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Brand New Thinking: Put It in Cultural Context

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As marketing managers seek to keep their brands fresh and relevant, many are tempted to jump on the latest trends and fads. You know: online and major media advertising with new imagery... new slogans and taglines... new product packaging—all playing to the latest pop-cult phenomena, hot colors, and new vibes.

But is that really the solution? The short answer is "no."

If anything, jumping on the latest trends will have the opposite effect. Brands cannot and should not be all things to all people. Nor should they be diluted by constantly going after whatever is trendy at the expense of consistently reinforcing their core values and assets.

If brands are less relevant than they should be, then their core values, and the way they are aligned and projected—or not—should be examined and addressed.

Consumers respond to values they identify with more than they do passing trends. Especially if those values are culturally ingrained and have deep personal meaning for them as human beings.

Brands should have the ring of authenticity and conviction. They should possess and express the following:

  • A reason for being
  • A definitive point of view
  • A system of beliefs
  • Clearly defined values and assets

The unearthing of a brand's core values and truths must then be consistently acted upon in everything that companies communicate and in every decision that is made. There has to be complete alignment at every touch point so that the brand is consistently and faithfully portrayed to employees, business partners, stakeholders, and customers.

Cultural anthropology can play an important role in developing consumer connections by taking marketing to a more meaningful, more human level. Tying core brand essences to deeply held cultural meaning gives consumers "reason to believe" in them. By being firmly grounded in cultural values that really matter to the customer, brands can transcend competitors to become not only category leaders, but icons.

These kinds of brands become a way for consumers to affirm who they are and what their lifestyles are—and allow them to project their identity to the world.

In their book Symbolic Brands and Authenticity of Identity Performance, British marketing professors Richard Elliott and Andrea Davies* state: "In a consumer culture people no longer consume for merely functional satisfaction, but consumption becomes meaning-based, and brands are often used as symbolic resources for the construction and maintenance of identity."

It is still true that consumers choose products based on price, quality, and cachet. Yet to a considerable degree brands with deeply significant cultural meaning override these aspects of marketing. For example, Apple, the brand, has an iconic presence among consumer-product brands and a cult-like following. So do brands like Harley Davidson, Coca Cola, Nike, Starbucks, The NFL, NASCAR and Whole Foods.

None of these brands appeals to everyone, but among the consumers they do appeal to they enjoy a devoted, and even fanatical, following. We can also point out that whether consumers are devotees of these brands or not, very few consumers the world over do not recognize their brand marks or fail to understand the essence of these brands' core values.

The evangelism inspired by these brands has everything to do with their meaning and an integrated lifestyle fit among their devotees. When these brands are marketed, and their products and services packaged, their core values are leveraged in a consistent, targeted manner that does not respond to every trend or fad. Otherwise, a dilution would occur with the very audience for whom they are viable and relevant.

Brand Evolution

Since consumer culture continues to change and evolve, brands must change with it, but without losing their essences in the process. Companies no longer operate autonomously behind impenetrable walls. So why do some continue to market in that manner?

Brand marketers have to realize that they no longer have absolute control over their brands through carefully crafted external images. Consumers have wrested a sizeable share of control away from them.

Everything about companies and their brands is transparent now. Consumers play an active role in the shaping of brands, thanks to...

  • The Internet
  • Social media
  • YouTube
  • A significant increase in WOM (word-of-mouth).

The culture of those consumers, who are active participants in the Apple brand, for example, or the Harley Davidson or NFL brands, and the way they attribute specific meanings to those brands, help determine their evolution. These brands, over time, have increasingly come out of the hands of the marketers and become shaped by their adherents.

Smart marketers actively engage their customer bases, seeking their input on company-sponsored blogs, even asking for submissions of ideas. They plug into the free-flowing conversations among consumers to learn more from their adherents. They pay attention to what WOM is conveying about their brands.

Brand marketers are increasingly hiring cultural anthropologists to conduct additional research. By asking consumers—or, better yet, watching how consumers use the products to gauge—what they like, what they don't like, what they would like to see integrated into product designs as well as what they say, anthropologists gain great insights into the current culture around the brand.

These insights should be valued, and they should enable marketers to see the souls of their brands mirrored in their customers' comments.

Anthropologists delve into...

  • The deeper meanings that consumers ascribe to brands
  • The changing way they are integrated into consumers' lifestyles
  • Consumers' emotional attachments to specific brand assets and drivers
  • The evolution of consumer base culture

Thus, as the culture of customer bases subtly changes, brands can evolve with those changes in a subtle, rather than overriding manner. Jumping on superficial, passing trends would only muddy the brand to its adherents and cause disconnects. By making changes that are responsive to the ways customers' view of the brand and how they want to use it, however, the brand remains viable, relevant, and meaningful to its adherents.

The idea of letting consumers internalize the brands they identify with in a deeply, more personal way, and dictating gradual changes is orchestrating brand new thinking. Result: the consumer is more in tune with culturally significant brands more than ever.

And when it comes to brands, ongoing cultural relevance trumps the latest fads and trends hands down.

*Richard Elliott is a professor of marketing and consumer research, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, UK; Andrea Davies is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Leicester, UK.

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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (, a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.

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