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COMMENTARY

Marketing to postmodern consumers: introducing the internet chameleon


Geoff Simmons
School of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Strategy, University of Ulster, Jordanstown, UK
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, to provide an overview of postmodern marketing in the consumer context, integrating the relevant literature around two contrary arguments. Second, it seeks to reveal the potential of the internet as a marketing tool that can address the complexities inherent in postmodern consumer markets. Design/methodology/approach The paper takes the form of a general review. Findings This paper reveals that complexity reigns supreme in the postmodern marketing consumer context, with postmodern consumers seeking both individualistic and communal brand experiences. Within this complexity, the paper identies the internet as an enabling tool, which allows direct, real-time individualised interaction with postmodern consumers. Further, the internets ability to provide these consumers with the opportunity to express this individuality within homogeneous groups is also presented. Practical implications This paper reveals how the internet can allow an individualised one-to-one connection with postmodern consumers to a level unparalleled ofine. Correspondingly, the paper also reveals how the internet is precipitating signicant new opportunities for marketers to engage in and create enticing experiences for postmodern consumers, who crave the ability to appropriate consumption and brands as a means of individualised self-expression within homogeneous groups. Originality/value This paper provides a contemporary and original overview of the opportunities proffered to marketers by the internet, in dealing with the inherent complexities erupting from within consumer markets in the postmodern era. Keywords Postmodernism, Marketing, Consumer behaviour, Internet, Social networks Paper type General review

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Introduction While many in marketing academia are suspicious of the postmodern argument (Patterson, 1998), for many marketers on the ground the postmodern era has introduced a sonorous new language, which is proving particularly difcult to interpret. No longer unied by a common culture or institutional core (e.g. economy, religion, the state, kinship), postmodern society resembles an incredibly complex labyrinth of cross-cutting discourses (Dawes and Brown, 2000). The new marketing language, founded upon the four Cs of change, complexity, chaos, and contradiction (Addis and Podesta, 2005), requires both marketing academicians and practising marketers to interpret and react to it proactively in order to ensure the disciplines

European Journal of Marketing Vol. 42 No. 3/4, 2008 pp. 299-310 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0309-0566 DOI 10.1108/03090560810852940

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relevance in the postmodern epoch (see Brown, 1993b; Flrat and Shultz, 1997; Brown, 2002; Burton, 2002; Goulding, 2003; Addis and Podesta, 2005). For both marketing academicians and practitioners, there is an implicit need to recognise and embrace the magnitude of societal change that is occurring within the postmodern cultural biosphere. This paper discusses the extant literature on postmodern marketing from the consumer perspective, building upon two essential strands of contention identied by Goulding (2003). Complexity is seen to reign supreme, with postmodern consumers seeking both individualistic and communal brand experiences (Cova and Pace, 2006). However, within this complexity the paper reveals, within a contemporary context, why marketers from academia and practice cannot afford to ignore the internet chameleon sunbathing nonchalantly on the recusant rock of postmodernity. Consumed by consumption: who exactly am I today? Goulding (2003) has condensed the various strands of thought in relation to the representation of the postmodern consumer, to reveal two essential positions. The discussion below integrates the relevant literature within these two positions The rst position views the essential nature of postmodernity as a liberatory force (Flrat and Venkatesh, 1995), with fragmentation central to the experience (Brown, 1995; Flrat and Shultz, 1997; Flrat and Venkatesh, 1995; Arias and Acebron, 2001). Goulding (2003) posits that this fragmentation consists of a series of interrelated ideas; the fragmentation of markets into smaller and smaller segments, and therefore the proliferation of a greater number of products to serve the increasing number of segments. Importantly, fragmentation has indoctrinated the media, that Zeus of contemporary society that permeates the thinking, leisure and philosophy of the masses. Developing this argument, Flrat and Shultz (1997) note that much of the media, television, music and lm increasingly resemble each other, presenting collages of eeting moments that excite the senses, yet rarely connect to a central theme or focus. This fragmentation presented to postmodern consumers ts in with their loss of a commitment to any single lifestyle or belief system and results in bricolage markets, that is consumers who do not present a united, centered self and, therefore, set of preferences, but instead a jigsaw collage of multiple representations of selves and preferences even when approaching the same product category (Flrat and Shultz, 1997). In postmodern culture, the self is essentially decentred, preferring the ability to switch images and utilise consumption as a means of constructing powerful images liberating them from monotony and conformity (Brown, 1995, 1997). Additionally, a signicant characteristic of the postmodern individual is that he/she avoids commitment (Dawes and Brown, 2000); in commercial terms, where the modern consumer may have been expected to be loyal to a company or a product, the postmodern consumer exercises freedom to move where choice or whim indicate (Gitlin, 1989; Brown, 1995, 2002). Within this maelstrom pluralistic matrix, consumption has become a means for individuals to creatively appropriate and construct self-images that allow them to become more desirable and/or likeable in various social contexts (Kacen, 2000; Dawes and Brown, 2000; Goulding, 2003). Indeed postmodern consumer society has become obsessed with appearance, where style is a ready and heady substitute for identity, and presentation is viewed as having much more kosher kudos than essence (see Patterson, 1998; Kacen, 2000). The postmodern

