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Fashion in Popular Culture: Literature, Media and Contemporary Studies
By Joseph H. Hancock II, Toni Johnson-Woods, Vicki Karaminas
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Brand This Way: Lady Gaga's Fashion as Storytelling Context to the GLBT Community
Joseph H. Hancock, II
Research using the cultural approach to brands and their relationships to popular culture is relatively new and developed during this century (Brannon 2005; Hancock 2009a; Hancock 2009b; Holt 2004; Holt and Cameron 2010; Schroeder and Salzer-Mörling 2006). Branding is an umbrella term for marketing as branding encompasses more than just advertising media; it also includes the context of companies, performance, merchandise, design, consumers and, most importantly, the stakeholders of the brand. Fashion branding has been defined by key scholars and professionals as the perceived message that targets customers with products, advertising, and promotion organized around a coherent image as a way to encourage the purchase and the re purchase of consumer goods from the same company (Brannon 2005: 406; Hancock 2009a: 4–5; Holt 2004: 2–3; Manlow 2011). Branding represents a major aim of fashion companies to produce a cumulative image that is reflective of stories, narratives, or myths common in popular culture (Vincent 2002: 15).
Pop performance stars lead some of the largest international and long-lasting brands in our global economy (Blackwell and Stephan 2004: 38–40). They influence consumers through their use of music, videos, and especially the fashions they wear and endorse (Miller 2011). Popular bands and stars such as Kiss, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs, Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé Knowles, and Kylie Minogue have all inspired, developed, and licensed their own fashion brands in collaboration with retailers (Miller 2011: 40).
Lady Gaga continuously amazes audiences with her sense of over-the-top costume and outrageous fashion, and yet studies related to her dress have been neglected in academic publication. She represents a form of self-branding. Her self-production is heavily narrative and marked with visual codes of consumption representative of mainstream popular culture (Hearn 2008: 197). Gaga's extreme self-fashioning attracts considerable media attention and builds controversy, not the least being Weird Al Yankovic's 'Perform This Way'. As well as the blog 'Lady Gaga — Cheat This Way' (gagacheat.blogspot.com), which continually accuses the performer of not being original and copying the looks of other pop cultural icons.
Regardless of these accusations, her ensembles do re-present and incorporate pop cultural icons, and in doing so generate storyline and brand meaning and extend associations to niche markets. She becomes a movement of meaning in the conveyance of fashion forms through her celebrity brand status building further connotations of meaning for both her and the iconic symbols she wears (McCracken 1988: 72). For instance, the dress she wore for a 2009 photo shoot in collaboration with the Hello Kitty wholesale manufacturing and retailing Japanese company Sanrio (Figure 1:1). For this photo shoot, Lady Gaga wore a dress made out of Hello Kitty stuffed toys and her eyelids were made up in the style of Japanese anime or manga character eyes. Each photo was taken with her eyes closed, to show the eyelids, attempting to give the performer an authentic look. Lady Gaga's co-branding with Sanrio allows her to connect with the Japanese market and with those who purchase Hello Kitty merchandise. Working with a company whose global net worth is over US$76 million dollars (Fujimura and Leung 2010) is a stroke of brilliance for both Lady Gaga and Sanrio, and the replication of manga/anime eyes embraces fans of this illustrative art form. The ties between both brands allow for a crossover between both consumer markets, strengthening Lady Gaga and Sanrio financially.
In a competitive market environment, this visual attention recognition and manipulation using popular culture icons is genius, as it allows the marketer, Lady Gaga, to link her brand to other people, places, and things as a means of improving her own brand, what this author calls brand-Gaga (Keller 2003: 595). Meticulously choosing each costume, as these garments represent the visual brand equity and public persona of brand-Gaga, her clothes and accessories become part of a story-like branding campaign with Gaga herself as part of the narrative to a large body of consumers.
Gaga and the Gays
One of the largest target markets for brand-Gaga has been the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community. With a United States net worth expected to exceed over $835 billion in 2012, marketing to GLBT purchasing power is more than worth any brand's attention to gain revenue (Witeck-Combs Communications 2007). GLBT consumers are loyal: over 71% claim they support those companies funding causes important to them (Witeck-Combs Communications 2011). Thus it is not surprising that Lady Gaga recognizes GLBT consumers as major contributors to her career (McConnell 2009); at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards she thanked 'God and the gays' for her success.
