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virtual and fictional brands and branding


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This paper considers the case of two fictional brands (‘Duff Beer’ and ‘Bertie Bott’s Every
Flavor Beans’) and one computer-synthesized brand (‘Aimee Weber’) and the attachment of
these brands to physical products in the real and virtual worlds. The authors contend these
cases are not merely manifestations of the "reverse product placement" process but are
representative of a wider phenomenon, labelled “brand precession”. The three cases
illustrate three orders of brand precession. In the first two orders, the virtual brands foment
an aura in the fictional world, which will be leveraged through “tangibilisation” or
“productisation” in the real world. In the third order of brand precession (Aimee Weber),
commercial translation of the computer synthesised brand is not necessarily dependent on a
physical existence in the real world. The authors contend that should such brands be
capable of legal protection, the implications for marketing practitioners and researchers may
be profound. The paper provides an embryonic classification and framework for the
management and the articulation of virtual brands.

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virtual and fictional brands and branding

  1. 1. Copyright © Oxford Management Publishing 2010“There is no Spoon”: Towards a Framework for theClassification of Virtual Brands and Management of BrandPrecessionLaurent Muzellec, Theo LynnAbstractThis paper considers the case of two fictional brands (‘Duff Beer’ and ‘Bertie Bott’s EveryFlavor Beans’) and one computer-synthesized brand (‘Aimee Weber’) and the attachment ofthese brands to physical products in the real and virtual worlds. The authors contend thesecases are not merely manifestations of the "reverse product placement" process but arerepresentative of a wider phenomenon, labelled “brand precession”. The three casesillustrate three orders of brand precession. In the first two orders, the virtual brands fomentan aura in the fictional world, which will be leveraged through “tangibilisation” or“productisation” in the real world. In the third order of brand precession (Aimee Weber),commercial translation of the computer synthesised brand is not necessarily dependent on aphysical existence in the real world. The authors contend that should such brands becapable of legal protection, the implications for marketing practitioners and researchers maybe profound. The paper provides an embryonic classification and framework for themanagement and the articulation of virtual brands.Keywords: Reverse product placement, Brand management, Brand precession, Virtualworlds, Fictional brands, Virtual brands, Second life1. IntroductionPost-modernism allegedly pervades marketing theory and practice much as it does everydaylife in contemporary society. Post-modernism refutes practical conventions and overallcontrasts the modernist idea that there is one single reality. As Brown explains, “Post-modernity is a depthless world of simulation, where images bear no discernable relationshipto external reality and where artifice of, in the words of the post-modern rock group U2, is‘even better than the real thing’” (Brown 1995).Post-modernism manifests in many ways including "reverse product placement". Reverseproduct placement is when virtual artefacts from the fictional brand are recreated in thephysical world and attached to a real product. For example, the originally fictional ‘Duff Beer’(the favourite beer of Homer in the cartoon ‘The Simpsons’) was for a period available inconventional outlets ( Similarly, the ‘Bubba GumpShrimp Company’ ( is a “real” restaurant chain directly inspiredby the fictional company in ‘Forrest Gump’.Published: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 1
  2. 2. These are more than mere brand licensing as the products are physical recreations ofproducts that initially existed in the virtual world of the animated television series or film. Oneof the latest manifestations of post-modernism in the contemporary era is what we term"brand precession". Unlike reverse product placement and merchandising, brand precessiondiffers as the brand, like Baudrillards map (1988), may be developed without origin orreality; it may initially exist only in virtual worlds (in-world) and may be incapable of everexisting in the real, physical world but however be commercially translated in-world. If suchbrands could acquire legal protection, we contend that this phenomenon would besignificantly different than the traditional brand-building process and as such has substantialimplications for both marketing practitioners and researchers. This paper provides anembryonic classification and framework for the management and the articulation of “brandprecession” in the practice of brand management.2. The Brand in the Post-modern Era: The Advent of the Virtual and Abstract.Traditional definitions of the brand such as the one provided by the American MarketingAssociation1 confines brand marketing to the managerial practice of building, managing andmeasuring the equity of a product or services identified by the brand (Aaker 1991; Kapferer1995; Keller 1998). In fact, traditional perspectives see the brand as a selling devicemanaged