The power of cultural branding


MARKETING:Innovation is not just about product design, it can also come from a marketing campaign that taps into cultural and societal issues, argue the authors of a book on how to create an iconic brand, writes JOHN FANNING

IN 2004, DOUGLAS HOLT, a Harvard marketing professor now at Oxford University, published a provocative thesis on how some brands become cultural icons, ensuring loyal customers and a profitable premium price. The core proposition was that products or services that base their marketing communication on cultural themes reflecting current societal anxieties and desires have a better chance of achieving iconic status than by any other means.

A number of case histories were used to illustrate the proposition, notably the famous US Volkswagen campaigns from the 1960s to 1990s. I believed at the time that Holt was on to something but the book never really captured the imagination of the marketing communications community on this side of the Atlantic. This was partly explained by his use of exclusively American case histories often featuring commercials that would be unfamiliar to a European audience but also because the thesis lacked a sufficiently coherent conceptual framework.

In 2010 Holt returned to the subject with a new book, called Cultural Strategy, with co-author, Douglas Cameron. It presents essentially the same proposition but in a tighter framework, using a wider range of more familiar case histories and the suitably acronymed, consumer culture theory (CCT). But there is also an important addition to the original thesis, namely that the adoption of a cultural strategy is a form of innovation, because it can provide products and services with a new dimension that constitutes a competitive advantage; one that competitors will find difficult to match.

Ben Jerry’s ice-cream is a good example of cultural branding. Launched into a mature market in the late 1970s with no money, no new technologies and no product innovation, sales increased from $180,000 in 1979 to $58 million in 1989 and to $237 million in 1999 when it was bought by Unilever for $326 million. The authors attribute their success entirely to cultural branding; by positioning themselves as an ideological counterpoint to the rise of Reaganism at a time when severe fault lines were developing in America between liberals and conservatives.

The brand cleverly used marketing communication to fuse coded references from pre-industrial societies with counter-cultural initiatives which appealed to the liberal middle classes. The simple but highly imaginative initiative of naming their cherry flavour, Cherry Garcia, not only made it stand out from other similar cherry ice cream brands but neatly appropriated the enormous cultural capital of one of the most iconic rock bands of all time.

Using cultural theory the authors analyse brands such as Starbucks, Nike, Patagonia, Jack Daniels and Marlboro and generally make a convincing case for attributing their success to astute understanding of changing societal mores and the application of cultural tropes to the brand’s communication rather than to any product superiority or technical advances over competitive brands.

Following the case histories, the authors attempt to encapsulate the main conclusions into a general theory of cultural innovation. They propose a six-stage model on page 196 – which is slightly confusing because on page 293 there’s a five-stage model but, never mind, the procedure is roughly the same. The starting point is to identify cultural orthodoxy in society as a whole and within the product category. Then seek to identify social disruption that could destabilise this orthodoxy. Then you need to decide whether your brand could become a catalyst for change or a champion for an alternate vision and then create appropriate marketing communications.

If that seems a little theoretical, let’s try a practical example. Emigration has been a central cultural issue in Ireland for centuries. It is usually a tragic and depressing event for families and has been depicted as such in numerous artistic renditions of tearful relations waving sad goodbyes to departing sons and daughters at desolate harbours and bus stations.

Irish writers have examined the subject from every angle most recently in Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn, where the young heroine is forced to emigrate not once but twice. But although her plight is poignantly illustrated there are enough indications of liberation from the stuffiness of small-town Ireland. So we now have a distinctive Irish cultural theme; emigration, and the possibility of disrupting the dominant treatment of that theme by regarding it as a positive rather than a negative. Let’s apply this to real life. Tayto, which is about to boldly go where no Irish crisp has ever gone – to China – could be a case study.

The theory of cultural branding would lead to a possible marketing brief to develop a campaign around young Irish emigrants in China not out of desperation but to work and learn with ambitions to return home armed with new business ideas aimed at making Ireland a European bridgehead for the Chinese. They would of course also be fuelled by Tayto crisps, now available for the first time in the Far East.

We could then add a brand activation element to our campaign, citing another positive Irish cultural theme: our adventurous maritime tradition. This would be delivered by organising a Galway Hooker to augment distribution by sailing from Ireland to China with fresh supplies of Tayto. This would be done in conjunction with an educational competition aimed at children who would plot the progress of the voyage. The mind boggles at the creative possibilities the redoubtable Ray Coyle would make of Galway Hookers and paddy fields but that’s quite enough boggling to be going on with.

What I’ve tried to demonstrate is how starting with current societal preoccupations can provide an innovative platform for marketing communications.

The two Dougies make a very strong case for adopting this approach and in the muscular tradition of American academia they are scathing about the alternatives, saving particular ire for what they call the positioning mindshare strategy involving endless futile away-days arguing about whether a brand should be “edgy” or “quirky”, “youthful” or “fun-loving”, an activity they dismiss as “reshuffling a laundry list of generic adjectives”.

They have no compunction in tearing lumps out of fellow academics and the book is littered with colourful patches of ground hurling. Kevin Lane Keller, author of one of the most widely used text books on branding is regularly criticised for “just not getting it”.

At the heart of their argument is that marketing has more to learn from history, anthropology, sociology and political science than from mathematics, economics and engineering. They are dismissive of what they refer to as “Scienty Marketing”; the futile attempt to convert inherently humanistic aspects of marketing into predictable mechanistic science.

Given the level of disruption and destabilisation our own society has undergone recently the thesis advanced by this book may be particularly relevant. An interesting example is the current TV commercial for the Dublin Airport Authority, the one with the guy striding through the new terminal building telling us that in spite of everything, we’re a great little country altogether. Over lunch before Christmas a young lady at our table started waxing so lyrically about this commercial that neighbouring tables began calling over waiters to order “whatever she’s having”. However, a few days later I was in the company of someone who became so agitated about the same commercial on the grounds that it was an exorbitant unnecessary and extravagant waste of his (taxpayers’) money that he required sedation at the nearby St Vincent’s Hospital. Admittedly the man in question regularly harrumphs for Ireland but it shows that the more powerful your expressions of cultural branding the more likely you are to alienate some sections of the population.

Unfortunately, American academics in search of clients for the consultancies they set up to flog their theories are reluctant to discuss potential downsides for fear of frightening the horses. This is a pity because one of the best examples of cultural branding is Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which brilliantly subverts the prevailing fashion industry concept of feminine beauty, presenting it as something that is not only false but can have lethal effects on the lives of young girls. This multi-award winning campaign appeared to have been highly successful but there are signs that Unilever is back-tracking a little from its basic premise. Dove is mentioned only in passing in the book but it would have been useful to have heard the authors’ views on the subject.

In spite of the risks, the potential of cultural branding for innovation and competitive advantage is too great to be ignored and should be actively considered by businesses. Although Cultural Strategy could do with a bit more balance it is by far the best introduction to the subject and is therefore an important addition to marketing and innovation thinking.

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School