For the GLBT community, Gaga's over-the-top camp costumes utilize symbols that transform her into homage for her gay and lesbian followers. Her garments blatantly re-contextualize GLBT iconic symbols in a benevolently based manner that produces a philanthropic image. In addition, her ostentatious style deliberately conveys a method of campiness that is identifiable by the GLBT communities through their historical association to this ideal of exaggerating visually and theatrically through fashion (Cleto 2002). This visually symbolic method of branding allows her to generate profits and achieve a sort of social dependency (Holt 2006: 300) among her GLBT followers who by consuming these images wait anxiously for her next performance or appearance. Her GLBT fashionable style inspires younger fans so much that they refer to her as their pop cultural iconic hero (Bolcer 2010).
In 2010, Greenbrier High School in White House, Tennessee, sent student Cole Goforth home on the grounds that his 'I (Heart) Lady Gay Gay' T-shirt was a disruption to classroom activities (Bolcer 2010). Goforth's mother stated that she felt this was a violation of her son's constitutional right to free speech; she noted that students who wear religious or rebel flag T-shirts are not sent home, and yet her son's T-shirt was seen as offensive (Bolcer 2010). Within hours of hearing these allegations, Lady Gaga tweeted her support:
Thank you for wearing your T-shirt proud at school, you make me so proud, at the monsterball, you are an inspiration to us all. I love you ... you just be yourself ... you're perfect the way God made you. (Kaufman 2010)
But the superstar's influences go beyond high school teenagers; even younger children look to Lady Gaga as someone who understands them. In October 2011, with the recent exposé of bullying in the United States, CNN's 360 featured a young group of GLBT grade school students who had been targeted in each of their respected schools. At the end of the episode, one young student requested that he be able to sing the Lady Gaga song 'Born This Way', Anderson Cooper gladly allowed him to do so (Hadad 2010).
By deconstructing looks that utilize iconic symbols, this chapter addresses how four of Lady Gaga's most popular media-hype wardrobe statements allow her to maintain associations to the GLBT community. These styles include her 2009 Kermit dress worn on German television; her 2010 MTV Video Music Awards meat dress; her 2011 Good Morning America Condom dress; and her Jo Calderone drag king look for MTV Video Music Awards in 2011. Analysis of each garment's brand story demonstrates how the GLBT communities have come to see 'Lady Gay Gay'.
Leveraging Meaning in Popular Culture to Build Brand Stories
In the twenty-first century, successful branding strategies are no longer perceived to be the quantitative-like mass demographic sales data and public-at-large studies of the past (Holt 2006: 299–302). Instead a more micro-marketed and tailored-to-individual research approach is accepted and notions that each person is unique is taken into account as consumer meaning and interpretation are viewed as crucial to successful brands (Holt 2006: 299–302; McCracken 2005: 162). By examining each person's psychographics (lifestyle preferences, descriptors, individual's attitudes, values and interests), a brand manager can compose and evolve the brand alongside changes in culture (Rath, Petrizzi, and Gill 2012: 4). Brands become attachments to lifestyles and give a perception of being personalized for each consumer. A consumer does not feel like a member of a mass population, but rather like an individual with personal attachment to the brand (Holt 2004: 218–19).
Branding adopted narratives in the fashion industry, and those companies with the ability to communicate appealing narratives, seem to be the most successful (Hancock 2009a; Manlow 2011). Individual interpretive branding through the concepts of visual storytelling allows the consumer to feel that the brand is concerned specifically with them and their needs as an individual (Vincent 2002: 15). Fashion companies aim at producing images that reflect people, narratives or myths in popular culture (Hancock 2009b). Branding allows the company to create an image that is based upon functional and hedonic characteristics that identify a product to a specific market (Brannon 2005: 405). At times this is achieved through business strategies, such as creating thematic fashion marketing, that reflect the image of the company (Schultz and Hatch 2006: 15–33).
Douglas Holt defines cultural branding as a method and a strategy utilized by businesses to sell products and services to consumers (Holt 2004: 218–19). Cultural branding is about reflecting the cultural context or the zeitgeist. Holt believes cultural activists and individuals who understand popular culture develop successful brands. He posits that the problem with many brands is ignorance with regard to art, history, popular culture, and trends. He calls for a new focus on consumer research that examines individuals instead of target markets. Rather than worry about traditional consumer research, brand leaders should assemble cultural knowledge (Holt 2004: 219).
