Dr. Maria Carolina Zanette is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at NEOMA Business School.
To say that the term ‘witch’ has historically carried negative associations would be an understatement. But times change. Witchcraft trials in the US are generally considered to have ended in 1878 and since the turn of the 20th century feminist-inspired reinterpretations of what witches represent have been explored in popular culture.
Although a level of stigma still exists for real-life self-identified witches, changing cultural attitudes evidenced in films (The Wizard of Oz), books (the Harry Potter series), and television (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) have wider implications for business and marketing.
Neither businesses nor markets exist in a vacuum; they must operate within a cultural landscape. For example, marketing practice often uses cultural motifs and archetypes – such as the ‘bad boy’ or ‘mountain man’ in US society – to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.
A common way of doing this is by associating certain choices with heroic characters and narratives, encouraging consumers to view their purchasing behaviour as a way of overcoming obstacles, discovering more about themselves, or contributing to societal change. There is a clear reason why popular sportswear retailer Nike is named after the Ancient Greek goddess of victory.
The heroic ideal in Western societies tends to focus on masculine, white, heterosexual individuals, marginalising those that don’t fit the mould. Used in the negative sense, ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ have been applied pejoratively to powerful women and the spiritual traditions of minority communities.
Prejudice directed against those associated with witchcraft is based on three things – the perception that witches are wicked, self-deluded, or charlatans. Feminist-inspired reinterpretations counter these beliefs by portraying witches as priestesses of pre-Christian religions in touch with nature and rebels against patriarchy.
This reframing has allowed a growing number of women, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ+ community to start self-identifying as witches, seeing it as empowering. The witch is no longer purely a villainous archetype; the addition of heroic qualities makes it somewhat more ambiguous.
On social media, more than 8.8 million Instagram posts appear under the hashtag #witchesofinstagram and more than 29 billion pieces of content have been uploaded to TikTok as part of #WitchTok.
With fellow researchers from emlyon business school and ESCP Business School, I conducted a series of interviews with and analysed social media posts from self-identified witches. We found that people come to identify with stigmatised labels by going through three stages which have commercial implications.
First, people make lifestyle changes that reflect the new way they see themselves. For example, self-identified witches might decide to dress like cultural depictions of witches and decorate their homes in a certain way. Consumer demand for ritual attire and witchcraft-related items has arguably existed since before the 1930s, but the internet has led to a massive expansion in the market.
Second, they come out to selected individuals. These are usually loved ones or other members of the ‘witch community’. Often, when explaining why they identify with the witch label, people mention feeling a sense of connection with cultural depictions of witches in the media. Prominent brands, mainstream media outlets, and consumers all play a part in reimagining historically negative cultural identities.
Third, they engage in ritual practices such as weaving spells. This can have political implications – covens have sought to use magic to influence the situation in Ukraine and afflict previous US heads of state – but also business implications.
Curiosity about these ritual practices has built a sizeable consumer base and social media is well-suited to disseminating knowledge, products, and services. Some self-identified witches have established themselves as ‘influencers’, answering paid subscribers’ questions through platforms on websites like Patreon.
This has led to some members of the community accusing each other of commercialising witchcraft. Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that witchcraft has a strong religious and spiritual aspect for many people.
But the increasing marketability of the witch archetype provides a valuable lesson for businesses. A large number of consumers do not relate to ‘traditional’ heroic characters – who are mostly heterosexual white males – so companies must look for other cultural archetypes to use in marketing strategies if they want to appeal to new bases.
A growing number of people feel a sense of connection with media portrayals of witches and the culture that has sprung up around them. If popular brands are wise, they will continue to emphasise heroic interpretations of witches, for example that witches are rebels against oppression, in their marketing.