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.

 

 

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Alcohol Advertising and Symbolism

A familiar phrase is, “art imitates life.” It defines life as essential to art, but can we say the reverse? Could life imitate art? The phrase suggests that art reinforces cultural and social beliefs. Art is more than a product of reflection, it is a method by which we shape the world. Advertising is a good example to use with this theory for two reasons: first, media art caters to a broad diverse audience; and second, it is easily accessible and we see it everywhere: on television, in magazines, posters, and on billboards. Art both reinforces and constructs social and cultural categories, directing people to respond to it in predictable ways. So what does that look like?

Absolut Vodka’s long-running campaign is an example of how a broader message can be adapted to speak to specific cultural groupings. At its most fundamental level, it caters to an extensive audience and is very accessible. The standard image of the Absolut bottle is recognizable by most people, and has purposely been reproduced in every ad establishing it as a social symbol in America. Each advertisement includes a culturally significant person, place, object, or idea alongside the standard bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reveal mixed messages about culture to their various audiences masked on the surface by a culturally significant artifact.

The individual, tailored ads are separated into genres. When looking at a series of ads, we have a better idea of the collective cultural significance attached to the images. The text exists in relation to others. The image of the Absolut bottle has become a cultural icon, and the advertising aim is to make it recognizable as a distinct symbol of class to everyone who sees it. In order to make sense of the ad, the reader must identify the vodka bottle within the text. This expectation relies on the network of ads that have preceded it and the bottle-as-symbolic emblem of the brand. Instant identification of the symbol makes the reader of an Absolut ad a member of an exclusive club. The Absolut Vodka ad campaign aims to enroll everyone as a member of this club by stating that their “art” form, the vodka bottle, carries significant cultural reflections of society associated with the upper class that are relevant to all members regardless of their real class status.

The different genres of Absolut ads carry distinct cultural messages, and contain a universal class claim that is associated with the image of the vodka bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reinforce the cultural myth that American culture is defined in terms of class structure. However, it offers a mixed message about class that is defined and liquid: class can be bought. The Absolut campaign contains the idea that American culture is defined in terms of class by way of the object, setting, audience, and camera angle in the advertisement. The promotion challenges this idea by publicizing in a variety of magazines that reach people in all class structures. In effect, they are bridging a cultural class gap, by allowing such a diverse audience membership into an exclusive ad campaign. Not only is the advertisement selling the reader vodka, it is also selling the illusion of an earned societal position associated with the upper class.

The symbolic theme of class is exemplified in Absolut’s 2001 “Absolut Voted Off” campaign”. This ad was published in Entertainment magazine the week of October 19, 2001. The ad is very basic and shows four bottles of flavored Absolut Vodka grouped together on the left side of the page. The bottles are characterized by bright, warm colors such as yellow, orange, and purple. On the far right side of the page, not facing the audience, is the original Absolut Vodka bottle that is only revealing half of its cold, blue label. The text, “Absolut Voted-Off” appears at the bottom of the page. What does this ad reveal on the surface? At first glance it seems to be selling the new flavored vodkas, representing them as important and associated with a distinguished category. However, this advertisement is characteristic of the mixed messages portrayed by the Absolut advertising campaign.

When looking deeper we must ask ourselves as readers, relating to the theory art imitates life and life imitates art, what is the advertisement imitating here? The advertisement is imitating the American act of voting. This cultural activity is political at best. The objects, setting, audience, and camera angle of the ad all reinforce the belief that American culture is defined in terms of class structure, and that class can be bought. In this case, the four flavored vodkas are in a distinct class that the “Voted-Off” original vodka is not a part of. However, the original vodka is related to the others: it shares the same bottle, the same vodka, and the same text. The advertisement suggests that the original Absolut vodka bottle could gain acceptance into the distinct class by becoming flavored.

The setting of the advertisement builds on the cultural belief that America is class defined, but that movement within class structure is possible. The spotlight in the middle of the page is not highlighting either group specifically, but leaves a void that needs to be filled. But filled by whom? The ad suggests that the original vodka bottle can have a place next to the rest by leaving a space that is the appropriate size for such a transaction. However, the gap in the middle of the page can also hold a spot for the reader to fill. This involves audience participation by buying the product.

The audience of the advertisement plays a specific role in the ad, and supports a mixed message of class definition and mobility. The reader of the ad associates himself/herself as a member of the Absolut “club” by recognizing the image of the bottle within the ad. In the case of “Absolut Voted-Off,” the reader must choose which party to support, the flavored group or the lone original bottle. If the reader fills the gap in the ad he/she will be joining the class specific group that is associated with wealth: bright colors, strength in numbers, and security. The reader will also become a part of the majority that has voted off the minority. The ad is revealing a message about how culture is defined, in part, by class and is suggesting that as voters and consumers we have a direct say in which class we want to be associated with. In other words, Absolut isn’t just selling a taste, it’s selling a deeper cultural construct.

