So many brands with so many similarities. Is it any wonder that many brands are struggling? Does it surprise anyone that in every sector there are brands that are subsisting on an ever shrinking sliver of the pie?
The problem? Please reread the first sentence of my post. There doesn’t seem to be much differentiation among too many brands. Of course some of them might be positioned differently. They might put emphasis on innovation—which can range from significant changes to incremental ones. They might offer better quality of product and services. But in the long run, that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference with today’s consumers for the most part.
Yet, most marketers are intent on innovation as the leading driver of their brands. They are still focused on how they might further differentiate their brands to appeal to their targeted consumer base.
When we look at brands that have broken out of the pack, there’s something notably different about them and that difference goes well beyond being innovative. For example, when Trader Joe’s came on the scene, there were many natural and organic/gourmet stores in communities across the country. How was TJ innovative? 70% of their product mix was private label and their prices were extraordinary for this kind of fare. But is that what’s carried Trader Joe’s? Or is it something else?
Trader Joe’s is what it is because it has made a deeper impact. A cultural one. Culturally relevant brands don’t depend on innovative improvements to create buzz and market share. They stand for something unique and memorable. By going to a culturally significant place, they attract consumers who are hungry to make a deeper connection with brands: to self-identify with them. Ironically, that makes the products that they purchase a secondary consideration. In Trader Joe’s case, happy employees who are knowledgeable and buzzing around the store in Hawaiian shirts set an entirely different mood than any supermarket I can think of. How about you?
The fact that the employees will drop everything to find a product in back stock for a customer, share recipes and preparation ideas and then bag the groceries in a slow, deliberate manner makes every customer feel pampered and special. When a cashier rings the ship’s bell and the captain (manager) appears, he’s just one of the mates waiting on a customer and solving a problem or concern.
Point: there’s just nothing else like Trader Joe’s. It’s a unique experience and it bonds its fans to it like glue. So the brand excels in the marketplace. The brand story runs deeply in our culture: a neighborhood grocery store filled with unusual, wonderful things and a crew that customers get to know and befriend. A shared passion for good food that is meant to be cooked and shared. Tell me that any supermarket can deliver this experience? Think of the symbols TJ uses: the captain and his crew in Hawaiian shirts. Is this place meant to be fun or what?
Now think of other brands that offer cultural relevance. There are many brands of blue jeans. But Levi’s are all-American classics. Their story is embedded in our collective consciousness and immortalized by James Dean as a counter-cultural symbol and worn by every generation of youth ever since. So why do consumers purchase Levi’s vs a myriad of other brands? For what they symbolize in our culture, of course.
With so many beer brands on the market these days, thanks to an explosion of craft beers alongside mass-produced offerings, what makes some stand outs? I mean, you’ve got to believe that many offerings are very similar in taste and quality, right? How about culturally relevant branding as the deal maker? I’ve seen friends insist on Corona, for example. Why go for Miller Time when you identify with the high life exuded by a brand that lives at the beach? And one that employs ritual symbolism? I mean, who drinks Corona before pushing a wedge of lime into the bottle? There’s a special camaraderie among Corona fans, too. And they won’t drink any other kind of beer.
Ditto for serious bikers. They wouldn’t dream of riding on anything but a Harley Davidson. The brand is a cultural phenom. So is Nike. And Mountain Dew. BMW. Under Armour. REI. These brands are purposely not for everybody, but everybody who loves these brands can’t live without them. And isn’t that at the heart and pinnacle of great branding?
Isn’t it great when brands can inspire their customer and command that kind of loyalty in this day and age? You bet it is.
So here’s what I think. Look at your brand. Forget marketing it along the lines of features and benefits. Don’t focus on how to position it based on innovation. In fact, don’t make your brand product focused at all. Sounds crazy, right? Please keep on reading. You’ll just have a brand that’s one in the pack among many trying to do the same thing. Instead, go for a cultural connection. Not with everybody but with consumers you’d like to connect your brand to.
Accomplish this by creating a strong narrative; a very different one. One that has deep cultural context and roots. Create symbolism and ritual behaviors around the brand as much as you can. Spread the word via social media—right on the sites where your future fan base hangs out. Be relevant to them and their lifestyle, belief systems and values and your brand will vault ahead of the competition in a spectacular manner. Does that mean your brand will be an overnight sensation? It just might. But even if it doesn’t, it will grow dramatically. You won’t have a customer base. Your brand will have rabid fans who will bring you more fans. They’ll create a community around your brand and become die-hards. You know why, don’t you? You will bring meaning into their lives.
Hey, and won’t it be terrific to have a brand on your hands that is slated to become a cultural icon???