Yannis Iliopoulos and Dr Nina van Gessel

Poststructuralism, rejecting the fixed hierarchies of structuralism, postulates that texts – and by extension, brand messages – possess no intrinsic meaning. Meanings are not authored but are co-created, diverse, and often elusive, influenced by the reader’s personal and cultural positioning. Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” is emblematic of this shift, where meaning proliferates beyond the author’s original intent.

The cultural studies movement, with its genesis at the University of Birmingham, pushes this narrative further. It advocates for a more dynamic understanding of how culture – and by extension, consumer behaviour – functions within the framework of society. Here, mass media is not an omnipotent force but a participant in a larger conversation where the audience can assert substantial influence. Since at least the nineteenth century, thinkers have explored the power dynamics underlying cultural production.  During the 1920s, the Frankfurt School posited that power sits with the forces of the “culture industry,” which imposes mass culture on consumers too passive and indiscriminating to recognise how it is used to perpetuate the social status quo and neutralise dissent.

By the late twentieth century, cultural theorists such as John Fiske had turned that power dynamic on its head, suggesting a shift in power to the audience that uses “guerilla tactics” to create their own meaning from cultural texts. Fiske’s articulation that “popular culture is made by the people, not produced by the culture industry” echoes through marketing departments. This approach recognises the audience’s power in reinterpreting, appropriating, and/or subverting media narratives, challenging the dominance exerted by traditional marketing. The implications for Chief Marketing Officers are clear: acknowledge the empowered consumer, not as a passive recipient of brand messages, but as an active agent in meaning-making.

Poststructuralism demands marketers accept the inevitability of co-creation, acknowledging that once a message is out there, it’s open to reinterpretation. But cultural studies, in demonstrating the visibility and deliberateness of the consumer ‘s role, suggest how co-creation could be employed to a brand’s advantage. Together, these theories suggest a new marketing paradigm where co-creation is not just possible but necessary for authentic brand narratives.

Poststructuralism’s view of texts as fluid, open to a myriad of interpretations shaped by the reader’s social and cultural lens equates in the realm of marketing to the brand message being a living text, constantly reinterpreted and rewritten in the consumer’s mind. Roland Barthes’ insights about the death of the author, once deemed the sovereign creator of meaning, gives way to a democratisation of interpretation. The implications are profound: in the vast marketplace, brand narratives are no longer dictated; they are dialogues.

This paradigm shift means that the inevitable co-creation of narratives should not only be anticipated but embraced. Marketing strategies must evolve to consider how consumers can and will repurpose brand messages, creating a symbiotic relationship where each reinterpretation adds value and depth to the brand’s narrative.

The practical application of these theories is evident in brands that have successfully leveraged consumer engagement. LEGO’s Ideas platform is a testament to the potential of crowdsourced innovation, where consumer creativity is rewarded and celebrated, generating new product lines that resonate with a global community. Similarly, IKEA’s collaborative ventures invite consumers to influence design, reflecting a genuine commitment to integrating customer input into tangible products. Then there’s Dove, which broke new ground with its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. It challenged beauty norms by featuring people from all walks of life and started global conversations about beauty standards. While not without its controversies, the campaign led to real growth for Dove and built a strong connection with customers who value authenticity.

These examples all show that when brands and customers work together, the results can be powerful and meaningful. However, they also raise a big question about story marketing: Can authenticity in storytelling live alongside the drive for profit? It’s a tricky balance, but what matters is the impact. When a story feels true and resonates with people, it can move them to believe in the brand and what it stands for. In an era where authenticity is scrutinised, it is the stories that resonate with shared experiences and values that will stand the test of time. An effective story does more than tell – it shows, it resonates, it remains. By drawing listeners into a world that’s as vivid and sensory as it is thought-provoking, brands like these don’t just linger in memory; they inspire action. The highest point of storytelling is that moment of clarity, the ‘aha’ that marks a shift in understanding, propelling the consumer from a passive listener to an active participant.

As we integrate poststructuralist and cultural insights into marketing, we’re learning that our stories need to be as dynamic and multifaceted as the conversations they inspire. The stories we tell tomorrow will be shaped by the lessons we learn today, by our willingness to listen, to adapt, and to co-create with our audience. Thus, our narratives must be as adaptable as they are compelling, crafted not with rigidity but with an openness that allows for interpretation, evolution, and the co-creation of meaning.

For today’s marketers and storytellers, the challenge is clear: navigate the intricate dance of control and co-creation. Brands must craft stories that leave room for the audience to insert their chapters, transforming marketing from a monologue into a rich, multivoiced dialogue. In this blending of narrative and authenticity, they need to remember that the stories they craft are more than marketing tools; they are the bridges that connect us to the humanity of their audience. Their stories must strike a chord that resonates with a shared human experience, weaving connections that touch not just the mind but also the heart and spirit.


About the Authors

Yannis Iliopoulos, Strategist, Senior Academic, Startup Advisor

Yannis Iliopoulos is a Senior Programmes Manager at ICMP and a startup advisor. Harnessing his expertise across the realms of academia and the startup ecosystem and with degrees in Physics and Mathematics from Imperial College and King’s College respectively, Yannis has carved a niche in teaching and leading courses from BA to PhD levels in entrepreneurship and marketing. Specialising in brand strategy, business modelling, and venture creation, he seamlessly integrates storytelling into business strategy, enhancing decision-making processes. Yannis’ leadership extends to developing curricula and fostering industry-academia collaborations, significantly contributing to the evolution of educational programmes in business and marketing.

Dr Nina van Gessel, Quality Manager ICMP

Dr Nina van Gessel obtained her PhD in English Literature at McMaster University in Ontario. She subsequently taught at universities in Canada and the Netherlands before moving to London and continuing to teach in the American sector there. Her teaching and research interests include not only literature but also poststructuralism, gender studies, cultural studies, life writing, academic writing, and business communications. Having moved into university administration, she is currently Quality Manager at ICMP, overseeing quality assurance and enhancement.

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