Doppelgänger brand image (DBI) – Emotional response to big brands

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Doppelgänger brand image - McDonalds

When I first heard the term Doppelgänger Brand Image I was sure it had something to do with bastardising someone else’s brand presence. Obviously a bigger and well known one. What’s the point to steal something of no value?

Growing up in the 90’s in Poland I saw that kind of copying and bastardising big brands so many times that I sort of grew into it, stopped seeing it. Apart from noticing, from time to time, a strange additional letter in the GAP name or Coca Cola written with “K” But who cared back then? As a teenager I definitely didn’t. I barely knew what GAP was. These were simpler times of post-communist Poland and bandit capitalism.

And yet, Doppelgänger brand image is not what I thought. Not at all. It’s not about making profit by faking someone else’s branding, it’s not about faking your identity. Not at all.

What is Doppelgänger Brand Image

So what is Doppelgänger Brand Image? Let’s start with the word doppelgänger. Would you agree with me that some words convey certain sense of… properness? Of strength? Or maybe it’s just the language. German language has that hardness in it… but I diverse. Back to doppelgänger. It comes from German and means double walker (doppel – double and ganger – walker). Not too heplful? Well, the term comes from 1700s when people held so many strange beliefs. Not that today is very different but it’s not the point. Back then some people, presumably in some areas of Germany, but who knows, maybe somewhere else too, believed in an alter ego that looks like the original but is essentially ghost-like in nature. Encountering your alter ego, face to face, wasn’t a good thing. Not good at all. Bad thing could happen.

In 2006 Craig J. Thompson, Aric Rindfleisch and Zeynep Arsel published a paper titled “Emotional Branding and the Strategic Value of the Doppelgänger Brand Image” establishing the concept of DBI in connection to a well known coffee chain, Starbucks. The study cocluded that the negative perception of Starbucks brand came from perceived lack of authenticity of Starbucks pretending to be local while in fact being a global brand. The article linked Doppelgänger Brand Image to emotional branding. Emotional branding emerged in 1990s to challenge the benefit-driven approach to branding. The result was a more consumer-centric, relational, participatory and story driven approach forging deeper, more “emotional” bonds between consumers and brands. It makes sense. Emotional attachment can provide a competitive advantage over a more traditional connection that can be easily duplicated by any player on the market (assuming that player has enough money to compete financially, conceptually or technologically). Such emotional link goes deeper than just simple relationship we are accustomed to. Take Red Bull for example. Among so many brands offering energy drinks, Red Bull is still able to incite us to buy their products by telling a compelling story. Mostly by inviting consumers to be a part of that story. To identify themselves with the story. With the brand.

In 2021 another study emerged, “How Doppelgänger Brand Images Influence the Market Creation Process: Longitudinal Insights from the Rise of Botox Cosmetic” (M. Giesler) analysing how DBI affects marketing of Botox cosmetics.

Defining Doppelgänger Brand Image

The questionr remains, what Doppelgänger Brand Image is. The authors of “Emotional Branding and the Strategic Value of the Doppelgänger Brand Image” define DBI as a collection of disparaging images and stories about a brand which are circulated in popular culture by a loosely organized network of anti-brand activists, bloggers and opinion makers. Such images are most likely to be spread via social media, blogs, and websites of anti-brand activists. In essence it’s a brand parody created and developed by a community rather than an organised unit. And I think we all saw it at least ones in our lives. In connection to McDonalds. Pepsi. In a form of Internet mems. On social media.

It’s not good. For brands, obvioulsy. A negative perception spreads organically. It is shared on social media platforms by users. It has the capacity to spread like fire. Its decentralised dispersion is hard to combat by traditional marketing campaigns.

how to battle?

Marketing managers can still use a variety of tactics to combat negative imagery. They can foster brand comunities. They can encourage customers to help market the brands. DBI can be actually utilised in monitoring how brand is perceived. As a sort of a diagnostic tool. If DBI is connected to lack of perceived authenticity then the emergence of negative imagery can diagnose the relevance of its messaging.

Monitoring the digital universe is one thing. Acting upon it is another. In today’s world brands need to be able to listen to the customers and the managers should be able to recognise early signs of DBI and react. With a new narrative that combats the negative perception. The narrative is important in maintaining the image and in the world where social media can make the message viral ability to not only listen but also tell a story is paramount.

Beyond marketing

Looking beyond business, we live in the world where the size (or the amount of disposable money) are no longer the only factor in the equation. Where a small minority is often able be heard and sway the opinion of the majority. Where the story can be told and became viral without much effort. We no longer need a big team of supporting us professionals to get out there and be heard. Look at anti-vaxxers. Or those who don’t believe in climat change. They are the minority with voices so strong that the majority is no longer able to see the difference. That’s the power DBI taps into. The power of social media platforms. The power of personal blogs. The power of videos that can be created in minutes and uploaded to be seen by millions. The story, the narrative, that can live its own life. And challenge big businesses and even governments.

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