Branding in an Age of Consumer Agency

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An EPIC Talk with TIMOTHY DE WAAL MALEFYT (Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University) and MARYANN MCCABE (Cultural Connections LLC)



Consumers often exhibit complex, even contradictory behavior with brands. Ask mothers about making dinner and their immediate reaction may be: “cooking is a drag.” So a food company responds with brand communications addressing 'the dinner dilemma.' It turns out, though, that many women also find tacit creativity and joy when re-imagining the family together, and assemble ingredients while cooking from an implicit embodied orientation that allows for daily living, personal self-expression, and recreation of family relationships. Brand messages that avoid such complexity and contradiction, and which seek to direct product information clearly to consumers, are likely to fall flat. How can marketers deal with contradictions? Maybe that’s the wrong goal.

In this talk we argue that brand meaning for consumers is created through negotiated, embodied, and often paradoxical practices. Ambiguity in brand usage and consumer feedback is generally seen as a problem for marketers that better data can solve. We take the opposite approach: our research illuminates the ways in which brand relationships with consumers are dialogical and ambiguous by nature. This expanded perspective opens new sites and strategies for ethnographers, designers, marketers, and brand practitioners to engage consumers directly and indirectly through understanding their embodied interactions with brands. We will use international examples to illustrate the value of this dialogical approach and the implications for both practitioners and brands.


Timothy de Waal Malefyt is Clinical Professor of Marketing at Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University. As a corporate anthropologist, he was formally VP, Director of Consumer Insights at BBDO advertising in NYC,  and VP Senior Account Planner at D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles for Cadillac in Detroit. He is co-editor/co-author of five books: Advertising Cultures (2003); Advertising and Anthropology (2012); and Ethics in the Anthropology of Business (2017)Magical Capitalism (2018); and Women, Consumption and Paradox (2020). He was co-chair of EPIC2014.

Maryann McCabe is Founder and Principal of Cultural Connections LLC, a consumer research consultancy, helping organizations with branding and positioning strategies. She is also Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology, University of Rochester, where she has taught courses on consumer insight, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. She has published a number of her ethnographic studies of consumer practices in academic journals and she is editor/co-editor of the books Collaborative Ethnography in Business Environments (2016), Cultural Change from a Business Anthropology Perspective (2017), and Women, Consumption and Paradox (2020).