Symbols for Sale

Sidney LevyIn 1959 Sidney Levy published Brands, Consumers, Symbols, & Research. It was one of the first books to apply behavioural science to the field of marketing and challenge the prevailing concept of ‘economic man’ and rational decision making. The traditional approach assumed that consumers made decisions rationally and by weighing the costs and benefits of a purchase. While this is partly true, the purely economic model of decision-making leaves out both human emotion and the non-functional aspects of a product or service. Together these two factors dominate consumer choice much more than any type of pro/con decision making. These few excerpts from the chapter, Symbols for Sale, outline these insights and the new way of thinking about brands and consumers.


The consumer is not as functionally oriented as he used to be — if he ever really was. People buy things not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean. The things people buy are seen to have personal and social meanings in addition to their functions.

A symbol is appropriate (and the product will be used and enjoyed) when it joins with, meshes with, adds to, or reinforces the way the consumer thinks about themselves. Symbols of social participation are among the most dramatic factors in marketing.

Sellers of goods are engaged, whether willfully or not, in selling symbols, as well as practical merchandise.  If the manufacturer understands that they are selling symbols as well as goods, they can view the product more completely. They can understand not only how the object satisfies certain practical needs but also how it fits meaningfully into today’s culture.

– Sidney J. Levy, 1959

Today, these assertions may seem to be common sense as they are so core to the practice of marketing. But at the time these were new ideas, supported by the still emerging field of behavioral science. Through this and subsequent work, Levy formed the basis of much of modern brand marketing and a more realistic model of how brands and consumers really interact.

Next week we crawl ahead to 1961 and Reality in Advertising.


Symbols for sale - image



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