Here comes Krampus

When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus a number of years ago, before the legendary creature had captured the hearts of the world, I received an earful about the damaging nature of such a myth. I learned that Krampus was, it turned out, as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. The thing is, I already knew about Krampus. I’d grown up with Krampus (thank you to my grim, German ancestors). And while I’m sure there are people who would dispute it, I turned out reasonably undamaged by the tradition.

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For those unfamiliar with the legend, Krampus is a demonic creature recognized in many Alpine countries. Krampus, with his horns and great lolling tongue, accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner. Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter. He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met.

But is Krampus really so horrible? Will he really lead our children to lives of sin and an unrelenting fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. So too with traditions like Krampus.

On the surface Krampus doesn’t have much to do with marketing. When you take a step back, however, it means that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of marketing and s

ets the stage for building brand affinity from Halloween through Christmas. The lines between the holidays are increasingly blurred and simply assuming that one cultural norm fits neatly into a single campaign pillar is a lost opportunity. Holiday shoppers no longer wait until Black Friday or even the month of November to get started. To get ahead of this holiday season, smart businesses must consider their marketing kick-offs much earlier. This makes Halloween an excellent starting point for the holiday season in its entirety, tying the fall-to-winter holiday continuum together. Krampus and similar spooky figures associated with the holiday season are, arguably, a better fit for Halloween, so why not use them as a connecting thread?  Ultimately, this leads to a more cohesive experience.

And that’s what marketing is all about: providing an experience. Why do I put up with getting nauseous riding roller coasters? Because my kids love the experience.  Why do people, young and old, love to watch horror movies?  For the experience of being spooked. Halloween marketing is built around providing some type of experience, but it needn’t begin and end with Halloween. Why not build continuity and extend the brand’s story? A brand story is more than content and a narrative. If you don’t have a story you are just another commodity in a season inundated with messaging. A replaceable cog in the consumption machine. By tying everything together, you capture people’s attention for the entire season, not just fleeting moments.

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Brand Affinity, Culture, and a Pickup Truck

Brand affinity is the most enduring and valuable level of customer relationship and is based on the mutual belief that the customer and the company share common values. It breeds unshakable trust in the relationship the brand and the consumer share. It is at its strongest level when a customer believes that your brand champions the values they both share. Consumers who demonstrate affinity for a brand buy more, buy more often, and complain less than all other types of consumers. And the surest way to build brand affinity is to tap into the deep, culture truths your consumers hold. As an example, let’s talk about that most iconic of American driving, the pickup truck.

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The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture. Trucks are the symbolic embodiment of the hard-working American spirit. Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, many, if not most, truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston or Denver and it becomes abundantly clear that the truck is as much a cultural statement as it is a tool. According to a study conducted by Hedges & Company, truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000 making alterations and refinements. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

Seems like a pretty straightforward discussion so far, but pause for a moment and try to picture the typical pickup owner. Visions of a guy in his 20s or 30s immediately come to mind. And while that’s clearly the target audience, it also represents a marketing plateau – there’s simply a cap on how many of these people exist. So where might other opportunities lie? What potential market is being overlooked. Well, let’s try women. When I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of the 30 participants owned a truck as a function of her occupation. Several used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Still more used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway. Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives. The point is that the truck became an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV. And interestingly, the brands they chose most often were Toyota and Ford. They were seen as either more accepting of diversity because they weren’t part of the traditional American pickup market (Toyota) or because they harkened back to a simpler time (Ford). Dodge, on the other hand, was seen as embodying masculinity to the point of misogyny and Chevy, as one consumer put it, was “a truck for boys”. Toyota and Ford pickups fit easily into their cultural identity, Dodge and Chevy did not. The result is that the women who own Toyota and Ford pickups express extreme loyalty to the brands and say they are significantly more inclined to advocate for them. Considering the economic power of women, that’s a great place to be in.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers. The truck is a fashion piece. It’s a toy. It is a way of stating you’re part of a tribe. And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc. Regardless of your product or service, understanding the cultural elements of a brand gives build stronger connection to your consumers.