manifesto dictates that the meanings of objects are no longer xed and linked to their functions, but are free-oating as each individual may ascribe the meanings s/he desires to the objects (Elliott, 1993). For consumers to full their desires, marketers need to empower these consumers to become marketers of their own self-images in effect a consumption/production reversal (Flrat and Venkatesh, 1993; Flrat and Shultz, 1997). Within these fragmented moments and experiences, consumers scepticism is heightened that a single order is present or indeed necessary the consumer will take the existence of the disorder and chaos as the norm, realising that different orders, even if only temporary and momentary, are to be constructed through signifying actions and negotiations with others and with the objects in uid markets (see Brown, 1993a). Conversely, the second position representing the postmodern consumer views this postmodern society as dystopian and alienating (Goulding, 2003). It has been argued, within this position, that there is a rather supercial and shallow reality to the postmodern consumer (Eco, 1987; Jameson, 1990), within a world mediated by simulation and hyperreal experiences (Baudrillard, 1993). Developing this theme, Flrat and Shultz (1997) argue that postmodern culture has created a partly disinterested nostalgia, with consumers not wholly wishing to be transported into a nostalgic nirvana, but voyeuristically wishing to experience it for the moment that it excites and titillates the senses. And, from a totally ip-side perspective, Patterson (1998) emphasizes the concept of prestalgia, which expresses postmodern consumers desires not only to ruminate ruefully backwards, but also fondly forwards to the future. Indeed, Flrat and Shultz (1997), state that the representation of an imagined past or future, in the present, focuses postmodern consumption on the right here, right now. The touristic consumer (Flrat and Shultz, 1997) partakes of the many sights, sounds, themes and tastes of Browns (1999) yesterdays and tomorrows, right here, right now in the perpetual present (Gitlin, 1989), immersing themselves in the experiences of each, until they tire and move onto the next thrill and spill. In essence, there is a lack of depth to this postmodern consumer, and a focus on a supercial and surface reality (Eco, 1987; Jameson, 1990). This potentially malevolent malaise is rooted within a postmodern society characterised by identity confusion (Kellner, 1995) and the fragmentation of self (Gabriel and Lang, 1995; Jameson, 1990; Strauss, 1997). Building upon these contentions, there is a growing counter-argument within the literature which posits that postmodernity is a period which will encourage a move away from individualism towards a search for more social bonds due to alienation introducing the concept of neo-tribes, networks of people gathering homogeneously together for social interaction, often around consumption and brands (Maffesoli, 1996; Cova, 1997; Kozinets, 2001, 2002; Thompson and Troester, 2002; Dholakia et al., 2004; Johnson and Ambrose, 2006; Cova and Pace, 2006; Cova et al., 2007). This literature exposition reveals the tension in postmodern consumer markets between a desire for individualistic brand/consumption experiences and a need for new forms of sociality and empowerment often around brands/consumption. The next sections of the paper explore the role of the internet as a marketing tool that can create reconciliation within this context. Virtually individual Various authors have revealed clearly just how well blended the internet is with postmodern consumers cravings for crapulent carvings of succulent consumption/

