Brands, Knowledge and Surveillance

Curator's Note

In the wake of the NSA and Prism revelations, industry observers debated how the leaks will influence consumers’ willingness to share personal information with corporations. Will we abandon services that demand that we divulge information in exchange for content and services or will we hold our collective noses and continue to click, share and “like,” trading personal information for convenience and rewards?


With those debates far from settled, one working group from ICA's Beyond the Brand preconference met to discuss knowledge and surveillance in a world of ubiquitous branding. As with any good workshop, the discussion raised more questions than it answered; however, a series of themes emerged that we hope can serve as guiding principles for future inquiry.


1. The growth of data-driven brands. Not only do companies view consumers as data-subjects, gleaned through the information they shed in their online and offline travels, but brands themselves are increasingly data-driven. As marketers embrace mobile, locational and social platforms, the highly malleable brand becomes even more fluid as it adapts – often in real time – to context.

2. The dialectic of consumer and corporate power. We hear from marketers that we are in an era of consumer power. Digital technologies have changed the balance of information by making visible content that was previously inaccessible. This is a rhetoric that should be met with skepticism. While it’s true that consumers can now engage with products in important and powerful ways – showrooming and online reviews have made companies rethink their exhibition strategies – the plethora of data that guides the ways companies interact with individuals suggest that consumers are far from autonomous agents in the commercial sphere.

3. The value of technological futures. Can’t imagine a world where you don glasses in the grocery store that allow you to see product reviews, nutritional information, recipes and personalized discounts? There is good reason to pay attention to the seemingly far-fetched industrial discourses that imagine where technology is going as these rhetorics reveal how industries view their audiences and position their products.

4. The role of academics. As academics, we have a role in opening the black box of data-driven marketing. Whether we get this information by attending industry association meetings, reading trade publications or simply asking questions, there is a need for work that translates current marketing practices and provides consumers with information that allows them to make real choices.


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