Branded Culture

How advertising shapes identity

I suggested a few weeks ago that successful advertising “focuses on creating culture — moving your world to the product, not the other way around.” If we want to move that world, we must first wrap our heads around the nature and number of interlocking, overlapping cultures that define it.

This is a story about how advertising shapes our identity.

This is not an easy story to tell. The complexities and paradoxes of ‘culturology’ seem to demand that we fall through the looking glass. It can drive you mad. Let’s keep it simple and sane.

First, if marooned on a tropical island, author and dear readers, we would start with sharing — telling jokes and stories, playing games. But, with time, this would soon lead to creating — forming inside jokes, inventing games, and creating new stories. This is the fabric of culture, what we share together and what we make together; the totality of shared experiences.

The same forces shape the culture of all groups—including Gen X, Bostonians and Trekkies, who share the experience of the Berlin Wall crumbling, the heartbreak and triumph of World Series games and all 120 hours of Patrick Stewart in spandex.

Second, media determines how groups form. Marshal McLuhan argued that any technology which influences patterns of human interaction is technically a form of media. Light bulbs, trains, and airplanes all fundamentally changed culture by altering the quantity and quality of possible “shared experiences”, expanding the size of our natural “island.”

In colonial America, culture was bound by location — the distance a horse could take you in a day. Add trains and airplanes, radio and television, and the number of shared experiences explodes beyond the limitations of geography (and time). With the advent of the digital world the totality of subcultures that exist borders on mind boggling.*

This matters because the cultures we are part of impact how we talk and think, and most importantly, how we conceptualize our identity. And identity, that’s big business.

Brands have become cornerstones of many different (sub)cultures by ingraining themselves into the fabric of shared experiences. In turn, people have come to prefer brands that are more closely linked with their respective cultures. These companies become linked with how we establish and express those identities.

We speak a language of brands, and we use it to both project and interpret a complex set of beliefs, values and ideas. Think about the instant visual signals that brands send out. Take someone wearing a Red Sox hat, Converse shoes, North Face jacket, and holding Starbucks coffee — add or subtract any element here, and their map of associations changes, and so does your understanding of who they are and what they’re about; the brand is the communication and the communication is also the brand.

Further, the culture of some communities are grounded in brands themselves! Shared experiences with the brand serves as the glue that holds the group together; I drive a BMW, I use Apple Products, I belong to Red Sox Nation. As a result, some facet of identity itself are rooted in synthetic culture.

In this way, advertising creates culture on many levels, ranging from the pop culture popularity of “I’m on a horse” to the cult-like following of Kinder Surprise. On all these levels, in some way, brands have an impact on our identity. “Is a brand for someone like me” is always a question that advertising researchers like me ask. After all, that is the focus of adland.

So, when looked at in this context, moving the world to your product doesn’t seem so daunting, does it?

I write about advertising and culture from the POV of an advertising analyst for the I Love Charts collection on Medium. More at

First Article in series: “Warhol Was Wrong About Advertising & Art.”

Next Article in series: “The Selfish Ad

*The editor of this fine collection wanted me to include something about Proust here but I told him, “no, this is already dangerously pedantic.”