Brands and Self-Creation

The old brand 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 I believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands reflect culture, not targets or widgets. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough.

Consumers will no longer buy the external brand image we create, but will take it upon themselves to define what a brand really stands for by probing for their own truth. 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. Particularly in such a media-rich, postmodern, global environment, a sense of culture has become increasingly complex. That 35-year-old, American woman, might identify more closely as a post-punk-artist-suburban-engineer. In other words, she isn’t defined so much by her demographic makeup or media habits as she is by the choices she makes in shaping our own worldview and sense of self. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape of self-creation? Brands become symbols and metaphors 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. Indeed, meaning has become the most important product a brand creates.

Perhaps the most relevant is that “culture” is a transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols by which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward the world. We’ve all heard it. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. Wonderful, but how do you begin to determine where your brand fits into a cultural matrix? I believe it starts with eight simple questions:

  1. Does it have a higher purpose?
  2. Does it have norms?
  3. Does it have specific values?
  4. Does it have special language?
  5. Does it use specific metaphors and symbols?
  6. Does it have myths, legends, and storytelling?
  7. Does it have rituals?
  8. How broad is its social presence?

Why this particular approach? Because, when people make a purchase, whether it be a mobile phone, a bag of dog food, or a bottle of milk, they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. The meaning that has been created in the goods and services that everybody buys is not intrinsic to those goods and services. It’s our culture that determines this. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choices we make are actually very important to us, even if those choices seem rather functional. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to craft strategies and messages that reflect these cultural perspectives.

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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.

woman-driving-car.jpg

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Presentation as Storytelling

The goal of any good presentation is to change thinking, to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness. The presentation serves to evoke a feeling in the viewers, whether a client or a project team, and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world. It’s about the story. As with the impressionist tale (see VanMaanen  1988), the story is recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events.”  An audience should be drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s).Brand-Storyteller.png

Selective packaging of information to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice, even though the precise empirical situations in which the information is developed is perhaps far less coherent or obvious than the concepts they serve to illustrate.This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct,
targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.

The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. It should never be a series of bullet points. Why? Because a brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

So what should we do?  First, strip it of text. The media tool is the comforting factor, not the content.  PowerPoint serves as a frame around which to build behavioral norms, but what appears on the screen should augment the story and add color. Second, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round?” Promote physical interaction and direct interaction between the audience members.  Finally, give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators.  The more they engage the more they will take away.

 

Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a seemingly dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. So, knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more? The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  Any good  presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but the presentation is about changing minds.

That brings us back to storytelling. When we bring our research and strategic thinking to life, the story we weave is less a list of data points than an interpretation and distillation of a series of experiences, Details are selectively recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events”  (see VanMaanen  1988).  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s) – in other words, a good story, and a good presentation, is a shared experience, co-created in the moment. Bore the audience and there is almost no chance of affecting change. Selective packaging to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice. What we present needs to illustrate, provocate and elucidate. This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

So what do we need to do to make a good story? First, start thinking in terms of symbols and metaphor. Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to brands by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Second, strip the presentation of text. You’re hear to talk and the image on the wall behind you is there to produce a response. Text, then, becomes a distraction unless you intend to use it as a visual manifestation of an idea (imagine a giant “NO” in lieu of something like a stop sign). The media tool we use, be it PowerPoint or something similar, is the comforting factor for audience and presenter alike, not the content. That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video, but we cannot let it become the focal point – it is like a set on which an actor performs. Don’t let it overshadow the actor.

Third, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round”? Promote physicality, discussion and direct interaction between you and the audience members. Give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators. The more interaction, the more likely they will be to internalize the story you present.

Finally, have fun. It seems self evident, but it is perhaps the hardest thing most people find to do – they may talk about it, but they can’t actually do it. Remember, your role is to produce change, not recite facts.

Metaphor and Design

“Metaphor is for most people device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” George Lakoff

As rational people who like to rationally talk about doing rational things, we like to think we choose products based on what we can see, hear, feel, taste and touch. Is this a good beer? We taste it. Is this a good car? We drive it. We like to believe that we make our judgments by distinguishing tangible distinctions. But is there’s a lot more to the equation than just our five senses. There is more to it than cataloging functional benefits. There are the subconscious elements, the deeper meanings, the other intangible benefits that products offer, which factor into the formula and influence our decisions.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They have deeper meanings that intertwine the supposed rational with the symbolic. They govern our everyday functioning, from the expression of complex beliefs and concepts down to the most mundane details. These systems of meaning structure what we perceive, how we perceive it and how we act upon those perceptions.  They inform us how to get around in the world, how we relate to other people and even how to select objects of consumption. Our conceptual system thus plays the central role in defining our everyday realities. And we structure concepts in relation to each other.  Take the concept of argument as war: 

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments. 