As the branding relationship develops, the successful cultural branding agent will listen to and understand the consumer, producing the product a consumer desires. A successful brander will understand the historic equities of products and position them according to a strategic marketing rank toward the most advantageous customers. Brands that become iconic brands develop a reputation for revealing an appropriate narrative (Holt 2004: 219). Holt states that new brands earn higher profits when they are woven into social institutions and political awareness (Holt 2006: 300). For example, Lady Gaga's political support for gay marriage, and the controversy surrounding the repeal of being openly gay in the U.S. military, creates a brand — in this case brand-Gaga is accepted into social life because it provides customers with what Holt's called 'real informational, interactional, and symbolic benefits' (Holt 2006: 300).
In Legendary Brands: Unleashing the Power of Storytelling to Create a Winning Marketing Strategy, Laurence Vincent demonstrates how each company creates a brand culture through myths and brand narratives that give their products a consumer perception that their brand is the best (Vincent 2002: 25). Also, each brand situates itself within popular culture in the hopes of becoming part of the social order and cultural context. Vincent's research reveals that brand narratives must have four parts: aesthetics, plot, character, and theme. Aesthetics includes any part of the brand that stimulates one of the five senses. Vincent suggests that spectacle (what you see), song (what you hear musically), and diction (how words are constructed to convey meaning) are important elements for visual and performing arts. Brands can also stimulate taste and touch, and these are powerful narrative devices (Vincent 2002: 19). Making a connection to the consumer through brand narrative is key to success. The narrative must relate to the consumer both culturally and personally and the consumer must develop a personal attachment to the brand's narrative (Vincent 2002: 127). The brand narrative attracts customers when the audience follows the characters used in the brand advertising and marketing.
Consumer brand knowledge relates to cognitive representation of the brand. Interpretations of fashion branding strategies are necessary to understand a company's advertisements and their relationships to consumers (Heding, Knudtzen, and Bjerre 2009: 205). The cultural approach to branding relies on interpreting how brands have an impact upon consumers and how, in turn, consumers influence future meaning and branding techniques. (Heding, Knudtzen, and Bjerre 2009: 215). Increasingly competitive marketplaces demand that companies associate their brands with other people, places, things, or brands as a means of building or leveraging knowledge that might otherwise be difficult to achieve through product-marketing programs (Keller 2003: 597). Linking the brand to another person, place, thing, or cultural movement affects how consumers view the brand or 'primary brand knowledge'. A deeper understanding of how knowledge of a brand and other linked entities interact is of paramount importance. The linkages to the originating or primary brand become 'secondary' brand associations such as other brands, people, events, places, social causes, and/or other companies. To provide comparable insight and guidance, a conceptually visual model demonstrates this leveraging process (Figure 1:2).
Linking the brand (primary source) to various parts of culture (secondary source) creates new primary brand knowledge (Keller 2003: 598). The linking of brand-Gaga to other aspects of popular culture creates recognition and association with other causes and meanings, thereby creating new narratives (primary brand + secondary brand = new meanings). While a consumer may know nothing about Lady Gaga, they may be aware of secondary branding sources associated with brand-Gaga and this could entice them to become more knowledgeable about her and her brand.
Jeff B. Murray and Julie L. Ozanne argue in 'Rethinking the Critical Imagination' (2006: 46) that interpretative methods of consumer research are acceptable methods for understanding how a company is creating meaning and understandings of culture for consumers. They call for researchers to examine brands from a critical perspective. This is accomplished through analyzing the branding process where layers of multiple meanings and negotiations are created with the customer. Elements such as advertising are used to create such meaning (Moor 2007: 5–7). The researcher's eyes and experiences become a voice in what is possible. The researcher may examine the branding based upon life experiences that may not have been experienced by other consumers; therefore, interpretations and meaning will be different depending on the perspective. In other words, the precise meaning of the branding strategy is not so important. More crucial are the stories and narratives generated in the mind of the viewer, rather than that of the advertiser (Murray and Ozanne 2006: 51).
In order to understand and interpret the visual meanings and associations of new iconic forms, an individual must investigate the appearance of the icon, history of the icon, the evolutionary changes of the icon, iconic groups associated with that icon, and the exploitation of that particular icon. By understanding contemporary popular culture and the general history of an icon, the viewer can begin to interpret meanings and how new visual messages are generated (Nachbar and Lause 1992: 178–79). Through fashion, 'B' becomes a new context for the exploitation of historical and popular culture icons generating a new brand story (Hancock 2009a) that is seen in the GLBT community narrating to them an understandable message that allows her to make the connection.
Excerpted from Fashion in Popular Culture: Literature, Media and Contemporary Studies by Joseph H. Hancock II, Toni Johnson-Woods, Vicki Karaminas. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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