Get off your pedestal

20 Jul 2015|Added Value

It’s long been the mantra of marketing specialists to build brands that are so attractive and magnetic that people are drawn irresistibly to them, like moths to a flame. In truth, it’s much more likely that the brands we’re all developing and running are much less important to people than we might like to think.

In the developed West, we’ve lived through an era that we might call peak consumerism. In the 90s and 00s austerity wasn’t a concern and people had more disposable cash and getting credit was relatively easy and cheap to buy. People were generally happy to define themselves as consumers, with the brands they chose acting as signifiers of whom they were or whom they aspired to be. The perfect recipe for brand marketers who duly stood on their branded pedestals and spouted aspirational lifestyle messages and waited for the crowd to assemble around them.

Clearly things have changed. Today millennials are far  less inclined to see themselves primarily as consumers.  They identify with many different things, but critically they see themselves as being in charge, they don’t abdicate their identity definition to brands so readily. They want to be defining it for themselves.

This power shift isn’t restricted to the young; increasingly we’ve seen and heard from people across the generations that if they choose to buy a brand continually they expect something back for that behaviour. People aren’t interested in the old concept of brands – they’re looking for something altogether different.

Ultimately, the power has of course always been with the purchaser, what’s changing is how brands need to present themselves. Where once being an aspirational demi-god on a pedestal kind of worked, today it’s better to acknowledge that actually lots of brands are operating in the swamp, surrounded by competitors, all clamouring to be heard.

In this situation, what’s vital is that brands are both interesting and useful – neither one by itself is sufficient, it can’t be an either/or. Being useful is primary, the “thing” has to perform well, and some very functional-oriented brands are currently thriving – the rise of discounters being an example of this. The more a brand has to cut through noise the greater being useful is necessary – people are looking for convenient solutions and ways to make their busy lives easier. The global success of Uber is a prime example of this with convenience and functionality being at the heart of its proposition.

Usefulness is also being taken beyond a brand’s core functionality – British Gas’ Hive has given people convenience and control of their heating beyond the traditional service, and Nike has provided people with exercise apps that gives their brand a function beyond apparel to sit at the heart of people’s exercise regime.

Making the brand interesting is a different kind of challenge. Brands need to be interesting on three levels. Firstly, be interesting to people. Having a clear, insight based role in peoples’ lives to guide choices about what the brand does and does not do. Secondly be interesting in context.

Having a role, or mission in wider culture (and knowing how  to deliver this appropriately) so that the brand becomes naturally amplified through events that are already happening (see cultural vibrancy article on p.6). And lastly, just be interesting per se. Having a style and character of its own so it’s distinctive and memorable every time.

Brands like Nike and Uber in particular, have managed to tick all the boxes. Both have strong, confident characters and both play a role in people’s lives as well as being a part of a wider culture – Nike in the health and exercise movement and Uber through technological disruption. Virgin Atlantic is another great example of providing a functional service while being distinctive, relevant and culturally vibrant.

Of course there are many brands where status is still a major influencer, and admittedly I’m exaggerating this for effect, but the principle holds that if you want to cut through and stand out in a crowded market you need to challenge yourself to be both as useful and as interesting as possible.

 

Image credit: Virgin Atlantic

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