You Are What You Brand

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to assess certain product attributes in a holistic manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process. That opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.

 

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Translating culture and opening markets

Success translates well into narrative. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German?  Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”

We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation.  We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.

Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals.  We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.

Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility.  In the past, the source of the meat itself was often suspect because you may have purchased it in less than uniform locations.  Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.”  Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of world (unlike the US) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity.  Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens (He Crows the Morning by Hsieh Ling-Yun or The Most Noble Fowl by Mohammad Ibn Sina). The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction.  You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.

Of course, this is only one example, but the idea cuts across all categories. Don’t believe it? Tropicana initially failed when pushing orange juice in South America because it was pushed as a breakfast drink, which in South America it is frequently not – our beloved breakfast icon is something for the afternoon, a treat and a snack.  Papa John’s, on the other hand, is doing wonderfully in Egypt by maintaining it’s “American” mystique while incorporating toppings and product names that reflect local tastes.

Understanding what it means to shop on a global, national and local level is central to developing successful new products, sales channels and marketing campaigns. That means going beyond the product or retail environment and asking bigger questions:

Question: How does shopping convey status and wealth?

Answer: Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China and signifies wealth because it has been positioned as a classic American Lager rather than a hipster yard beer. In China, it conveys a sense of worldliness, refinement and cultivated taste.

Question: What cultural norms shape how people interact with you brand and your store? Answer: Victoria’s Secret can’t be promoted in Riyadh or Bangalore the way it is in London.  Attitudes outside the West about sexuality, exposure of the human body and gender roles are radically different, shaping everything from marketing content to store displays.

And this could go on and on.  So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs.  It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.

Gender and Shopping: The Hunter-Gatherer Myth

Hunter-gatherer societies are always a go-to topic of discussion when talking about gender and shopping. And there is some value in addressing it, considering for all our technology and complexity, we still have thousands of years of process in place that dictate, to some degree, how we navigate the world. In “simple societies” gathering edible plants, fungi, small game, etc. is traditionally done by women. In foraging societies, women return to the same patches that yield previous successful harvests, and usually stay close to home and use landmarks as guides. The process involves a great deal of evaluation of the locations used and the items gathered. Furthermore, foraging is a daily activity, often social and can include both young children and older members of the society, if necessary. Successful gathering requires that the person or people undertaking the process be very adept at choosing the right color, texture, and smell to ensure food safety and quality. They also must time harvests, and know when a certain depleted patch will regenerate and yield good harvest again. In other words, gathering requires a great deal of thought and the ability to evaluate the context in which the gathering takes place.

In modern terms, so the logic goes, women are much more engaged with the totality of the shopping process than are men. For example, they are more likely to know when a specific type of item will go on sale. Women will spend more time choosing the perfect gift, seeking out good deals and using shopping as a type of exploration in every sense of the word.

Men on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind when shopping and want to get in, get it, and get out. It is about targeted expediency. With men, so the logic goes, it was critical to make a kill, get meat home as quickly as possible, and limit the number of hunters injured in the process.  And taking young children isn’t safe in a hunt and would likely hinder progress.

To be sure, there is some sound reasoning in all of this and in some ways there are no doubt elements of truth to it.  However, in a postmodern age where gender roles are far more fluid and shopping has become an ever-increasing mode of establishing identity, it’s not so simple.

First of all, these behaviors aren’t genetically determined and don’t apply to everyone.  Yes, there are consistent broad themes that can help to illuminate how behaviors evolve, but the key word here is “evolve” which means change. And gender determinism is, unfortunately, where the hunter-gather model sometimes leads when discussing shopping.

Second, in hunter-gatherer societies, gender roles as applied to labor and acquisition of goods is much more of a life and death issue. It consumes what people do. But in a post-modern world, shopping is rarely about survival and indeed the survival aspects (e.g. buying food) take up a very small portion of our lives. Shopping is as much entertainment or social activity as it is procurement of goods. That means that regardless of gender, shopping is fulfilling social and cultural needs unrelated to actually finding a thing.

Third, there is a flaw in the reasoning of how hunting and gathering unfold because it assumes that the actual tasks take up the bulk of the time of the parties involved. More specifically, hunting is seen as a quiet, straightforward activity where men track beasts in a quiet, manly way, kill them and bring them home. The problem is that it just ain’t so. The fact is that hunting, particularly for large game is a slow process that sees little action. Like foraging, it requires extensive knowledge of the terrain, migration patterns, an ability to judge the health and activity of game, etc. Furthermore, while very young children are not able to join in the hunt, young men are expected to be a part of the process because it teaches them hunting skills and, just as importantly, serves as a way of teaching cultural norms of a society. And all of this assumes an activity involving a small band of men. In large scale hunting that involves large kills, such as running bison off a cliff, the entire society is involved in a coordinated effort. Gender roles still factor in, to be sure, but the difference between men and women as laid out in the traditional hunter-gather reasoning simply don’t hold up.

What all of this means to someone interested in gender differences in shopping is that applying a hunter-gatherer model is just too simple and leads to fallacies of logic that in turn lead to lost revenue (or at least untapped opportunities). The better question might be, how do women and men use space differently to achieve a sense of meaning and how does that influence shopping patterns? Or how does the product category type shape gender roles and shopping? Or how does shopping reflect and co-create notions of self-worth?  The point is that while the hunter-gather model is a neat, clean way of thinking about the role of gender in shopping, shopping simply isn’t neat and clean. It is complex and reflective of the changing dynamics of our culture. That isn’t necessarily the answer marketers want to hear, but it’s the truth. And if your goal is to sell more products, grow brand equity and increase market share, going down the simple but inaccurate path simply won’t get you there.