Brands can be important visual and social symbols, and consumer goods can signal membership to specific societal groups. We buy products because of their symbolism and what they mean, not because of what they do.
Today, many consumers are simultaneously both consumers and producers of information as well as social and cultural identities. Social identity is how others understand you within the framework of society based on cues such as gender, dress, speech, age, ethnicity, etc.
Just as a personality is not formed by one quality, a social identity is not formed by one product. Consumers use sets of products to define, communicate and perform social roles. These groups of products are called product complementarity sets. Product complementarity is when the symbolic meanings of different products relate to one another.
Brands need to identify and thoroughly define the symbolic meaning of their own identities and products. It is key for companies not only to define a brand persona, but also to identify a social role that relies upon their brand’s identity in order to define its identity. Finding this dependent social group’s identity and the perspective of its members is essential to understanding and predicting what consumers will like in other product categories as well.
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Interestingly, complementarity product sets are so vital to defining societal identities that social media users have been inadvertently collectively producing product complementarity sets through starter pack memes since 2014.
A starter pack meme is a group of images (usually of products/brands) and text which are used in combination to synthesize a specific social identity. Although aesthetically they look simple and sometimes rudimentary, starter pack memes are a site of sophisticated identity analysis. These memes and product sets highlight the formulaic nature of social identities, even the most alternative.
It is possible to reverse-engineer just about any consumption pattern through a psychological understanding of social identities. The resulting product set demonstrates how seemingly unrelated brands may be consumed together.
For example, let’s start with a pretty general prominent social role: a white, upper-middle-class mother. Items in this product set symbolize being a good parent, being image- and health-conscious, and upper-level economic status. Items in this product set might include: Target, RXBAR protein bars, Whole Foods, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, a Chevrolet Suburban, a gym membership, midtier red wine for her book club’s wine night, Botox injections, AirPods so she can talk on the phone while handling her kids, and sports equipment for her kids’ after-school activities.
Complementarity product sets even work well to define very specific social identities. For example, consider a starter pack from @starterpacksofnyc on Instagram. Items in this product set include: the nightclub 1 OAK, a bomber jacket, Belvedere vodka, black high-top Nike Air Force 1s, and a short-on-the-sides-and-long-on-top coifed hairstyle, all tied together with a text message inquiring how many girls are at a party. I can instantly picture this type of person and other traits that define this identity: He most likely is in his mid-20s, a 6 or 7 who thinks he is a 10, eternally a bachelor because he can’t seem to stick with monogamy, uses a JUUL, often shops at Supreme and Kith, has a designer wallet to appear as though he can actually afford to spend money on the Dom Pérignon he is always drinking, listens to and idolizes Drake to an extreme degree (if Drake said he liked pomegranate juice, this guy would only consume POM juice for the rest of his life), uses Axe or Old Spice deodorant he bought on Amazon Prime, and probably frequents Domino’s and Subway because he can’t cook and often eats alone.
It is important to analyze starter packs for a better understanding of collective identities, to help us better decipher contemporary political, cultural, economic and social processes and create better brands. Although these product sets may be reductive or seem to perpetuate stereotypes, it is hard to deny their potency in society and how heavily they inform what consumers decide to purchase and identify with.