An insular approach to brand-building won’t cut it in 2020. Organizations that prioritize their culturally significant values and empower their consumers to tell their story will have greater control over their positioning.
The role that brands play today in connecting cultural trends with corporate values is very different from what it once was. Positioning was once developed behind closed doors primarily through introspection; a few executives and consultants identified values and attributes as important and then pushed those into the market, crafting perception through consistency and placement. That approach is archaic and out of step with the modern world.
It is more prescient and necessary than ever for brands to engage directly with the surrounding culture, or they’ll risk that ever-more sophisticated consumers will shift their choices. But culture is fickle, and it takes real work to see both the forest and the trees in the trend-scape. Once brands decide to lean into culture, they tend to do so in a few familiar ways that correspond to the level of control they desire.
Reframing Equities to Build Upon Dominant Trends
Most often embraced by established, iconic brands because it maintains strong continuity and control—the brand authors a narrative and attempts to seed it within an ecosystem where a new value paradigm sympathetic to existing brand equities has emerged. Though it offers a smaller reward (at least in the short term), it has little risk—other than lingering too long in a residual position. By creating links between brand attributes and dynamics within a group in a novel way, a savvy communicator attempts to reframe a consumer’s ideas about the role of that brand within that cultural context.
Nike’s ad with Colin Kaepernick tapped into the zeitgeist and began to reframe “Just Do It” as a celebration of personal expression and doing something difficult, if you believe it’s the right thing to do. It worked because it was timely, relevant and matched cultural trends to corporate values in a way that shifted the meaning of what was already there. It didn’t come across as opportunistic, but rather a natural expression of the legacy brand. This method links a version of the brand’s foundational story to a current trend, becoming a part of a given moment for that group.
Prioritizing Values That Will Become Culturally Significant
Brands can also succeed at increasing cultural relevance by identifying the direction of a trend and trying to get ahead of it. This allows for a greater pivot because by the time that culture catches up to the brand, it’s proposition won’t be seen as disingenuous—it is the same position they held before the trend tipped over. By extrapolating direction before a trend becomes dominant, brands avoid the trap of seeming opportunistic—if indeed the new position reflects real values and commitments. This strategy is ideal if the brand finds a trend aligning with an existing value and leverages that to guide the focus given to one value over another.
This is why when environmentalism became a dominant, mainstream, cultural force in North America, almost two decades of pushback against “greenwashing” that Patagonia didn’t have to worry about, followed. They had correctly identified the direction of a trend that matched a deeply held value of the brand and so they prioritized those values over other attributes—quality materials, product and experience innovation, etc.—and got there first. The challenge here is separating what is happening culturally from what appears to be happening. Even with a discerning eye, culture moves like murmurations in a flock of starlings, changing course without warning.
So, brands must be wary of hanging their hat on something that they might not otherwise, hoping to ride a cultural wave, as their prediction could be inaccurate. When executed well, it creates the feeling that the culture has caught up and that the brand can help people live the cultural narrative that they have come to value.
Empowering Consumers to Define the Brand Story
Brands can write themselves into culture by looking deeply at people themselves and what motivates them to feel confident in the story they would build for the brand. Then, do just that. When brands really understand the people they are engaging with and how they behave in different contexts, they can anticipate their individual choices. This takes some of the pressure off of a brand to decode culture writ large via trends and forces. They don’t need to have faith in their predictions, they just need faith in their consumers and the way they will reflect shifting cultural values. This allows the brand to grow as if emerging from culture. When this method works, it results in strong connections between the brand and the culture because they evolved as aspects of the same thing. But, it relinquishes authority to the collective intelligence of the mob— remember the starlings.
If culture as a whole is fickle and prone to change, what about a single data point in that group? Here, the greatest uncertainty is when individuals are authoring your story for you, but there aren’t enough of them to find a balance point. Airbnb is the model of how well this could work. As a brand, they are their customers. Customers are the product, the user, the marketer. And they have redefined the way our culture thinks about travel as a result.
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Because of the risk in effectively giving up control, this method is typically embraced by start-ups with little investment ability and little to lose if it doesn’t work as expected. In practical terms however, there is no reason more established brands couldn’t follow this path if their goal was revolutionary change—or if it was a last grasp at regaining fading former glory.
The late business management guru Peter Drucker was credited with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That may have been true of the old model of developing positioning. Maybe it still is, or perhaps not. But what I’m certain of is that a strategy that doesn’t consider its context isn’t strategic. And if your strategy involves building on aspects within, riding on top of, or emerging from a cultural context, your brand has a better shot at going along for the ride, wherever the culture heads for its next meal.
Photo by James Sloan on Unsplash.