 

 

Pride Week and Shaking Shit Up

Over the weekend, pride parades happened across the country, including those mid-sized cities in parts of the country that aren’t necessarily associated with progressive views. Included in that mix was Indianapolis. Oh, how things have changed. The first parade in Indianapolis started in 2005 and lasted a total of 15 minutes. It is now one of the largest pride festivals in this part of the country. Today, people pour in from all over the Midwest to celebrate Circle City Pride week. The parade itself is more than two hours long, with over 100 floats and groups involved. The event has grown so much that it had to be moved to Military Park, the premiere spot downtown for festivals. And while official numbers aren’t in yet, the events on Saturday are estimated to have brought in well over 100K attendances – not bad for state that is too often associated with corn, hyper-conservative ideology, and Mike Pence.

In a world where political and cultural divisions are seemingly at an all-time high, brands are increasingly held accountable for their stance on the political and social issues, whether speaking directly to the LGBTQ community or the broader population in general. Why? Because, quite simply, for the growing majority of people in the US, views on issues of equality are changing, particularly among the young. According to a Google Consumer Survey from August of 2014, over 45% of consumers under 35 years old say they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBTQ-friendly company. 54% also say they’d choose an equality-focused brand over a competitor. While the data is several years old, it’s probably safe to assume those numbers have done nothing but tick upward.

Equally important as to why brands need an active voice is to “shake shit up”, as one attendee told me. Statistically, we are becoming a more inclusive society. However, in the last year, purveyors of hate have grown emboldened. At the same time the pride march was going on, anti-Muslim protests were happening in 28 cities, including Indianapolis. While they couldn’t muster more than 75-100 followers, they were present and the threats were both clear and vocal. Taking a stand in support of the LGBTQ community does more than promote your good intentions, it demonstrates solidarity in the face of evil.

Despite backlash from groups that threaten to boycott them (or worse), more and more brands are responding with messages of inclusion, equality, and diversity. From Burger King to Hilton Hotels to Chase, we are seeing the faces of people that simply wouldn’t have been part of the equation in the past.

Perhaps more important than the messaging is that these companies now have a presence at events like those in Indy and across the country. Delta, Salesforce, Lilly and a host of other companies are sponsors and allies. Even Texas Roadhouse had a presence, handing out peanuts to munch.  All of this would have been unlikely a decade ago.  The cynic would point to it being a simple, calculated matter of cold, hard cash. After all, LGBTQ consumers have a buying power of about $884 billion, according to a study done by Witeck Communications. But we believe there is more to it than capitalizing on an event.  This shift on the part of brands is about the nature of change – we are seeing a type of evolution unfolding. Ideas, like species, adapt or die. For the former, the world becomes a brighter place, for the latter, change means eventual extinction. Brands can either adapt to this changing social landscape or become irrelevant. Perhaps more damning, they can come to be seen as repressive, threatening, or even dangerous.

As expectations for greater social responsibility from brands grow, it is tempting for marketers to take advantage of the situation, but there’s a fine line between what people see as support vs. pandering. A brand needs to ensure the values that underscore the its purpose are reflected in a way that isn’t opportunistic. It has to actively be part of a cultural conversation based on its purpose and this is precisely what the people in the region saw over the weekend. Increasingly, we are becoming a culture that thrives on inclusion. It may not feel like it at times, but the fact is that the nation as a whole is embracing acceptance and diversity in spite of a shrinking but highly vocal minority. When it comes to social issues at least, the blue dots in a sea of red are growing and the culture is becoming more welcoming. This is something we saw in the most meaningful of ways last weekend.

