DesignInquiry Conference

In Summer 2007, I attended the DesignInquiry conference in Vinalhaven, Maine. The theme was Pass•Port: Identity in the Information Age. I co-authored a presentation titled ‘Identity and the Branded Community’ that explored how five utopias that were driving the development of branded communities around the world. This is a brief excerpt from an essay I wrote that accompanied the presentation.

“Branded communities are an emerging phenomenon. Certainly, the term ‘branded community’ is increasing in popularity. Yet—and this should not come as a surprise—brand has always been an important factor in regard to communities, and not only new communities. In this context, brand is a platform for creating and communicating a sense of place; it is the stated or perceived identity of a community. Branded communities, in their attempt to formalize sense of place, are not only the latest chapter in the ongoing narrative of the ideal or utopian city; they are also the outcome of a changing relationship between identity and community.

Community is fundamentally a reflexive concept: just as identity is a product of community, communities are a product of identity. Communities shape who we are, and in turn, we shape them. However, with the increasingly mobilized nature of populations and work comes a shift in the role of location. We are now more enabled and, therefore, more inclined to choose our communities from the standpoint of how they might inform not only our lifestyle, but, furthermore, our sense of self. Branded communities commoditize sense of place. They standardize, package and market lifestyles, along with preconceived notions of identity.

Traditionally, community is defined as a group of people with something in common. While the things in common vary widely, they can be reduced fundamentally to either interest, or place. Interest or “elective” communities are concerned with the nature of the relationships between people and the social networks of which they are a part of. For territorial or place communities, the shared element is geography. As Waldo Tobler stated, “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” (W. R. Tobler, 1970).

Community implies both similarity and difference. Members of a group have something in common with each other, which distinguishes them from other groups. What, then, marks the beginning and end of a community?

Communities, as Anthony Cohen has said, are best understood as ‘communities of meaning’. They play a symbolic role in creating a sense of belonging. ‘People construct community symbolically, making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity.’ (Anthony Cohen, 1985)

Thus, communities are formed around ideas—ideas that determine their boundaries. These boundaries may be either geographical or social. Typically, what distinguishes the branded community is that it merges both place and interest.

Essentially, identity consists of a gestalt formed by a collection of ideas—coherent, yet not necessarily consistent. Brand identities form such a gestalt. Yet, building on a collection of contradictory ideas, the appeal of brands often lies in their impossibility. Brands aim to satisfy our desires on an emotional level; they are surrogates, characterized by contradictions. In turn, the branded community parallels the utopia—literally, a place that does not exist. In this context, the utopia expresses an ideology, an idealized model of a community. Our hypothesis is that today’s communities can be characterized through five utopias, largely independent of geographic and cultural context.”

(This post was adapted from an essay written for DesignInquiry in August, 2007.)