The theory art imitates life and life imitates art reveals important connections between symbolic structures and cultural beliefs. Media is mirroring important parts of American life and selling the images back with a product attached. However, the cultural and social myths that are being promoted are not always evident on the surface. And it’s at that point, at the symbolic interpretation, that meaning is made and brands are born.

 

Brands, Ads, and Culture

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe.

Fads, Trends, and Being Relevant Over the Long Haul

Staying on top of social and cultural change is difficult. It requires thoughtful observation, reflection, and the ability to connect dots that may go unnoticed in many cases. Similarly, being able to distinguish a trend from a short-lived fit of social interest can make the difference between a meaningful campaign or marketing platform, and a one-hit wonder. Understanding the difference between fads and trends is critical for all organizations. Unfortunately, many decision makers seem to be unaware of their important differences.

Both fads and trends play an important role in a marketing effort’s success, but they aren’t the same thing and they need to be treated differently. If they are not, leaders risk burning out adapting to every fad, and critical trends required for a brand’s long-term survival may be missed. So, what are the key differences?

A fad, in simple terms, is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. It tends to generate a lot of buzz and social capital, but quickly becomes the butt of jokes, abandonment for the newest shiny object, etc. Once the novelty is gone, interest plummets. This isn’t to say that a fad is without value, only that it isn’t sustainable.  Collecting beanie babies was a fad, so were Thomas Kincade paintings, was Pokémon Go. Needless to say, these fads, though short-lived, were hugely successful and organization able to respond to them in their marketing efforts reaped the benefits. Utilizing fads in marketing and advertising can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences, all of which are important. The catch is, fads don’t stick around.

Now, compare that with a trend. A trend gets stronger over time and sticks around. It becomes part of the conversation rather than a bit of social punctuation. It has a sense of permanence and place. Trends point to the future as much as they do the present. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs and demonstrated in cultural shifts. They create meaning for people. A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it IS the movement. A trend isn’t just relevant to an individual, it is a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to it.

The interest in renewable energy is a trend. The increased use of virtual reality is a trend. So are evidence-based medicine, the desire for pay equality, and the use of mobile devices. These are things that have grown, redefined how people find meaning in their world, and interact with each other. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life.

So why does it matter? It matters because organizations ignoring the distinction between fads and trends do so at their own risk. If you want to become an iconic brand, then you need to have longevity and provide meaning for people that isn’t fleeting, but rather sustained. Fads are tools good marketers can use for a specific job, trends are the tools he or she uses for a lifetime.

 

Finding Balance: Data, FIeldwork, and Creativity

There is perhaps nothing new about the ongoing battle between data and qualitative work, and the influence they have on creativity and design. Data is everything, creativity is dead vs. the argument that creativity is paramount and data is a distraction. Neither position is true, though there is some truth in each argument. The goal is to deliver insight that inspires creativity, regardless of the methods by which we gain those insights. The central need is to determine how data and inspiration work together to drive change.

As advertising, marketing, and design come to rely more on technology, we are forced to reconsider what constitutes creative quality. It also means being honest with ourselves and recognizing that data is not a panacea. It, like qualitative work, is part of a thinking process that helps identify the underlying story we need to divine and craft tools that inspire action. At times that can be found in the data alone, but more often it’s found among outliers. Without the two sides working hand in hand, we get half truths.

For marketers, nothing could better define both the essence and preeminence of creativity than empathy. We all recognize the pace of technological change and changing customer behaviors. And we all recognize there is tremendous opportunity in being able to derive greater targeting from the data we collect. But behavioral measurement shouldn’t lull us away from using the creative process to intuit what customers will experience, whether we’re trying to convince them to take an action or building a tool to meet a need. Data underpins everything, but meaningful success will come to those who can augment data with a deeper understanding of the audience. What role does symbolism play? What metaphors connect? How does the object we create make sense in their lives? These are the sorts of things we come to understand through deep immersion.

As an example, some years ago I did work on a medication used in treating schizophrenia. Based on the success rates and data collected about patient behavior, it should have been an easy product to market. However, the sales were flat. It wasn’t until we began examining the process of schizophrenia that we were able to tease out where the problems were. Access to transportation, difficulties with case management, distrust of the psychiatric community, and the role of friends and family all had a significant impact on how the medication was understood. This wasn’t the sort of thing you could get at via data analysis. And yet, using the two methods together allowed the team to develop creative work that resonated deeply and was targeted at the right place and the right time.

What we need to be doing is rebooting brand planning as a qualitative and a quantitative art. What designer, strategist, etc. tasked with building a tool or developing an engaging brand experience wouldn’t want to know a bit about how the audience for their art behaves? How they engage with content? How they engage with a device? But the trick is not getting caught up in the numbers at the expense of the human being behind them.

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.

Tourists have been classified by the longevity of their travel experiences, their impact on the communities they visit, their choice of activities, and the level of institutionalization of their movements. “Authenticity” might seem to come into conflict with reality when the mood and continuity are broken. Or it might just be the juxtaposition is our new normal.