics pointed out that it is a mistake to treat brands as objects. On the contrary, brands are more like processes, events or ‘nebulous objects,' which are neither fixed nor completely controllable, and which circulate through a large variety of sites and contexts.
This observation also brings questions about the very role of academics. How much do academics perpetuate or challenge the relevance of brands in our society? Is it possible to offer critical perspectives given that, in occasions, academics are the ones providing the ideas driving the expansion of brands as well as training the people who will manage these brands in future? And who are the ones that academics, from a critical perspective, claim to represent and address? Which people, in which context, in which specific moment?
No definitive answers were given to these questions, and instead, the discussion seemed to be fuelled by the desire of questioning the nature and characteristics of brands, many times taken for granted. Paraphrasing Bowie, "Brands may be out tonight, and they may live forever." Precisely because of that, they must be scrutinized, interrogated and examined more than ever before.