Brands with cult followings deal with the paradox of the passionate
Unless you live on a sweet potato farm in Lancaster, Pa., brands are a
big part of your life.
You wake up in your combed-cotton Ralph Lauren sheets to your iPod playing though your Bose sound system. You brush your teeth with Colgate Total Clean Mint Paste before stepping into a hot shower and scrubbing your scalp with Burt's Bees shampoo bar. After drying off with Jonathan Adler, you brew a trusty cup of Starbucks Breakfast Blend (or maybe you prefer Stumptown, Gorilla, Lavazza or any of the countless other specialty roasters) and pour a glass of Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice. You know what you like. Your favorite brands are your favorite for a reason - you like the way they look, taste, feel. You trust them to be what you need them to be. But what if something changed? What if, for some reason, you couldn't find your favorite brand?
In February, Tropicana famously learned that a picture is worth a lot more than a thousand words. The classic American juice company changed its package and, among other things, removed the image of the orange with the candy-striped straw that had illustrated the "never from concentrate" product since Anthony Rossi pioneered the flash pasteurization process in 1954, making it possible for freshly squeezed juice to stay just that for three months (the packaging itself, the wax paper cartons commissioned by the American Can Company, also boosted shelf life). Then one day it wasn't so easy to find: "The new package looked so generic," says one customer. "I assumed there was something wrong with the company. So I bought the Minute Maid instead."
"The original design is not great design," concedes Paula Scher, a partner at design firm Pentagram. "It's just familiar."
But consumers weren't satisfied with simply switching brands. Some were outraged (surprising, perhaps, given that the actual product hadn't changed), bombarding the company with emails and forming Facebook groups. It soon became clear that this was more than a failed attempt at the "new look, same great taste" switcharoo. Tropicana quickly realized that the people buying their product were buying more than just a carton of juice: They were buying something familiar, even nostalgic. "It's kitsch," says Scher. But consumers "like it because they know it: It's your familiar old buddy."
John Gerzema, chief insights officer at Young & Rubicam Group and coauthor of The Brand Bubble, says Tropicana underestimated the value of its brand, which includes such intangible assets as logo, associations, sounds (the Intel "ding"), trademarks, reputation, even smells. Paul Woolmington, founding partner at Naked Communications, has gone so far as to suggest bottling the "clean, metallic" smell of an Apple store: "It's the smell of intuitive technology," he says. These intangible assets, according to Gerzema's research, have become increasingly important to consumers over the past few decades. Using the patented model he calls the Brand Asset Valuator, Gerzema and his colleagues determined that brand values rose in their contribution to shareholder value from 5 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. "We have moved from a tangible to an intangible economy," says Gerzema. "Consumers discriminate based on emotional imagery." In Tropicana's case, Gerzema argues that the value lies in people's associations with the packaging: "It reminds them of childhood and breakfast, which is one of the most intimate times of the day."
Whether or not you agree with his fond assessment of breakfast (maybe your mom was in the habit of burning toast and throwing shoes at you, and you would like to forget both childhood and breakfast), it was at least comforting to know that you could find the juice you like (No Pulp, Some Pulp, Lots of Pulp, Calcium + Vitamin D, or Light 'n Healthy) and get the hell out of the cooler section before you froze to death. Zain Raj, CEO of Euro RSCG Discovery (and decidedly a No-Pulp devotee), was pretty thrown when the new cartons appeared on the shelves. "I wasn't sure if I was buying the right one and I ended up getting the one with 'some pulp.' Changing the packaging ruined my ritual. I couldn't start my day the way I usually do." Which is, he believes, where Tropicana went wrong: Most people probably aren't too passionate about their juice, but they know what they like. "Tropicana made it more difficult to buy their product. A brand that makes things harder has no place in my life."
Scher agrees. "What the design company did was faux modernism, so it looked like a generic product . . . . The cleanness took away the character," and, of course, the familiarity. Scher argues that the container "could have been tweaked so it maintained recognizability but became a better designed object."