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brand experiences, which feed their need for introspective individualism. Many organisations are already realising that they may be encountering segments of one in postmodern consumer markets. Expanding this into an e arena, Harridge-March (2004) suggests that it may be logical to assume that the individualised and tailored messages/offers that are made possible by the internet would mean the ultimate in one-to-one marketing, as originally espoused by Peppers and Rogers (1993). Additionally, Burton (2002) contends that many postmodern consumers are increasingly tiring of the relationship management culture pervading ofine brand interactions, which are imbued with fake spontaneity, orchestrated emotions and crocodile smiles. Many postmodern consumers are voting with their mouse, preferring personalised virtual brand interactions with their individualised selves in the online world. An excellent and increasingly relevant example is mobile commerce. Mobile commerce (m-commerce) allows marketers to connect directly with individual consumers, (through mobile phone, personal digital assistant (PDA) or laptop computer), in real time, without spatial or wiring constraint (Frolick and Chen, 2004). Indeed the key to effective m-marketing is the exploitation of the time-critical, location-based and personal nature of the mobile channel (Shubert and Hampe, 2006). However, for m-marketing to thrive, Mort and Drennan (2002) emphasise the need to integrate it with the development of effective databases which consist of opt-in consumers. Then marketers can begin to transform m-marketing content and utilise location technologies, such as GPS, that take a consumers location in to account, providing them with access to localised and personalised information and services. Another exciting and cutting-edge internet tool within this context is web analytics. Web analytics is an evaluative technique, originating from and driven by the business world in its need to better understand the usage of its websites. Phippen (2004) reveals that basic web analytics utilise easily obtained statistics, or metrics, in order to be able to assess website usage. However, while useful, basic metrics have been dismissed in some literature as unreliable and unrepresentative (see Kilpatrick, 2002; Buresh, 2003; Schmitt et al., 1999; Whitecross, 2002). As a result of this dissatisfaction with basic web analytics, the concept of advanced web analytics, or e-metrics (Sterne and Cutler, 2000) has developed. The Aberdeen Group (2000) denes advanced web analytics as:
Monitoring and reporting of Website usage so that enterprises can better understand the complex interactions between Website visitor actions and Website offers, as well as leverage insight to optimise the site for increased customer loyalty and sales.

According to Phippen (2004), the important point for marketers to note is that advanced web analytics is not just concerned with website statistics, but the relationship and interaction between a Website and its customers. It does not just collect website information, advanced web analytics also utilises it in conjunction with other data, such as demographics, customer proles and subscription information. Advanced web analytics can track individual consumers, in real time, as they navigate a website, allowing marketers to personalise the online experience to suit them individually, in real time (Derrick, 2006). This enticing internet tool offers marketers the ability to enter that postmodern marketing golden age, where consumers joyously skip through verdant elds of product, service and brand experiences, which are touchy-feely tailored just for them, and often by them.

However, going further, Cova (1996) states that the postmodern consumer also calls for an experience-based marketing that emphasizes connectivity and creativity. Recent research has presented this experience-based marketing in all its connective and creative glory (Cova and Pace, 2006; Cova et al., 2007). Further, Kacen (2000) and Dawes and Brown (2000) reveal that given the fragmentation in postmodern consumer markets, marketing techniques need to allow these consumers to construct for themselves different styles, forms and types of the same product, to utilise in their representations of different self-images in different situations. In effect, as discussed earlier, production and consumption need to become inseparable. Balasubramanian et al. (2001) take up this gauntlet, stating that the internet allows the customisation of products and services for and by individual consumers. Essentially, the internet allows empowered online postmodern consumers to interact in a meaningful way with companies (see Auger, 2005; Ibeh et al., 2005; Marcolin et al., 2005), developing a rapport which creates a relationship that allows these consumers to have a say in the online creation of product and service experiences, which are tailored to their individualised needs (see Jiang, 2002; Grenci and Watts, 2007, for expositions on online consumer customisation). Take for example, the rise of RSS. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a free internet service that allows consumers to choose what they want to read, listen to and watch and have it sent to them electronically, right here and right now (Precision Marketing, 2006). RSS differs from e-mail newsletters in that the consumer has the power to be almost innitely selective. For example, surfers can log on to the BBC website to elect to receive Doctor Who news and then surf over to The Times website to receive news from select categories that interest them. And consumers will be safe and secure in the knowledge that they will not receive any additional or irrelevant information (Precision Marketing, 2006). In effect, they can visit websites of interest, customising the content they want to receive. This is much more targeted and personalised than e-mail marketing, is free of spam, gets around spam lters and allows consumers to create the content groupings they want to receive from websites. And there is much more. Collaborative customisation (Gilmore and Pine, 1997) refers to companies and consumers colluding in order to design and produce products and services which are tailored to the consumers needs. The internet takes this to a new level (Jiang, 2002; Grenci and Watts, 2007). Take, for example, the new Mini, that trendy totem pole of postmodern retro desire. The Mini website affords consumers the opportunity to customise their Mini to their specic specications before it trundles down the personalised production line. If you believe the blurb, no one Mini in 10,000 will ever be the same. In fact, the customisation options are extensive enough to express even the craziest and zaniest identities. And of course, a famous consumer of tre of postmodern culture the my Mini made-to-measure milieu, is that madame ma Madonna. Individually or communally? Postmodern consumers adore being individual, they adore continually reinventing themselves through their consumption. However, while they love to develop highly individualised identities, through continually fresh and exciting consumption experiences, it appears that they do not want to do it in isolation or in communities with highly dispersed interest sets. Recent research by Dholakia et al. (2004) and Cova

