How tattoos went from cool to corporate
How far are consumers ready to go to show their love to brands? As the BBC recently noted, tattoos representing brands are getting more and more common. But why? And what does it tells us about the psychology of consumers and brand identities?
One simple way to explain this phenomenon is the changing perception people have of tattoos. They have been "de-marginalised" and have gone from being a sign of rebellion to acceptance by the masses. They are now an almost ubiquitous part of pop culture, just like the brands that have worked so hard to get there. The widespread popularity of tattoos among all social classes reflects the fact that body art is increasingly seen as a product like any other. In this context, why would consumers limit themselves?
Brands have also mastered the art of selling lifestyles and ideals, which has, in return, inspired their consumers to develop very close psychological connections with them. Researchers talk about "brand-extended self-construals" when consumers use brands they hold dear as a way to define themselves. Think Nike, Apple, Volkswagen, and, of course, Harley Davidson. These have in common a strong following and a sense of "community" you might ordinarily associate with sports teams.
Harley Davidson is probably the best example, as this was one of the first brands widely used for tattoos. When the brand is inked under the skin it signifies a consumer's commitment to the community and an adhesion to the brand's supposed lifestyle.
There is a third possibility that the choice of brand logos and names can be seen as an ironic take on consumption. This could be the case for a consumer wearing a luxury brand or logo tattoo, suggesting that although they might not be able to afford the products, they can still "wear" the tattoo. Maybe too it can be a reaction against "traditional" tattoo designs and the quite specific culture surrounding these. Brand tattoos are seen as more fun and less serious than traditional ones.
From a psychological point of view, tattoos are concerned with both individual and social identity. That is, they are about helping individuals to construct and reach an ideal self - the person they would like to be. Brands these days are becoming a crucial provider of identity, in the same way that religions have in the past.
Consumer psychologists have also long suggested that possessions could act as an extension of the self. Brand tattoos can therefore help individuals to become one with their possessions. This also suggests a certain degree of anthropomorphism, meaning that consumers treat brands as their friends or ideal partners. Of course, those relationships can be fragile beasts, as the man who got himself a Mitt Romney face tattoo discovered.
Tattoos are also about social identity. A tattoo is a membership token, which gives access to a group, and is connected to a sense of legacy and a sense of history as we can see in markings from clans, tribes or family mottos. The fact that brands are now being used as tattoo symbols suggests they have acquired this capacity. Typically consumers started inking brands that had a strong community spirit. Biker groups, and Harley Davidson in particular - one of the most popular brand-logos for tattoos in Northern America - are a good example.
It can also be about taking on the achievements and attributes of the brand, especially for a sports-related firm such as Nike. This goes back to another meaning of tattoos: power display. Individuals are increasingly involved in what marketers call "personal branding;" constructing and marketing an identity to others, just like brands market products.
Social media has greatly contributed to this development. Aside from the sense of community we talked about above, people can also derive some power and prestige from the brand. "If I wear this tattoo, I can do more, achieve more and be seen by others as powerful.|" This also goes back to the more magical meaning and origins of tattoos, and can be interpreted as a form of co-branding.
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The obvious question is whether many of these people with a tattoo of a brand will come to regret it in later life. Regrets can indeed occur, as with any form of permanent body transformation. But using a brand name or logo as a tattoo brings additional sources of regret.
Brands can change, and can reposition themselves. As they undergo identity changes - maybe by becoming less exclusive and more mass-market - they might lose the power that inspired the permanent association in the first place. Brands can also become involved in wrongdoing or company scandals which entirely change people's understanding of the meaning behind the image. And brands tend to be less "durable" than Celtic designs or emotional reminders of your parents - if Nike goes under then the meaning disappears and the power wanes.
And pity the person with the corporate tattoo who thought it would grant access to the tattoo subculture where, frankly, an Apple logo on the wrist is more likely to spark derision than inclusion.
Benjamin Voyer is an associate professor of Marketing at ESCP Europe.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.