[iDC] Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value: take II

Adam Arvidsson adam.arvidsson at unimi.it
Mon Nov 9 10:16:06 UTC 2009

Dear all, 

instead of diving ever more deeply into the labor theory of value I'd like to offer an alternative approach. This is from an article I've co-written recently. It's an attempt to use an empirical study of an actual instane of value co-creation to suggest a different model. In essence: value depends on the ability attract affective investments from a co-producing audience. Such affective investments can be attracted through the promotion of a particular kind of ethos. The people who supply affective investments are generally not interested in monetary compensation but they are anxious that the ethos of their productive community be respected: they ask for responsibility. On a second level, this 'ethical economy' of affect is valorized through the criculation of reputational exchange value which, mainly through the brand, is linked directly to monetary values. It's  a bit tentative, but anyway. 

Part II: Ethical Value?
Let is start with how value actually framed by participants in customer co-production? We have looked at one case, il Mulino che Vorrei ('The mill of my desires') launched by Italian food company Barilla as a user-driven innovation platform for its sub-brand of biscuits and cakes, Mulino Bianco (The White Mill). Mulino Bianco was originally launched in 1976 and has since built up a strong presence in the popular imaginary of Italian consumers (cf. Arvidsson, 2003). In its advertising, Mulino Bianco has positioned itself as a proponent of an idealized, yet modern nuclear family that leads a healthy life in an idealized Italian countryside. (One of the brands most famous advertisements, in the 1980s, pictured a professional family who fled the big city to go life in a white mill -mulino bianco- that the company had purchased in the idyllic landscape around Chiusdino, outside Siena in Tuscany.) Indeed many of the blogposts that we have analyzed testify to consumers harboring strong affective ties to the brand, and often viewing it as a central aspect of their childhood memories. i

The initiative, il mulino che vorrei, consists in an online platform where consumers are invited to suggest ideas for the future development of the brands and its products. (Or as many consumers in fact did  suggest, the re-introduction of older products.) Participants can then vote for the suggestions, and Barilla pledges to actually realize, produce and distribute the product- ideas that have received the greatest number of votes. This way, the project is understood as a way of inviting consumers to realize their collective fantasies and desires about the brand.

At a first glance this might appear as a classic example of a company appropriating and commodifying knowledge and ideas that are freely supplied by consumers, realizing their value as a number of new products that are subsequently sold back to the contributors. While this might end up being true, realizing value from new lines of biscuits was not the strategic intention of the project. The mother-company, Barilla, rather saw the manufacture and distribution of such new product lines as an additional cost . Indeed the company does not envision much in terms of direct monetary profits from this initiative. Neither is there any clear view of its profitability as an advertising vehicle. Also, there is a general lack of precise methods for measuring the advertising value of the number of hits or  conversations, the Word of Mouth buzz, that projects like this  generate (cf. Hunt,2009). Consequently, the proponents of the projects within the organization were constantly faced with the problem of arguing for its benefits, particularly when faced with an 'older generation' of executive who were used to the measurability and relatively low cost-per-eyeball of television advertising. They did this by framing the advantage of il mulino che vorrei, not in terms of immediate profits, but in terms of long term brand value. It was primarily about creating and strengthening existing deep affective ties with consumers,  by involving them in the online community. This way, it was understood that the success and long term value-creating potential of the project hinged on its ability to make consumers' needs, desires and demands come out in the open '; ii  to 'interpret an underlying reality beneath the objective reality of everyday life'.iii In other words, the main source of value was not primarily considered to be consumer attention but consumer affect, and the value creating potential of the project hinged on its ability to make such (formerly private) affect, public, that is to transform consumers' private experiences and relations to the brand into components of its brand equity. 

That the project prioritized deep affective ties over maximum number of participants was also one of the main reasons why its designers had decided to avoid offering consumers monetary rewards for their participation. Such monetary rewards were understood to the be detrimental to the success of the project for two reasons. First, they risked undermining the ethos of 'trust and transparency' necessary for attracting affective investments from participants. Second, monetary rewards risked skewing the mechanisms of participation in such ways that the outcome would not represent a correct expression of the collective desires of the community.
	we do not want hordes of participants who would do anything to obtain a a price, even 	creating fake profiles. If you vote for your friends' ideas just because they are your friends' 	ideas and not because they satisfy your desires, then you have lost an opportunity. iv

This logic is linked to the particular conception of value and reward that the mangers behind the project entertained. They saw the project as a collective pursuit, as an 'enterprise brand' to use Majken Shultz (Hatch & Shcultz, 2009) term, in which consumers worked with the brand to realize a common goal: the creation of the kinds of biscuits and other products that they genuinely desired. 

	In this project no single person wins, there are no prices, neither money nor other things. 	Here the community wins. It does not matter who has posted an idea, the important thing is 	that the community gives it value, by voting for it. v

Was this idealistic picture of common enterprise shared by consumers? Consumers did realize that in a sense they 'worked for' the brand by freely offering their ideas and sentiments, and by participating in the communal value-creating process that was seen to lie at the heart of the project. Never, however, did they frame their participation as a form of labor that required precise and measurable forms of compensation. It is remarkable that no blogposts posted by consumers ever talked about monetary compensation (while this was a theme that sometimes occurred in posts on the part of communication professionals). Instead consumers framed their participation as a gift, that invited counter gifts on the part of the brand. 

Like in the case of gift-giving more generally, consumers gave a positive value to their experience of participation. The online platform gave them a space to express their creativity, and even more importantly, strengthen the affective ties that they entertained with a brand. These ties, it seemed  had a deep significance for their own identity and narration of self. 

I grew up with Mulino Bianco, it has been part of my life since I was a child.vi
great, so many memories, afternoons watching cartoons wile eating tegolino or soldino [names of Mulino Bianco biscuits].. that was my childhood. vii

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