by the marketing team who use it as a means of differentiation for the firm’soffering (Kotler and Keller 2006). In other words, the brand is real, it is a trademark attachedto a physical product that is being marketed to “passive” consumers. Alternative definitionshave integrated the consumers’ views of the brand and the brand concept has evolved intosomething more abstract to become “nothing more than the sum of all the mentalconnections people have around it” (Brown, 1992). More recently, Lury (2004) argues thatbrands are a crossing point for knowledge focus “simultaneously virtual and actual, abstractand concrete, a means of relativity and a medium of relationality” (Lury, 2004, p12).Lurys definition suggests branding is a bi-polar construct (at the crossroad between theconcrete and the abstract, the virtual and the real). This phenomenon is manifested inreverse product placement, or "the commercial translation of fictional brands or products…into the real world" (Edery 2006). But what of brands or products that have commercial valuebut are not “tangibilized” or “productized” in the real physical world and remain purely virtual?We contend that this phenomenon represents an extension of the post-modernist brandparadigm, which we call “brand precession”. Brand precession can be described as theprocess of fomenting a brand aura entirely in the abstract and the virtual but capturing theimagination and emotional attachment of real consumers. Here the virtual brand precedesthe real and is not necessarily dependent on a physical existence to generate commercialvalue.3. The Three Orders of Brand PrecessionWe have identified at least three orders of brand precession.The first order of brand precession relates to brands which initially exist in the virtual but areapplied to products that actually exist or can exist in the real, physical world. An example ofa first-order brand is Duff Beer from the animated television series, ‘The Simpsons. ‘DuffBeer’ is available now to more than the fictional characters that exist in the fictional world ofSpringfield. While such brands exist initially in the virtual, they are capable of existing in the1 The AMA definition of a brand is “name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them,intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate themfrom those of competitors” (AMA, 1960)Published: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 2
  3. 3. real world and therefore are capable of commercial translation into the real world beyondmere licensing; ‘Duff Beer’, initially a simulation of beer is now a real beer with its own realtaste. Warner Brothers, the owners of ‘The Simpsons’, do not have interests in the brewingindustry and merchandising opportunities for an alcoholic beverage associated with ananimated television series watched by millions of children may be perceived as unethical. Assuch, Warner Brothers chose not to act on the potential of ‘Duff Beer’ as a brand in thealcoholic beverage market and as such, did not register ‘Duff Beer’ as a trademark for suchactivity. However, an entrepreneur in Mexico, Rodrigo Contreras, successfully registered thetrademark in Mexico. Subsequently, the brewery, Haacht, in Belgium produced andsuccessfully marketed a real beer with a real taste and while it does not feature anyreference to ‘The Simpsons’, the packaging (Figure 1) is similar enough that when combinedwith the brand name, attracts those consumers with emotional connections to ‘TheSimpsons’.Figure 1. ‘Duff Beer’ as Packaged and Produced by Haacht BreweryThe second order of brand precession relates to brands and products, which initially exist inthe virtual, and whose brand attributes are derived from virtual product characteristics thatcannot, at least currently, exist entirely in the real physical world. An example of a secondorder brand is ‘Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans’ (Figure 2). ‘Bertie Bott’s Every FlavorBeans’ is a confectionary product first introduced as a fictional brand in the ‘Harry Potter’books. These fictional jelly beans migrated from the virtual world of the ‘Harry Potter; booksto the real world with the production of real ‘Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans’ candy,manufactured by Cap Candy, a division of Hasbro. In the second order, the brand andproduct attributes cannot translate entirely in the real world. While a confectionary can existand be packaged similar to the beans that exist in the book and associated films, themagical properties of the virtual products cannot.Figure 2. ‘Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans’ Manufactured by Hasbro.In the preceding two cases, the virtual products bear some relationship to reality but whilethe brands and products exist in the virtual world of entertainment media, they do notPublished: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 3
