And Now: Change Agent Brands

In honor of the monumental shift that will be taking place this month as Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, we decided to focus this column on the keystone of his campaign that helped seal his place in history: change. This message touched a public yearning and his popularity grew. His success demonstrates how powerful the promise of change can be. The buzz around change inspired us to ask: Are change agent brands gaining wider acceptance among average consumers? Does the desire for change transcend politics to encompass the brands we admire?

To answer these questions we tapped into the BrandAsset Valuator (BAV), Landor's powerful brand research tool. BAV, the world's largest study of brands (3,000 brands in the United States alone), is based on the knowledge that strong brands share some fundamental traits. We measure product brands, company brands, sub-brands, celebrity brands, not-for-profits. They are all there. Moreover, recent studies have begun to demonstrate the connections between strong, admired brands and culture.



To search for clues, we looked to BAV to determine if the brands consumers feel are on the move and gaining in popularity can be construed as change agents - brands breaking the mold and offering the promise to affect our lives in a significant way. We created a list of the Top 15 "gaining in popularity" brands in the United States in the first half of 2008 and 2002:

Top Brands Gaining In Popularity '08

1. Nintendo Wii
2. MySpace
3. Craigslist
4. DirecTV
5. YouTube
6. Netflix
7. Target
8. Food Network
9. BlackBerry
10. Lowe's
11. Google
12. iPod
13. PayPal
14. eBay
15. iPhone

Top Brands Gaining In Popularity '02

1. Walmart
2. Krispy Kreme
3. Harry Potter
4. Target
5. Old Navy
6. DirecTV
7. Dell
8. Costco
9. eBay
10. Subway
11. Outback Steakhouse
12. Sam's Club
13. Swiffer
14. Home Depot
15. E-ZPass

Looking first at the 2002 list, we notice a number of brick-and-mortar retailers as well as restaurant brands. They are easily identified as brands that were innovating and endearing themselves to customers early in our new millennium. Walmart, for example, was religiously executing the "every day low pricing" strategy that other discounters had turned away from, thereby winning customers. Subway was achieving fame with its freshly prepared, low-fat sandwiches and overtaking Mc Donald's as the largest fast-food chain in the United States.

Only three brands from 2002 remain as winners in 2008: DirecTV, Target, and eBay. Looking more closely, two fascinating findings emerge: Unlike several of the brands on the 2002 list (Walmart, Subway, Outback Steakhouse, Krispy Kreme), which had been around for a couple of decades before they leapt onto the popular brand radar, most brands on the 2008 list are younger; practically children. Craigslist was founded in 1995, Netflix in 1997, YouTube in 2005, Wikipedia in 2001, and the BlackBerry was introduced in 1999.

Furthermore, most brands in the 2008 rising star list share something in common: They have built strong consumer communities. Brands such as MySpace, Craigslist, Netflix, YouTube, iPod, and eBay catalyze their consumers, who come to see themselves as part of a bigger community built on shared interests. These brands have enthusiasts, fanatics, and customers who often identify more as members than as customers.

Comparing popular brands in 2008 and 2002 led us to the conclusion that change-promoting brands are gaining more popularity now than in recent years. This brings up a couple of questions: Does longevity and experience interfere with the ability of a brand to be a change agent? Can brands that operate in an offline space become change agents?

The answer to these questions is yes and no. As we have seen in the recent election results, a majority of voters did not buy into John McCain's "maverick" positioning - a clear attempt to claim a change agent space, to no avail. Because he is an established brand it was difficult to make the change message credible. However, the public was galvanized by Obama's meteoric rise - he is a "new" brand. Furthermore, his campaign looked more like eBay than Sam's Club. Just like our current brand winners, Obama created community, co-existed in the virtual space, and transformed voters into "members."

Based on the election and our Top 15 list, we worry that consumers are likely to be skeptical when a brand that has been around for a long time tries to radically break away from its past. What does this say about the ability for older brands to revitalize themselves? Not that it is impossible, but as is usually the case in branding, minor tweaks, minor improvements, and unsupported messages do not a winner make. Real change, real innovation, and a message that taps into unmet - even unrecognized - needs creates change agents and winners.

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