Pride celebrations in small, medium, and large cities across the US, and indeed the world, last week signals a permanent, meaningful cultural shift. We as a species still have a long way to go, but progress is being made.  And this is where brands affect change. Whether you’re selling soda in Columbus, hotel space in Montana, or mutual funds in Atlanta, a brand needs to create culture as well as reflect it.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

PREFUNKING: Ethnography, booze, and neon drink

First Published in Peeps Forum:

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that caught the attention of twenty-somethings. They were the people in the know; tattoo chic, experimenting, and bringing trends to life, not the people on the cutting edge of what is cool, but not the late comers to the subcultural party. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Sparks was bought by Miller Brewing in 2006, but for all its success, Miller’s initial marketing campaigns fell flat. Sales, though strong, remained essentially unchanged from one year to the next. While the success of Sparks was tremendous, they hadn’t a clue about the people drinking it. There was plenty of data about the age group, but when it came to the lives and habits of the consumers, they really didn’t “get” them. Despite all of the traditional marketing data they held in their hands, Sparks was shaping up to be a puzzle they couldn’t solve. And so they reached out to ethnographers to get at the heart of the matter. What was it about this drink that Miller just didn’t quite get? After spending millions on the product, Miller was decidedly keen to get to the bottom of this mystery.

SHAPING THE CAMPAIGN

Initially, Miller had relied on a traditional campaign strategy – images of people at fairly tame social gatherings, savoring Sparks the way one might savor a beer after a long day at work, focusing on flavor. They even considered changing the formulation of the drink to offer an array of flavors that weren’t so dramatic, packaging the cans in twelve packs for sharing and easy storage, and mimicking other beverage producers with on-premises promotions that emphasized flavor and direct competition with the Red Bull and vodka crowd. In the end, Miller chose a different route, based on what came out of the fieldwork. The strategy focused on the one thing that made Sparks special; its sheer absurdity and embodiment of sanitized rebellion.

Sparks was defined by its users. They felt a large degree of control over it and a deep appreciation for the fact that its ingredients simply weren’t meant to go together. Sparks represented a categorical frame that defied convention and the campaign we helped them develop reflected that. The focus moved away from traditional advertising and competing directly with the competition. Instead, the strategy was to become a presence at transitory events such as raves, mutant bike rallies, skateboarding competitions, music festivals that weren’t in the mainstream, but not so far outside the norm as to be overlooked. Event were chosen that reflected a sanitized sense of rebellion. Photo-bombing was encouraged and recipes were shared. One Brooklyn kickball team took it upon themselves to use the Sparks can as their mascot, shooting it “doing things” before every game, which led to competition between teams for posting the best shots.  One woman and her roommate gave the world their recipe for a Sparks float. While the drink is interesting, having had a couple of Sparks before trying it helps with the flavor.

The other central aspect of the campaign was to focus on small, stop-and-go liquor stores and groceries, rather than worrying about what happened at the bar. Bars are about projection of sophistication, group affiliation, and building group identity in a closed environment with certain social rules. Sparks was all about the individual drinking it and being part of a group activity defined by being temporary and over the top. The places where Sparks was consumed were about mutability and liminality, which fit right in with the places it was typically bought. Finally, the product itself saw no change. Making it taste “good” defeated the purpose and devalued the drink. It was one thing to introduce Blackberry Sparks, but quite another to mask the strange, chemically flavor notes that made the drink cool. Equally important to keep the unusual flavor, changes to the packaging were made to reflect its utility, giving it greater symbolic credibility and making it something you could show off to your friends and strangers.

All of these elements came together to ignite a simple idea: Sparks isn’t something you drink so much as it was something you used, whether for the obvious physical effects or to set the stage to an evening (or, less often, a day) where abandonment of social norms was the rule.  This meant Miller had to embrace greater risk and deviate from its normal operating procedures. They couldn’t stick with a brand image that was intentionally subdued. They could focus on the middle of the bell curve, but had to embrace the people who were setting trends. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Under the new campaign direction, Sparks saw sales and awareness increase 20% after having been stagnant for well over a year. So how did we get there?