  4. 4. generate economic value in-world. When Homer buys a ‘Duff Beer’, the money Moe receivesin payment does not have real world currency. Here, brands only truly generate economicvalue when they are manifested and exploited in the real world through licensing fees orsales of real products to which those brands are attached. One should not discount theirexternal value, depending on the success of the vehicle in which they appear, this method ofbranding may be a much faster, cost-efficient and more effective method of marketing for anew product than to develop a brand from first principles. As such, it should be an option forconsideration by marketers and owners of new products (Hosea 2007). Furthermore, in eachof the cases, above, the development of the real products is post-hoc - the decision tocommercialise is not pre-meditated.The third order of brand precession differs from the previous two orders because the brandsexist only in the virtual with no relationship to reality at all. Their existence includingcommercial translation is independent of the real world. An example of this third order ofbrand precession are the virtual brands of ‘Aimee Weber’ and ‘*preen*’. Aimee Weber is theSecond Life identity of Alyssa LaRoche (Figure 3). LaRoche founded a line of avatarfashions known as ‘*preen*’ anchored by her in-world avatar persona “…as an outrageouslybrash, flirty, vaguely tipsy ballerina with blue butterfly wings” (Au, 2008).Figure 3. The Virtual Brand Aimee Weber™LaRoche established a number of in-world stores to sell the ‘*preen*’ fashion line to otherSecond Life members and promoted these products widely in-world. In August 2006, the 20best-selling Second Life fashion designers, including LaRoche, generated a combinedUS$140,466 in sales (LaVallee, 2006). It is important to note that LaRoche’s sales areconcluded in-world using Linden Dollars, the Second Life currency, which can then be usedto purchase other virtual products and services or can be exchanged for US dollars. InNovember 2008, Aimee Weber became the first avatar with a registered trademark for virtualcontent and services. Although LaRoche is reported to be considering opening a real worldstore to sell ‘*preen*’ fashion products ‘as a novelty’, the commercial translation is notdependent on reverse product placement. There is no requirement for a real physicalembodiment of the product or as stated in the movie the Matrix: “there is no spoon!”.4. Towards a Praxis of Management for Fourth Order Brand PrecessionThe implications of a commercial brand fully disconnected from a physical reality have onlystarted to be accounted for within academia (Muzellec and McDonagh, 2007). As discussed,the ‘Aimee Weber’/‘*preen*’ case differs from the cases of ‘Duff Beer’, and ‘Bertie Bott’sEvery Flavor Beans’ in a number of respects.Firstly, the virtual brand, in this case ‘*preen*’ was developed wholly in the virtual 3-D world‘Second Life’ for use within this world in its original and natural state. It did not depend orrefer to a real world brand or product. Its existence was independent and continued to existin-world when LaRoche was offline. Secondly, it was personified by an in-world identity,Aimee Weber, which interacted with the virtual world and acted in some respects as aPublished: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 4
  5. 5. celebrity endorsement. Thirdly, it was attached to an in-world product that had real economicvalue. There was a purchase price for the ‘*preen*’ fashions which could be converted in to areal world currency. The brand captured both the imagination and emotional attachment ofreal-world consumers. Second Life members assume a generic avatar when they first enterSecond Life. Fourth, they choose to purchase and wear ‘*preen*’ avatar clothing. AimeeWeber, the in-world personification of the ‘*preen*’ brand was successful in achieving legalprotection under US Trademark law in November 2008. Furthermore, LaRoche may chooseto generate additional revenues from licensing or selling her designs in the real world or in apost-modern twist place her product in the real world as a marketing strategy to generate in-world sales.Figure 4 outlines an embryonic framework suggesting how managers might manipulatevirtual brand meaning in-world while real consumers emotionally empathise with the virtualbrand.Figure 4. Praxis of Brand PrecessionAt its core, the virtual brand personality is not only the traditional attribute of the brand butincludes, in the case of virtual worlds, the personification of an in-world avatar as the brandproponent or in some instances the master brand. This is a significant difference totraditional brand marketing where the constraining resource may be access to apersonification of the brand who in many instances is a celebrity. In the virtual world, themarketing practitioner can literally create their brand personification to meet specificaudience needs.Once the brand personality has been developed, the competitive domain must be selected,in this case the virtual medium. At this early stage of brand precession, we have focused onvirtual brands in both fictional worlds and computer-synthesised virtual worlds such asSecond Life, Habbo Hotel, and Club Penguin. There are an increasing number of virtualworlds of significant size catering for a wide range of target audiences – careful selection ofvirtual medium is recommended. Once the virtual brand has been placed in the medium,consumers will engage with the medium, and will begin to develop an image of the brandwhich can be further refined through brand development activities. These activities should bemutually reinforcing with the audience of virtual medium to the point that consumers wish toPublished: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 5