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and Pace (2006) reveals that postmodern consumers show new forms of sociality and empowerment, based not upon interaction between peers, but more on personal self-exhibition in front of other consumers through the marks and rituals linked to brands. Within this context, the individualised real time interactions and customisation facilitated by the internet, on their own, do not lend themselves to totally satisfying individualised but communally compulsive postmodern consumers.

Aspiring tribal trendsetters There are recurring contentions within the literature that postmodern society has moved away from a more extreme form of individualism, towards a soulful search for more social bonds due to alienation the phenomenon of neo-tribalism (Maffesoli, 1996; Cova, 1997; Kozinets, 2001, 2002; Thompson and Troester, 2002; Dholakia et al., 2004; Johnson and Ambrose, 2006; Cova and Pace, 2006; Cova et al., 2007). So, individualism has been cast into the lake of re. Or has it? Much of what was discussed in relation to the internets ability to connect with individual consumers is valid. However, by personalising interactions each consumer will remain unaware of what messages (if any) other consumers are receiving. Consequently, each consumer is oblivious to the image others have of them, for using particular brands (Macrae, 1996). Patterson (1998) develops this stating that personalised interactions are essentially private in nature. The point here is that they pour cold water on the forest-re desire of postmodern consumers to use consumption, as a means of creating and sharing their individualised attitudes, expectations and sense of identity (see Thompson and Troester, 2002; Dholakia et al., 2004; Johnson and Ambrose, 2006; Cova and Pace, 2006; Cova et al., 2007, for relevant examples). Sharing is the key. Within this context, Slater (1997) concisely states:
. . . with the decline of traditional social information systems such as religion, politics and the family, advertising lls the gap with its privileged discourse through and about objects [. . .] The meanings advertising provides allow people to signal their attitudes, expectations and sense of identity through patterns or preferences for consumer goods, organised into lifestyles, taste cultures and market segments.

However, as research has revealed, postmodern consumers desire an experience-based marketing that emphasises interactivity, connectivity and creativity (Cova, 1996; Cova and Pace, 2006; Cova et al., 2007). Advertising follows a scripted ow, within a one-to-many communication model in which a single promotion is sent by one source, and seen by many recipients without the opportunity for immediate feedback (Rowley, 2004). Within this context the internet has again presented itself as the protuberant postmodern marketing champion, facilitating non-linear communication, a free ow and exchange of information, and the opportunity for two-way ows between companies and customers on a one-to-one or many-to-many basis (Phippen, 2004; Rowley, 2004; Pitta and Fowler, 2005). These qualities allow marketers to leverage the internet in order to create and publicise shared meanings to entice the postmodern consumer. And within this, postmodern consumers are nding a public forum in which they can express, dene and differentiate themselves to those that matter, through their consumption (Hagel and Armstrong, 1997; Banks and Daus, 2002; Gruen et al., 2005).