GETTING DIRTY: PREPARING AND PLANNING

Everything begins with a solid methodology. Defining our target was based on Miller’s data, but went beyond basic demographics, the reason being twofold. First, traditional segmentation is often, if not always, too restrictive and not designed to reflect the fact that people are social creatures, not individuals who function outside of cultural realities. In other words, while we like to think we’re individuals, we are products and shapers of our cultures and context shapes how we think, act, and believe. Rather than going after individuals, we designed the research to focus on cultural groups and settings.  What are the situations in which drinking is occurring? How do we type different drinking situations? How do they change through time? How do people outside the target segment reflect and shape a given context? Treating the moments in which interactions occurred is if they were also the sample allowed us to look at Sparks from a different angle, not just from the position of product and/as person.

Once we began defining who we would use as our person of entry into a given setting and thinking through the possible drinking contexts we would need to see, we began the process of developing field teams and determining where geographically we would go. Developing field teams involves more than simply picking out observant individuals with a knack for interviewing and conversing with strangers, it meant taking time to reflect on strengths, individual psychologies, and interpretive skills. Taking more than two ethnographers into the field is, in my estimation, a mistake but the same can often be said about taking a single ethnographer. Having more than two people simply makes the situation awkward and leads to a lab-rat situation where people are more concerned with feeding you what they think you want to hear than letting you into their world for a time. This was extremely important for the Sparks work because we wanted an “inside/outsider” approach; someone the participants could teach and another they felt comfortable bringing into the group. By having two sets of minds with different views and backgrounds, it’s easier to triangulate observations and determine what is interpretive bias vs. what’s actually going on. Individually, what we learn may look very different, but together we start to see patterns emerge.

Deciding the locations of study was, perhaps, an easier task. Sparks had a fairly finite range of consumption – the hipper parts of town. Initially, the client wanted us to focus exclusively on their three largest markets, New York, Chicago and LA. We, however, thought that while these were certainly legitimate, the cities were limiting. The reason is twofold. First, if were going to grow the market we needed to see what was happening in places other than the Big 3. Second, if the defining characteristic of the Sparks buyer (and potential Sparks buyer) was being part of a cool group, we needed to see how that was defined in cities other than the top trend setters in the US. All this guides the decision about the field sites we choose. In the end we settled on the New York metro (primarily the Williamsburg area, but also the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Greenwich Village), Portland (smaller population), Austin (college town defined as a bastion of weirdness in an otherwise conservative state) and Atlanta (emerging as a major music hub at the time). With the planning and prep out of the way, and with the blessing of the client, we were ready to go.

HEADING INTO THE FIELD

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process.

So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town, so to speak, as they engaged in any number of activities. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research. One of our key informants had us meet in her Williamsburg apartment the night she was throwing a party. Much to our delight, nearly everyone attending had a couple of cans of Sparks with them, along with a six pack of something else, usually an import. The six packs went in the fridge or on the fire escape, it was a brutally cold winter, so people took advantage of the situation, but the cans of Sparks stayed with the owner. What we discovered was surprisingly simple – one can was used to kick start the evening and the other was downed at about midnight or 1:00 to keep the party going. Functionally, the product was all about what several participants called the “pre-funk”.

But Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. And more importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something more than a casual get together. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview. We had to be in the moment.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. For example, what do you do when it turns out a recruit doesn’t fit the sample defined by the client segmentation? You can, of course, always walk away, but you run the risk of missing a moment that would otherwise be overlooked. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. Marco clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became a something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

HEADING HOME: MOMENTS OF INSIGHT

After leaving the field the hard work begins. Literally hundreds of pieces of information from different field teams have to be synthesized into a meaningful set of patterns, and the final output can be large and daunting.  That works well if your goal is academic, but when all is said and done, our clients are looking for direction and specific ideas on which they can act. In the case of Sparks, several key conceptual points bubbled to the surface. The first was to capitalize of the idea of function vs. connoisseurship. Sparks has a fairly clear purpose of establishing a physical state vs. status. Unlike, say Oban (seek it out if you’re unfamiliar), Sparks does not convey taste or knowledge about culinary matters. It does convey knowledge about being part of the inner circle of cool.  Above all else, Sparks functions as a means of kicking off the night and gives the drinker license to behave in unexpected ways. Second, Sparks has an undertone of humor to it. Throughout the research, participants talked about the cartoonishness of the drink – the “absurdity” of the battery-like can, the color, the very idea of combining malt liquor and an energy drink. Sparks was a manifestation of incongruity in beverage form, bricolage in a can.  Not surprisingly, urban myths and folklore about Sparks were in ready supply. For example, more than one participant told us, “If you drink more than three you may die”. Another told us that if you leave a glass of it out overnight, it would eat through the bottom, though they had never tried the experiment themselves. One participant firmly believed that if taken to a picnic, Sparks would be the only item ants would avoid. None of it was taken all that seriously, but that simply added to the fun. The brand’s very absurdity was a major strength.