  6. 6. purchase the brand and products associated with the brand. It is at this point that the selleror brand developer must have the means to protect and monetise the brand. The“tangibilisation” of the brand occurs once the trademark is being registered and/or while thebrand is being monetized.5. DiscussionThe case of ‘Duff Beer’ highlights the danger of uncontrolled virtual brand creation. WarnerBrothers’ fictional brand still has potential, although somewhat impaired, but Contreras andHaacht (until legal action was taken by Warner Bros) had a trademarked brand which wasderiving economic value for Contreras and Haacht and not Warner Brothers. This exampleillustrates that while some virtual brands may have economic consequences, they are noteconomically valuable in themselves unless acted upon in the real world. Considering that abeer brand, such as Budweiser, can have a brand valuation of over US$11bn2, ‘Duff Beer’serves as a cautionary tale to highlight the importance of identifying virtual brands as earlyas possible and, where possible, of protecting those brands for future applications.While the method of product placement has arguably been around since the birth of film(Newell et al. 2006), reverse product placement is a relatively new concept. Theconvergence of the physical and virtual worlds through gaming devices and software suchas Sony PlayStation Home requires the marketing community to consider whether branddevelopment in these virtual worlds is merely a matter of reverse product placement orsomething else entirely. Unlike Second Life, Sony PlayStation Home supports the sale ofclothing for player avatars and furniture for virtual homes from an online Sony store. Wecontend that brand precession represents a new marketing phenomenon and thereforerequires new approaches. As with reverse product placement, we posit that it is necessarythat consumers feel a connection to the virtual brand in order for the brand to succeed. Thiscan be achieved in the personification of the brand through an avatar persona that exists inand engages with the virtual world. One major concern would be the life of the virtual brand,and whether or not it will have enduring qualities of a real one once the novelty has worn off.ReferencesAaker, D. A. (1991). Managing Brand Equity - Capitalizing on the Value of a BrandName. New York, Free Press.Au, W.J., (2008) The Making of Second Life, New York, HarperCollins.Baudrillard, J. (1988) “Simulacra and Simulations” in Selected Writings, ed. MarkPoster, Stanford, Stanford University Press: pp.166-184.Brown, G. (1992), People, Brands and Advertising, New York: Millward Brown InternationalBrown, S. (1995). Post-modern Marketing. London, Routledge.Edery, David. (2006). Reverse Product Placement in Virtual Worlds. Harvard BusinessReview 84(12): 24.Firat, A. F., Dholakia, N., Venkatesh, A.,. (1995). "Marketing in a Post-modern World."European Journal of Marketing, 29(1), 40-56.2 Source: as accessed on 17/01/2009Published: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 6
  7. 7. Hosea, M. (2007). Fantasy brands on a reality check. Brand Strategy. 212: 24-29.Kapferer, J.-N. (1995). Strategic Brand Management: New Approaches to Creating andEvaluating Brand Equity. London, Kogan Page.Keller, K. L. (1998). Strategic Brand Management. Upper Saddle River, N.J. Prentice Hall.Kotler, P. and K. L. Keller (2006). Marketing Management Upper Saddle River, NJ,Pearson, Prentice Hall.LaVallee, A. (2006) Now, Virtual Fashion - Second Life Designers Make Real MoneyCreating Clothes For Simulation Games Players, Wall Street Journal,, C. (2004). Brands: the Logos of the Cultural Economy, Routledge,Muzellec, L. McDonagh, P, « Ceci n’est pas une Brand! » : Post-Modernism and BrandManagement, the case of Red Apple Cigarettes , 36th European MarketingAcademy (EMAC) Conference, 22-MAY-07 - 25-MAY-07, Reykyavik (ISL)Newell et al. (2006) The Hidden History of Product Placement. Journal of Broadcasting &Electronic Media, 50 (4): 575-594.LAURENT MUZELLECDublin City University Business Schoole-mail: lmuzellec@gmail.comDr. Laurent Muzellec is a lecturer in Marketing at Dublin City University Business School anda brand consultant to a number of small to medium sized companies. His main researchinterests pertain to the field of strategic brand management. He has published in leadingmarketing journals including the European Journal of Marketing and Industrial MarketingManagement. His most recent research focus is on the managerial applications and thetheoretical implications of brands in virtual and fictional worlds (see: in collaboration with Theo Lynn).THEO LYNNDublin City Universitye-mail : theo.lynn@dcu.ieDr. Theo Lynn is the Director of the Learning, Innovation and Knowledge Research Centre atDublin City University. He teaches strategic thinking at postgraduate level at DCU BusinessSchool. His research interests include corporate governance and the impact of Internettechnologies on strategic processes. A specialist in educational technologies, Dr. Lynn hasestablished and sold a number of companies including Enki Information Systems,Educational Multimedia Group and most recently, Global Grid for Learning (part of AtomicAssets). He advises a number of domestic and international companies.Published: January 2010 in Management Online REview , ISSN 1996-3300 7