Beer & Metonymy

04 Aug 2008|tommy

I spoke today at the Media X Conference entitled, “Monetizing Audience Engagement in New Media”. My talk was on the importance of basing audience engagement on an anthropological understanding of the audience and what’s meaningful to them. Certainly not the most interesting of all the talks given, but hopefully I said something of value.

In preparing for the presentation, I created a slide that addresses an assumption that underlies much of what we do: that products and brands (and services, and channels, etc. etc.) have an inherent symbolic value. Products aren’t products in the abstract – they stand for something, and often that “something” is what informs our purchase choice. I was looking for recent examples that could illustrate this point, and was very pleased to find an article detailing responses to the recent InBev acquisition of Anheuser-Busch. I couldn’t have found a better example.

In early July, InBev finalized a deal to acquire Anheuser Bush for $52B. After some apparent back-and-forth media communiques, in which AB management indicated that the sale wouldn’t happen, it finally did come to fruition. And the final announcement of that deal prompted much discussion of the implications of “losing” such an important piece of American culture and history.

Newspaper op-ed pages were filled with pieces lamenting the “selling” of America and the loss of an American icon. Regardless of your personal reaction to the sale, it’s hard to argue that this ISN’T a great example of a brand holding huge symbolic value and subsequently embodying deep significance. If beer was only about taste (or price), then this shouldn’t prompt much of a respnose; the Budweiser recipe is likely to be unchanged, and Budweiser will continue to be Budweiser. However, in a great example of metonymy, Budweiser has become synonymous with America.

Metonymy is a figure of speech whereby the speaker uses a word or concept to refer to something that concept or word is associated with. Got that? The object stands for the broader concept. For example, using “The White House” to refer to the President, or “Hollywood” to refer to the American film industry as a whole. In our example here, Budweiser is used as a metonymical device to stand for America as a whole.

Why is this important? If we understand the symbolic value of a product or brand, we’re better able to speak about that product or brand to consumers. If we understand that, for many consumers, “Budweiser” stands for “America”, we have a strong basis for speaking about the brand in a meaningful way. And using literary devices like metonymy and metaphor helps guide us in further fleshing out these brand associations. For example, if we know that “Budweiser” stands for “America”, we can begin to ask how else that metaphor might work. Or how the metaphor might break down. In short, we are empowered to leverage literary devices to get a fuller, richer, more nuanced understanding of brands and the meaning they hold.

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