Finally, Sparks tied in with symbols of youth. It signified rebellion and a lack of inhibitions. It also represents a sense of abandon where mortality is challenged. Almost everyone we spoke with commented at some point that they would stop drinking the stuff before they were thirty. As one participant said, “I know this stuff is killing me, but I’m still young, I have time.” Sparks tempts fate, it reifies the drinker’s youth and briefly puts them in opposition to the larger culture without having to commit to a permanent state of rebellion.

All of this led to a number of clear recommendations, some of which flew in the face of what the data and the focus groups said. First, it was extremely important to keep the flavor funky. Tasting strange, like the color of the drink, gave it credibility. Tasting strange solidifies it as a symbol of absurdity, making the drink a publicly displayed symbol of their “inner cool.” Second, Miller had to rethink packaging. Like the flavor, the can itself is a symbol drinkers use to let others know that social norms are fluid while drinking it. But this is not a drink you share. You only drink 2-3 in a night, which meant six packs are useless. It’s all about grab and go, not something you stockpile, savor, or sip with friends. That means designing two packs and three packs. Third, the brand had to accept that on-trade is not where success lies, at least not initially. Cans in a bar are unacceptable, unless the product is seen as a throwback drink (i.e. retro beers, etc.). On the surface, Red Bull and vodka might not appear that dissimilar from Sparks, but what they convey in a bar is vastly different. Cans are acceptable in public space when it is truly public. Finally, Miller needed to rethink traditional media. Because of an inherent distrust of advertising, the rise of social media, and word of mouth being the most trustworthy means of communicating “cool”, print, radio, and TV had little relevance. Live events and being in unexpected places, such as sponsoring a last-minute street party or having a presence at a mutant bike rally, adds credibility and cache to the brand. Sparks, unlike the other products in the parent brand’s suite, needed to break away from everything the company was comfortable with. Indeed, it needed to work in opposition to it.

THE SAD DEMISE OF SPARKS

Unfortunately, for all its success, Spark has faded into the background, the reason being that all the “good stuff” was removed, stripping it of the very things that made it work. In September 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, sued MillerCoors (Miller Brewing and Coors had merged the year before), claiming that its Sparks alcoholic beverages that include caffeine are a health hazard. Next, Congress began a probe. But the suit never made it to court. Three months later, at the behest of San Francisco and 13 states, distributor MillerCoors  buckled and announced it would remove the caffeine and other energy-drink ingredients from its Sparks line of energy drinks, and would change its marketing campaign. With the ingredients gone, Sparks simply didn’t have a campaign or a product that mattered. The drink still exists, but the brand has fallen into the shadows of the broader MillerCoors portfolio as sales have declined over time.

For better or for worse, the work we did increased awareness, market share and sales. Unfortunately, it also helped put the brand squarely in the crosshairs. Had Sparks remained quietly in the background, it might not have garnered the ire of watchdog groups. The drink was representational of the people who drank it: outsiders, rebels, people who are often seen as a threat by the standard order. Sparks, like heavy metal or punk in the 80s, was more than a potential health hazard, it was a threat to the status quo. By bringing it into a more accepted space, it challenged what drinking “should be”. And so, Sparks became a target as it grew in popularity, and ultimately was undone by the very factors which had driven the marketing campaign that had made it so successful.  Even so, what the client and our team learned from the research done on this project continues to be used to this day, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest compliment a project can receive.

