People are using commercial brands to express themselves like never before. For brand owners and marketers, this feels like a dream come true.
After decades of relentless effort to make brands relevant to people, how rewarding to see people embracing them to such an extraordinary extent. Not only carrying them and wearing them, but marking their skin with them as tattoos, even naming their children after them (in January this year, the French government intervened to stop a baby girl from being named Nutella).
No wonder that novelists, playwrights and song writers increasingly use brands as an effective shorthand to show us someone’s character.
But with this cultural and commercial success come new challenges and responsibilities for marketers, as they act as brand guardians not on behalf of a company, but also now on behalf of consumers.
The sort of cultural bond that some brands have achieved brings a new sort of relationship. It’s not just about liking. It can be about loving, with an obsessional embrace, such as the man who has visited 12,600 Starbucks stores.
It can be about subverting, because nobody wants to feel controlled by big corporations, and because passionate fans care enough to be highly critical.
Lippincott’s design for the new Starbucks identity was initially savaged by some of the brand’s hard-core loyalists when it was announced in 2011, not (as it has turned out) because of the design itself, but because it was changing a part of their life.
To understand the challenge, it’s worth looking at brands in their cultural context. Brands have become powerful because they have learned to represent things in a way that meets three basic human needs:
- To simplify the frenetic world around us so we can get on with it
- To believe in something bigger and more important than what is in front of us
- To belong to a group beyond our family.
We need these things, and always have. What’s new is where we go to get them.
We have gone to many sources to get these needs fulfilled – cultural icons, political movements, sports teams, faith groups, nations, battalions. Until recently, we didn’t turn to the commercial world.
But today’s brands have learned to respond directly to these needs, satisfying us in ways they never had before. They draw on people’s allegiances as strongly as other cultural, social or political groups do.
The trend has accompanied the shift from consumer products to services, which are inherently more personal because the brand includes a company’s own people, and now to more immersive experiences, both digital and physical, which consumers are invited into.
We’ve responded by letting brands into our homes, lives and selves. But just as we’ve let brands in, we can also shut them out. Power is more balanced than we might assume.
What does this mean for how to manage a brand today?
First, it means a constant struggle to keep pace with consumers. When brands succeed, it’s because they managed to connect with the zeitgeist, whether through luck or judgment. When they lose that connection, they lose.
This isn’t new, but it’s newly important, because more engaged consumers are more critical. Keeping pace isn’t the same as following.
The best brands are not customer led. They provide things customers hadn’t thought to ask for, but would have if they’d thought. From Nando’s’ "fast casual" innovation of a table-served feel and quality with quick-service economics, to Uber’s spontaneous display of when you will arrive.
Second, it means managing the authenticity of the brand inside the company, more than managing its image outside it.
In today’s transparent and immersive world, the image is not manageable, but the principles that employees follow in unforeseen and unscripted situations are.
A quick think through your recent experiences with your phone company, airline, bank and supermarket will probably reveal how some brands have got this and some haven’t.
Finally, it means adapting to the humility, but also the refreshing common sense, of what we at Lippincott refer to as the human era.
As trust in all sorts of institutions has declined, people increasingly turn to other people they view as peers, not to anything they see as up on a pedestal.
People relate to people, and they relate to brands when they behave like people – open, honest, even flawed.
It’s this shift that makes the challenge of today’s brand relationships manageable. Because to win approval, you don’t have to seek ever higher levels of perfection.
You have to connect on a human level. It’s a different toolkit than traditional brand management, but one that an organisation full of humans should be well suited for, with a bit of unlearning of past habits.
Simon Glynn is the European head of creative consultancy Lippincott.