Symbolic Consumption in the Online World: The Construction of Social Identity and Fashion Influencers

Symbolic Consumption in the Online World: The Construction of Social Identity and Fashion Influencers

Maria-Teresa Gordillo-Rodriguez, Paloma Sanz-Marcos
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3119-8.ch010
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Symbolic consumption is defined as a process by which people use symbols—products and brands—to construct and communicate ideas about themselves; to transmit identity on the social stage. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the phenomenon of fashion influencers for a deeper understanding of the concept of symbolic consumption; a phenomenon that has not received the attention it deserves. Fashion influencers share their outfits, purchases and ideas online and they inspire other people to imitate the way they dress and therefore drive the way their followers consume. Influencers participate in symbolic consumption because they select brands that coincide with the images they have of themselves or that they wish to convey to their followers. Fashion influencers offer themselves as sources of inspiration for followers who aspire to be like them by buying and consuming the same brands and products. To support our thesis, we rely on a case study of Chiara Ferragni, who won the number one place on the Forbes list of fashion influencers.
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Technological advances have posed a challenge to traditional advertising models by making it more difficult to connect with audiences. Traditional channels of promotion have lost their effectiveness as the audience has been saturated with marketing. As a result, communication efforts have readjusted in order to find new, non-intrusive ways of reaching the consumer (Halvorsen et al., 2013). Within this paradigm, the rise and consolidation of formulas developed through social networks stand out (Gillin, 2009) and they are presented as opportunities for the development of brands and the stimulation of individual purchasing decisions (Jiyoung & Ko, 2010, p. 166). Around last decade “[…] social media has become an effective marketing tool, it has not only created a new dimension of marketing but has also provided many opportunities to the marketers […]” (Ahmad, Salman & Ashiq, 2015, p. 1). This perspective has a direct impact on the recipients of said advertising. The public is significantly affected by these new strategies which results in an enormously empowered consumer (Pérez-Curiel & Luque-Ortiz, 2017) who finds traditional formats and advertising messages obsolete and actively searches for alternatives to discern, compare and adopt new products.

In the case of the fashion industry, there is an increase in the use of social networks to make designers and brands more visible in the marketplace (Wiedmann, Hennigs & Langner, 2010). The industry has reinvented itself through an accelerated process that creates a scenario in which designers and consumers forge relationships, generating engagement that benefits both brands and individuals. These relationships are based on the recognition of a consumer who actively contributes to the image and reputation of the brand (Fondevila Gascón, 2015). Users have the possibility to make themselves heard. Thanks to social networks, users’ opinions and appreciations gain legitimacy with fashion firms, fostering the development of competition and concern for consumer ratings (Pérez-Curiel & Luque-Ortiz, 2017). The fashion industry is especially sensitive to comments and opinions as they directly affect the perception that other consumers have about the brands themselves. This practice is currently one of the most reliable and effective sources of information and recommendation among consumers and buyers (Castelló, 2016).

Social networks are a natural milieu for opinion leaders to communicate their ideas (De Veirman, Cauberghe & Hudders, 2017). The development of this type of digital strategy is included in the academic literature and noted for having an influence on marketing (Castelló-Martínez & Del Pino-Romero, 2015) in situations where social networks have emerged as advertising spaces through active users, such as opinion leaders, prescribers and influencers (Castelló, 2016). One of the issues that determines the effectiveness of influence marketing is precisely how to identify the influential personalities that are capable of generating positive and natural engagement with a target audience thus leading to a ‘non-promotional’ approach to marketing (Hall, 2016).

These high-profile users stand as the main agents of influence marketing. However, it is necessary to recognize that, although the influencer figure is identified as a new facet of marketing (Díaz, 2017), this kind of promotion is framed in the classical theory known as a ‘two step flow of communication’, which Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) refer to under the term ‘opinion leader’. Thanks to social networks, these prescribers manage to exert their influence through a leadership role based on everyday, casual, online interactions. In short, easy access to new communication channels not only causes a democratization of opinion leadership, but also necessitates a reconsideration of traditional marketing and communication plans which results in a massive production and transmission of information by users.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Symbolic Consumption: interpretive process by which people give meaning to products and brands, which takes shape in consumer experiences aimed at the construction and expression of an identity.

Influence Marketing: A marketing discipline whose strategies are developed by a relevant prescriber for a given virtual community.

Reference Groups: groups that are important for consumers and that serve as a reference and guide when consuming. Reference groups determine the way in which individuals carry out symbolic consumption actions.

Online Self-Presentation: presentation of the self that individuals carry out in the digital environment, mainly on personal websites and social networks. It consists of the use of a symbolic vocabulary (whether verbal or audio-visual resources) to project a desired image before an audience.

Self-Image: The image the individual projects in the social context. To do this, s/he uses symbolic resources such as behaviours, words, facial expressions, objects or brands and products. The image can be real or aspirational and is often linked to the desire to be identified with some social group.

Branding: Process by which the integral strategy of a brand is developed.

Influencer: Person who has a large number of followers on social networks and whose opinion is relevant to them. There are specialized influencers in various fields such as fashion, food, sports, etc. They usually become role models for their fans.

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