If you are creating brand strategy or content based on tools and rules from the past few years, you are doing it wrong.
We are living through massive social change, and consumers have new needs and anxieties that need new stories and resolutions. If you want to create lasting impact and cultural value for your brand, your response to that change could be the critical factor in your success.
Not every brand aspires to iconic status, but if it’s a high engagement brand that relies on more than functional benefits, it almost certainly does. We look at icons such as Nike, Apple or Starbucks and want some of what they have.
Entire libraries have been devoted to deconstructing exactly what that is and how they got it, but one factor that is often overlooked, but is of paramount interest right now, is the importance of timing.
Ten years ago, Douglas Holt captured the idea of ‘the authored brand’, a familiar and favourite concept for content strategists, in which brand marketing embeds itself in the culture, winning attention through the power and quality of its engagement in the same way as films and books.
Rather than talking about how X outperforms its competitors, or reflecting the data team’s insights into the needs and values of the consumer, authored brands create brand stories and experiences so culturally and emotionally resonant that they become adopted as identities, not simply serving consumer needs, but fulfilling needs people do not even consciously realise they have.
There are legendary examples of authored brands that became iconic brands. In the 1980s, Nike co-opted the cultural codes of the ghettoes and social margins to create an identity based on the idea of the individual who shapes their own life, against all odds.
With stories set in slums and backstreets and featuring mainly black and ethnic characters, Nike repackaged a favourite archetype: the lone star. This is the story that says that anyone, no matter where they start from or what obstacles they face, can raise themselves up by their own efforts, if they Just Do It.
When Howard Schultz acquired Starbucks in the late 1980s he turned it from a cult Seattle-based coffee retailer into a global phenomenon for people prepared to pay what would previously have been considered a ridiculous price for a cup of coffee.
We know the economics of aspiration: most of us can’t afford the Chanel suit or S-Class Mercedes, so we buy the lipstick or the A-Class. The same thing happens with cultural aspiration, with the codes and symbols of the elite trickling down to the rest of us.
In the case of Starbucks, a new kind of middle market consumer borrowed from the bohemian intellectual elite to create its own identity as cosmopolitan, sophisticated people who rejected the mass produced food culture and commodity coffee slurping of their parent’s generation, and instead channelled European and artisanal food culture.
Starbucks is part of the same story as brands such as Ben and Jerry’s, Green and Black’s and Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. They all told stories that fed our growing obsession with provenance, organics and cosmopolitan ingredients (and the apparently slower, more thoughtful lifestyle that goes with them) and gave us a new identity based around food and drink.
We can all learn lessons from these strategies, but what is missing from most analyses of their success is the fundamental importance of knowing not just what stories to tell, but when to tell them. Holt analysed dozens of brand stories to show that the most iconic appeared at times of huge social change, and worked by resolving new cultural tensions.
Just Do It first appeared in the late 1980s, when globalism was creating a new kind of economic instability and insecurity for millions of workers. The archetype of the individual who controls his destiny was powerful and attractive for a work force dealing with lay-offs and short-term contracts.
Starbucks responded to demographic shifts which created a new kind of consumer, fuelled by the boom in higher education. This had started in the mid 1960s, resulting in a rise of college graduates from less than 10 per cent of the population in the early 1960s to over 30 per cent by the 1980s.
As those new graduates had families, they instilled values and aspirations not just connected to economic success, as their parents had done, but also of ‘cultural capital’. By the late 1980s, these kids were becoming the first ever mass market of educated consumers, and they wanted new, more sophisticated lifestyle products and experiences. Starbucks read the zeitgeist and went from coffee shop to transformative brand.
Nike and Starbucks may have been successful anyway, but without creating stories that responded to those seismic social and demographic shifts, and that gave consumers a way to resolve new cultural tensions and identities, they almost certainly would not be the brand icons they are today.
Which brings me back to us, as content creators and strategists, right here, right now. We are living through interesting times. Post (so they tell us) recession, the signs of confusion, anxiety and change are all around us, from election results to the resurgence of ‘girl power’ to changes in shopping and living behaviours.
Behavioural economics and neuro marketing have given us insights into consumer psychology, but at Cedar, we are also working on how we apply ‘cultural tracking’ to brand storytelling in order to understand the deeper needs created by the current wave of social change. These are tough times, but also a powerful and limited opportunity to tell new stories – the kind that could turn your brand into a future icon.
How Brands Become Icons by Douglas Holt
Cultural Strategy by Douglas Cameron and Douglas Holt
The Journal of Consumer Research , www.ejcr.org
What’s your attitude to content?
Do you want to tell customers about your products and services, or do you want to be in the warp and weft of your customer’s lives? The original versions of Nike’s and Starbucks’ campaigns barely talked about the product at all.
Is your insight programme focused on superficial social trends, or do you have the mind set and resources to understand the deeper and more fundamental changes going on underneath?
Is your organisation a standard corporate hierarchy? If so, your structure may give you some very specific problems with creating iconic branding.
Editor in chief
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