We do this all the time – time is money, data is geology, clothing is theater.  Consequently, understanding associations between concepts is pivotal to turning insights into action, whether you are designing an object or a strategy.

Pure metaphor.

Sometimes, when luck is with you, you can just show us something that isn’t your product at all and tell us it is. This is the use of  pure metaphor: something that stands in for your product that helps clarify and convince. This is obviously a good idea when your product is intangible, but also when the product is, frankly, dull, complicated or has no contextual frame of reference.

I once saw a poster in a library. In it, a hiker was pausing on a beautiful vista overlooking the Grand Canyon, the awesome spectacle looming before him. The poster could have been advertising Timberland or Arizona tourism or even cigarettes, but headline instead read, “Knowledge is free. Visit your library.” Visually, the message was the perfect use of metaphor. A library visit is like an odyssey through immense, spectacular country; it goes beyond the things housed there speaks to the underlying sense of discovery, exploration and surprise.

Fused metaphor.

Unfortunately, pure metaphors are rare, the reason being that it’s simply easier to create a fused metaphor. With a fused metaphor, you take the product (or something associated with it, the way a toothbrush is associated with toothpaste) and attach, or fuse it, with something else.

Objects, at least from a design or advertising perspective, that are modified in some way are often more engaging to us. We are, after all, naturally curious creatures. Unmodified images are often just clichés or stale representations. Disrupting the symbolic structure and associated metaphor primes the viewer’s psyche, drawing them into product or message to make sense of what’s going on. For example, one of advertiser David Ogilvy’s famous ideas was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” who wore an eye patch and was thereby more interesting than a man who didn’t. He wasn’t just the your typical handsome man, he was a wounded, brave, paragon of masculinity with a story to tell.

Unlike pure metaphor, fused images help contextualize the selling argument for us. we don’t have to leap quite as far when part of what we’re looking at is what’s for sale.

So what? At its most basic level, design is about people rather than the objects and spaces we construct.  Design facilitates interaction between people and brands, mediated by the products and spaces those brands construct. We think in terms of solving problems (addressing functional needs, increasing efficiencies, etc.), but problems aren’t unchanging.  They are fluid and influenced by a host of factors, from basic function to notions of status to whether or not they make sense in relation to our worldview.  Because genuinely innovative, new ideas are almost always the product of juxtaposition, they can be nearly impossible to quantify in terms of risk or acceptance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce risks.  

Why? Because metaphors endow products and spaces with human-like characteristics, making them more approachable and usable. They couch them in concepts with which we are already familiar and make the process of acceptance easier. They also make conversion from insight to object, space or message easier in the same way, by grounding them in concepts people understand, they can more readily see differences and similarities.  They can more easily envision what materials, words, colors, etc. will resonate and can start to readily think in new directions.

Doing so simply requires using a different set of tools than those typically used to test peoples’ reactions.  This is when the use of metaphor in the design process becomes most important. Metaphor provides us with the means to understand complex spaces, things and relationships. Like the example of “argument is war,” imagine applying the same model to designing a product.  Food as spirituality, for example: 

  • This dish is heavenly.
  • This ice cream is divine.
  • Bacon is good for the soul

Ask yourself these questions:


1. What is this product? What does it do? The logotype for Exhale, a pulmonary disease therapy company, demonstrates visually what they do best: they help us breathe better. Each subsequent letter in the logo is less heavy and lighter in color than the previous. As we read the name, we realize and understand its meaning through this visual metaphor.

2. How does it differ from the competition? One of Herman Miller’s annual reports used transparent paper stock to suggest the serendipity of innovation: You look at one problem and sometimes see through it, the answer to another.

3. What’s the largest claim you can make for the product? That it’s a dog shampoo that dogs actually love? Then put the shampoo in packaging designed like something else they love: a fire hydrant.

4. What is this product’s central purpose? One annual report for the Calgary YWCA emphasized the organization’s work with battered women, so the report itself was torn and distressed. The headline on the beat-up cover: “Last year over 11,000 Calgary women were treated worse than this book.” This metaphor may even be stronger than if they had used actual photographs of battered women, since this approach is less expected. 

Once the metaphor is defined (and there will no doubt be more than one metaphor in the mix in many cases), other associations will start to emerge.  If associations are made between food and spirituality, for example, what does that mean for color palette choices, brand elements, package design, etc.?  That leads to defining not only the functional aspects of the design, but the story behind it.

And design, particularly when thinking about design of something that is new or takes an existing brand in a totally new direction, is akin to creating a story.  There are tensions, themes, characters, frames, etc.  Conflicts, tensions and interactions become connectors between ideas and actions. And like the elements or any story (or the type of story), metaphor allows you to categorize, structure and create boundaries with the information you work with.  The final result is a strategy for design that makes sense to the consumer.