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Special Session Gazing into the Shadows: Contemplating the Research Agenda for the Dark Side of Brands and Branding

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Marketing at the Confluence between Entertainment and Analytics

Session Abstract

Branding is one of the essential pillars of marketing, but not everything that brands represent is positive. Indeed, a considerable amount of brand-related activities takes place in the shadowy periphery of society. The purpose of this special session is to explore these darker sides of brands and branding and to spotlight a future research agenda related to two distinct yet interrelated trends—brands embracing the shadows and the shadows embracing branding. Brand researchers and managers recognize brands as complex, multifaceted entities that possess “good” and “ugly” qualities (Fitzsimons 2015). Some of the recently explored darker sides of brands and branding include links between brand attachment and community conflict manifested in oppositional “trash-talking” and “schadenfreude” feelings of pleasure for the opposition’s misfortune (e.g., Ewing et al. 2013; Hickman and Ward 2007; Japutra et al. 2014) and brands’ ability as cultural artifacts to invoke or exacerbate the vulnerability of individuals and communities who may feel ignored or misrepresented in brand communications (Kipnis et al. 2013; Schroeder and Borgerson 2005; Yang 2011). At the same time, revealing the darker side of a brand’s identity and then utilizing that revelation strategically to enhance perceptions of brand sincerity and authenticity is a growing trend in practitioner discourse (Silk 2015; Yakob 2015). Hence, there is a need for more research and critical reflection on brands in legitimate market contexts embracing their shadowy dimensions.

On a related note, considerably less attention has been paid to the effects of legitimate branding techniques when utilized by “the darker side” of business, i.e., illegitimate market actors. However, a handful of pioneering studies demonstrate that branding strategies are being exploited by terrorist and drug trade groups (Breazeale et al. 2015; Kipnis et al. 2015; O’Sullivan 2014). Recently emerged findings explore the negative societal outcomes that result when branding strategies are applied in these contexts by organizations and individuals with more nefarious goals. The effects range from extremely harmful to the broader society (e.g., building awareness, reputation, and notoriety through brand identities that project power and strength—Breazeale et al. 2015; Kipnis et al. 2015) to mitigating potential risks to individual consumers (i.e., serving as means of differentiation, enabling consumers to generate and exchange information on degrees of risk associated with the consumption of particular brands—O’Sullivan 2014). In addition, practitioner research and media reports point to indirect risks that illegitimate actors embracing the power of branding pose to legitimate brands. Such risks encompass the ambush of established brand names for the marketing of illegitimate products. One such example received prominent media coverage when LeBron James heroin was introduced to the market in a twisted take on the power of celebrity brands (Palmer 2012).

The session brings together branding, marketing strategy, and transformative consumer research scholars, to reflect upon recent theoretical and empirical advances and debate the future research agenda for the following two research streams: (1) the darker side of legitimate brands and (2) the darker side of branding as enacted by illegitimate market actors. The session is structured to present two studies contributing to each stream. Specifically, Japutra and Ekinci identify coping strategies deployed by consumers to deal with such negative consequences of legitimate branding as a perceived failure in self-brand relationship. Canhoto, Dibb, Nguyen, and Simkin shed light on how such failure perceptions can be triggered by dishonest and exploitative actions of legitimate firms and propose a framework that captures how the dark intentions and behaviors exhibited by organizations provoke and exacerbate consumer anguish and retaliation. Kipnis, Pullig, and Bebek offer insights into how wholesale drug trade actors effectively utilize visual brand identity signaling practices to build distinctiveness and credibility within their supply chains, posing a framework for these brands’ devalue. Breazeale and colleagues identify that the factors contributing to notoriety of violent extremist organizations are comparable to factors contributing to brand reputation of legitimate business organizations. The session highlights that exploitation of the dark side of brands is a growing concerning trend that poses significant threats to well-being of societies and demonstrates the need and the value of greater marketing research input in addressing this evolving problem.

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Correspondence to Chris Pullig , Arnold Japutra , Ana Canhoto , Eva Kipnis or Mike Breazeale .

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Pullig, C., Kipnis, E., Breazeale, M. (2017). Special Session Gazing into the Shadows: Contemplating the Research Agenda for the Dark Side of Brands and Branding. In: Rossi, P. (eds) Marketing at the Confluence between Entertainment and Analytics. Developments in Marketing Science: Proceedings of the Academy of Marketing Science. Springer, Cham.

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