The Reality of Brands: Towards an Ontology of Marketing

American Journal of Economics and Sociology 58:313-360 (1999)
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The ontology of marketing, particularly the question of what products and brands are, is still largely unexplored. The ontological status of brands hinges on their relationship with products. Idealists about brands see perceptual or cognitive acts of consumers grouped under the heading ‘brand awareness’ or ‘brand image’ as constitutive for the existence of brands so that, in their view, tools of the marketing mix can influence relevant mental dispositions and attitudes. Brand realists, on the other hand, reject the view of brands as mere marks or names and interpret them as emergent products with properties that afford branding in the sense of Gibson’s ecological psychology. Brand strength is a function of the degree to which brands occupy defensible niches in product space. Branding as a process involves changing external or internal boundaries of products. Several arguments are proposed in favor of brand realism. The fragments of an ontology of marketing are developed in a broadly Aristotelian framework. Brand realism has significant implications for a new understanding of issues ranging from the effects of advertising to financial brand valuation, the nature of trademarks, and marketing strategy in general. It permits one to treat brand equity as a real phenomenon not dependent on associations, attitudinal states such as brand loyalty, or spurious constructs such as brand character or personality.

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Wolfgang Grassl
St. Norbert College


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