So why did they change? Raj, who is currently working on a book about brand rituals (brands that are closely associated with certain behaviors), explains the phenomenon, which may include the efforts to "improve" the packaging for everything from soft drinks to cable networks, thusly: "Marketers get tired of a brand decades before consumers do." They are sitting in their offices surrounded by the brand, thinking and dreaming about the brand, whereas most consumers think about it once a day (when they pour or purchase their O.J.), or maybe not at all.
Realizing its mistake in less than two months, (thanks, in part, to social media's power to generate momentum so quickly) Tropicana followed in the footsteps of another infamous failure, New Coke, and went back to the original.
Juice may, after all, just be something to go with your bagel or your Champagne, and your devotion to the brand isn't likely to go any further - like, say, getting it tattooed on your back. While researching his book, Buying In, Rob Walker, writer of the weekly "Consumerist" column for The New York Times, talked to a young man who had literally branded himself with a PBR logo tattoo, giving the explanation: "It's part of my subculture."
According to Walker, PBR's revival as the beer of choice for a certain segment of America's 20-somethings began in a skater bar in Portland. The cheap local beer went belly-up and the bar replaced it with PBR. What happened next was a Shepard Fairey-worthy experiment in real-life consumer glory. The blue and white cans had inhabited the coolers of working-class men for decades but hadn't been aggressively marketed in nearly as long. Pabst Brewing Company had, in fact, stopped brewing its own beer altogether in 2001 (contracting production to Miller) and, says Walker, the label had resigned itself to certain doom: "They were essentially waiting for the people who drink it to not be around to drink it anymore." Lacking any fresh association, it was easy for young members of this subculture (the very kind that Clint Eastwood's Pabst-swilling Walt in Gran Torino would probably scowl at) to make it their own. It became the "underdog" of beers, says Walker, who interviewed some of the early second-wave consumers. "They liked that they were drinking something that society had rejected." Woolmington agrees, calling it "anti-fashion fashion."
PBR became a part of their anti-consumerist identity: an accessory like, say, Crumpler bags, white V-neck T-shirts, fixed-gear bicycles and skinny jeans. By assigning meaning to the brand based on their own values, it became something personal, what they wanted to communicate about themselves to the world. "Brands are essentially cultural information," says Walker, referring specifically to the kid with the tattoo: "The PBR logo, to some people, has meaning as a symbol that relates to identity."
Consider the identity of someone wearing an image of Che Guevara emblazoned on a belly-T. Michael Casey, in his book Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, tells the story of a young woman he met in Argentina who wore her Che T-shirt every day. When interviewed by Casey and his team, she evaded questions about the Cuban revolution, but was able to talk about the image on her T-shirt with zeal. "She didn't know that much about Che as a person, but the T-shirt meant a great deal," says Casey. Since the famous photograph of Guevara was taken in 1960, it has appeared, controversially, on everything from belt buckles to mud flaps (and countless biceps, of course). Some Che loyalists (of the person, not the brand) say this has minimized his achievements and his sacrifices. Casey disagrees: "What makes an icon powerful," he says, "is how the image is received. People invest their own feelings and project their ideals onto it.... It becomes a very personal thing - my hopes, my wishes, my dreams - and it's a good thing. We have to accept that symbols change meaning; to become defensive about its past is to deny the power of the present." In that sense, to some people, the PBR logo means "beer" about as much as Che's image means "Viva la Revolución."
Barack Obama also has been criticized for being less of a savvy politician and more of a brand: a brand with a following devoted enough - a cult, if you will - to make him the most powerful elected official in the world. Indeed, he has all the elements of a brand, including a good logo with a close connection to consumerism. It's no coincidence that the Obama logo so closely resembles America's favorite soda cans. Scher says that when Coca-Cola redesigned its logo to look more modern, it started "a mini design revolution." Pepsi, of course, followed suit, and by the time Obama came around, people were prepped for clean contemporary design. Anything "elaborate or decorative [like McCain's image, perhaps?] became outdated." Casey isn't troubled by the duality of the person and politician, Obama and Brand Obama. "You can't have one without the other," he says. "It has to be sexy in some way, because these things matter to us and they always have. The alternative is Big Brother." Which begs the question: Who created Brand Obama? His campaign or his consumers? The answer, as with any true cult brand, is both.