 

Ritual, Symbolism, and Building A Brand

In marketing and design, the tendency for most people given the task of figuring out how to engage more customers is to focus on the individual and his/her reaction and behavior at a fixed point in time. We gauge reactions to advertising via testing, track eye movement for a website, count impressions, and record how many people stop at a display. Rarely do we take the time to understand how a product, service or brand fit into the larger picture of shared human behavior and meaning. Unfortunately, that means we overlook elements in the consumer’s life that have the potential for moving interactions with a brand from a transactional moment to something much more profound and long lasting. One element that is overlooked to our detriment is the nature of ritual and how it can be used to understand the customer. And consequently grow the bottom line.20081107082447

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, be it the larger culture or a subset of it.  Regardless of how profound or mundane the act is (from prayer to the brushing of teeth), a ritual activity is something of great importance when we think about when, how, and where to reach people.

From a researcher’s standpoint, ritual behavior can be thought of in a binary way (of course, this is only one way of breaking it down, but being an out-of-the-closet Structuralist my inclination is to construct models this way). On the one hand, ritual is an outsider’s or “etic” category for a set activity or series of actions which to the outsider seems irrational or illogical. On the other hand, the term can be used also by the insider or “emic” performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker. Understanding both positions, however, is pivotal in uncovering why people do what they do.

A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community. It might be performed in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it. It may be public or private. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between social states. The purposes of rituals are varied. They are used to strengthen social bonds, provide social and moral education, demonstrate respect or submission, state one’s affiliation, or to obtain social acceptance or approval.  Rituals are used to ensure that certain “necessary” actions take place to keep us safe and happy. Sometimes rituals are performed just for the pleasure of the ritual itself (I’m thinking of my own after-work cocktail).

Alongside the personal dimensions, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society or a group.  Rituals aid in creating a sense of group identity. For example, nearly all sports teams have rituals incorporated into their structure, from simple initiation rites when a team is established, to the formalized structure of pre-game pep talks.

At this point I can practically hear someone saying, “Yes, yes, that’s all very interesting but why does it matter to me?” Fair enough. The reason it matters is because rituals are constant – they are acts we perform whether we think about their deeper significances or not. Rituals are actions, they are not something we tend to ponder in great detail. From a marketing or design perspective, that means understanding ritual behavior leads to creating materials that become part of the fixed, long-term pattern of a  person’s life. If done right, your brand or your product becomes part of the ritual, making it that much harder to set aside when a new product or brand comes along.

Add to that the very simple fact that human being are symbolic creatures and ritual, being a symbolic act, applies deeper meaning to a brand because it adds deeper meaning. Language, thought and actions are all part of the larger symbolic landscape through which we interpret the world. The instance an object or activity, not to mention a brand, gain symbolic value the more likely they are to become integral to how we interact with the world and become necessary to our lives. The Apple sticker on the back of a person’s car says a great deal about the person – it’s worth noting that we rarely (if ever) see a Microsoft sticker. The brand has gained a symbolic relevance and is as much an element of identity as the clothes we wear for a night on the town.

Finally, understanding ritual allows you to uncover new, analogous areas for growth. A seemingly unrelated ritual or set of ritual behaviors may, in essence, be transferable to a different brand or product category. For example, if you want to understand how hydrating before and after a game can be ritualized, it makes sense to understand how “pre-gaming” takes place when groups of young men drink when tailgating. There are parallels related to shared ideals, social bonding and the act of conquest. That means new ways of messaging and promotion.

Rituals are at the heart of what it means to be human. They include not only the various forms of religious experience or rites of passage, but also modes of shopping, identifying people “like us”, and content consumption on a website, etc. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as the Black Friday rush to the mall and hitting the car lots the last day of the month, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by tradition, and thus ritualistic in nature. If you come to understand that, you come to understand new triggers and can develop a long-term relationship with your customer.

Shaping Personal Identity through brands

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 asses certain product attributes in a holistically 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.

Nothing new in that idea. But if we step back a moment and let ourselves expand on that thinking, it 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 tend to 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.