Virtually glued together The internet has emerged as the virtual glue, which many people in postmodern societies are using to bond together in an increasingly fragmented world. A plethora of online tribal communities have developed, based upon four essential elements identied by Johnson and Ambrose (2006): people, purposes, protocols and technology. The tribal members have shared purposes and beliefs, interacting socially by adhering to tacit and explicit protocols, rituals, and roles using internet technologies that support interaction (Preece, 2001). Johnson and Ambrose (2006) view the key characteristics of such technology as its ability to: . facilitate synchronous and asynchronous interaction; . enhance information richness through multimedia; . provide a range of information for various processing needs; and . be ubiquitous, as well as impervious to spatiotemporal limitations. The rise of social networking websites and user-generated content (USG) has forced marketers to wake up to the opportunities that are being created for their brands in the postmodern world. These virtual networks can be organised around various niches of interest or content and are becoming very much a part of every day conversations in postmodern society. MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdochs News Corporation), one of the nets most visited social networking sites, builds its 150 million community around independent music and party scenes (Harwood, 2007). People spend hours on MySpace talking to friends and making new friends. And for a growing band of brands, MySpace lets them create their own prole in attempts to develop communities of brand friends. However, in the user-controlled environment online, the brand proposition has to be highly compelling in order to get people to interact (Harwood, 2007). Taking a different virtual social networking tack emphasising USG, Digg is an online phenomenon billing itself as a user-driven social content community. Notess (2007) provides an interesting commentary on this online phenomenon. Registered members (known as diggers) scour the internet for content on specic topics, which they believe will tantalise and tease the taste buds of interested online leaf-peepers. The highest-rated stories move to the hallowed Digg front page and garnish hundreds of thousands of viewing eyes the subsequent fame and prestige present diggers and potential diggers with a potent intoxicating brew. Registered users vote to promote or demote items. To promote a story users digg it. To demote a story, users bury it. The more diggs the better. For marketers, positive stories about their brand have viral marketing potential, which is potent (see Datta et al., 2005), and of course negative stories can lead to the digging of a six-foot corporate hole! The rise of the internet has developed the idea that brands can utilise their websites to create consumer communities enter social network marketing (SNM; McWilliam, 2000; Banks and Daus, 2002; Gruen et al., 2005). For marketers, building brand communities online is about providing a virtual platform, centred around the brand, where like-minded (but individualistic!) postmodern consumers can discuss their opinions on anything and everything (see Cova et al., 2007). Since the platform is built around the brand personality, the community riding on it has a direct, yet non-intrusive, connection with the brand (Cova and Pace, 2006). Shukla (2006) provides an interesting commentary on the brand community of Sunsilk, the shampoo brand

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from Lever. According to the company, it has members who chat, argue and ght over myriad issues like the quality of their shampoos, their make-up, problems with boyfriends and sports to politics, among others. The website hosting the brand community has various interactive features like a makeover zone, where girls can try out new hairstyles or make-up, a chill-out zone, and a blog zone (with about 6,000 regular bloggers), among others. Blogging is perhaps the most talked about online phenomenon currently within the SNM arena. Essentially, blogs provide both private individuals and companies, an effective means of collecting and organising as well as transmitting fresh insights and opinions on any subject (Dearstyn, 2005). However, blogging has also led to a situation were brands are no longer in control of their marketing communications. This has lead to the temptation for many companies to enter the blogosphere in order to regain some control of their brand equity (Hanson, 2006). Bloggers, from a plethora of backgrounds, can virally spread negative brand perceptions online as quickly as brand managers can say brand equity. However, smart marketers are becoming increasingly savvy in respect of blogs and their power as a SNM tool within homogenised tribes of postmodern consumers. For example, Brooks (2006) reveals how AOL utilised a blog to deliver their Discuss campaign, which was intended to spur consumers to reappraise the broadband provider. The blog probed within different consumer groupings to stimulate interest in topics that would not normally be discussed by mainstream marketing campaigns. The interactions that can derive from such SNM activities, can potently harness the viral power of virtual postmodern consumer tribes in creating positive brand equity (see Cova and Pace, 2006; Cova et al., 2007). Conclusion This paper has presented the internet as an enabling tool, which allows direct, real-time individualised interaction with postmodern consumers. Further, the internets ability to provide these consumers with the opportunity to express this individuality within homogeneous groups is also presented as a gilded sword, with which to fence with the terrifying postmodern-society inspired trio of narcissism, isolation and loneliness. For marketers, in both academia and in practice, the power of the internet as a marketing tool within the postmodern consumer context needs to be continually evaluated and exploited. In particular, the rise of neo-tribes presents opportunities for researchers to explore the role of the internet and the implications for marketing practice. This is an area that appears to be particularly sparse in relation to relevant research (Johnson and Ambrose, 2006; Cova and Pace, 2006). For practitioners, the challenge is how to harness the internet to engage postmodern consumers individually and communally. Creativity and imagination (Brown and Patterson, 2000) will be needed in order to produce internet marketing tools that can achieve both, in the creation of value.
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