Fiskars has been making scissors since 1649. Is it any surprise that they have developed a devoted following over the years, given how many scrapbooks and quilts there are to be made? Fiskars successfully tapped into the passionate crafting community in 2006 when they started the "Fiskateers," a community for crafters sponsored by the brand but controlled primarily by the consumers. "The truth is," says Casey, "what most brands want to do is transcend being a cult brand and get huge."
This can be difficult to accomplish without alienating loyal customers. Change your brand too much and next thing you know, people will be drinking juice from concentrate. Woolmington identifies two problems brands face when they try to make the transition from being a much-loved cult brand to being a much-loved "huge" one. First, as a brand becomes more popular, consumers are likely to ask themselves, "Do I want to belong to a club that everyone is a member of?" Woolmington emphasizes the need to redouble efforts among cult followers, or "nurture the zealot," as he puts it. He uses Nike as an example of both a cult and a mass brand. "Nike feeds the sneaker pimps," he says, "but you can also walk into just about any shoe store and get a pair."
The second obstacle: "You have to be careful when you become 'the man'," he says. Lose your edge, your uniqueness and someone else will replace you. PC, for example, is The Man to Steve Job's Mac. Virgin (music, airline, finance) became successful as an extension of founder Richard Branson's personality: charismatic and provocative, in contrast to other old fuddy-duddy brands in the industry. ("In the beginning it was just about the business," Branson has been quoted as saying - "now it's about the brand").
PBR's success, says Walker, was 50 percent phenomenon and 50 percent marketing strategy: "They did smart things with their lucky break." Sensitive to its consumers' delicate sensibilities, the company began quietly (no giant banners or girls in PBR-emblazoned bikinis) sponsoring skateboarding competitions, bike-messenger gatherings and the like in cities across the country. It wasn't long before the brand had a whole new personality.
A cult brand does not become successful because it is the best or the only. There are lots of scissors that cut things just fine and more than one cheap beer on the market. What cult brands have in common is their consumers have filled the brand with meaning and personality. "Not too many successful brands start by allowing the consumers to decide what they mean," says Raj. "Most have to establish a clear identity.... Here's what we can do for you."
The less a brand tries to mean something to a certain target demographic, the more open it is to meaning whatever users want it to mean - as happens in the 1980 comedy, The Gods Must be Crazy, where a tribe in the Kalahari desert finds an old Coke bottle, and it soon becomes an integral part of their daily lives. Throw a product in front of people, let them decide what it means and soon they may not be able to live without it.
Walker uses Red Bull as an example of this kind of marketing - what he calls murketing: "Usually, the wizards of branding want to be extremely clear about what their product is for and who's supposed to buy it. Red Bull does just the opposite. Everything about the company and its sole product is intentionally vague, even evasive. While the drink appears to be targeted specifically at someone - extreme athletes, ravers, students - the brand identity is actually pretty nebulous. You could argue that what Red Bull drinkers have in common is a taste for the edgy and faintly dangerous. But what does this really mean? Obviously, any attempt to articulate such a thing would immediately destroy it. The great thing about a murky brand is that you can let your customers fill in all the blanks."
Is there something strange and vaguely creepy about the important roles brands play in our lives? That we depend on them, that we need them, that we use them to identify ourselves, to communicate with the world, to meet people? That we give our brands meaning and personality? That we form relationships with our brands? ("People talk to their coffee," says Raj, "especially if it's Starbucks.") That we turn people into brands? Casey is optimistic. "There is nothing demeaning about people projecting their ideals onto something," he says. "Symbols have always been a way of reducing complex ideas into something simple." Christians have been wearing the cross for centuries. Yes, it represents a certain ideology, but ask most people who wear it around their neck what it means to them and chances are you will get a very different, and very personal, response. Don't even get them started on why they picked the beer they drink.