Is now the time for brands to increase their understanding of consumers in their social context?
Posted by Will Butterworth on March 1, 2011
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At the Value Engineers we are always interested in finding, understanding and developing new ways of thinking about brands and branding. Looking outwards at the current social landscape of the UK where the constant reminder of impending government cuts to education has already caused a severe backlash, perhaps now is the time for brand-owners to consider how they can use a better understanding of the social landscape to their advantage.
During a recent project the topic of brands as cultural icons reared its head in relation to brand diffusion (how brand usage spreads throughout a population of target consumers). Although there are only indirect links between the theories, one can draw parallels between them under the banner of cultural branding: both adopt a view of their target in a social context rather than simply through a narrow lens of consumers in category X, Y or Z.
Douglas B Holt, in How Brands Become Icons,, puts forward a highly academic model which allows brands to draw on cultural learning in the journey to becoming viewed as icons. Using Holt’s theories as a foundation fellow Engineer Gavin Galloway and myself developed a simpler model for brand owners interested in turning their brands into what we have termed “Identity Brands”. Our model is based on the agreement that achieving iconic status is not only highly subjective, but also that it cannot be pinned down to one single model or approach.
Identity Brands as we define them are brands that provide consumers with feelings of identity and purpose in their cultural surroundings and in doing so may (or may not) reach iconic status as a result. Achieving this is largely based on the provision of what we have termed a “social support” mechanism, whereby a brand will recognise a social deficit in its consumer’s lives and, through its communications, provide a social support idea to address it. The desired effect of course, being that once this is achieved the brand will exhibit what fellow Engineer James Littlewood calls: a transformational quality insofar as it makes people feel that they can express their own identity with a greater degree of confidence.
By way of example the “social deficit” in the lives of their target consumers identified by Dove prior to their Campaign for Real Beauty was based on the view that the beauty industry was inherently flawed in its presentation of feminine beauty. As the video below demonstrates Dove reminded its target consumers of the unrealistic image goals set by the mass media.
The “social support” mechanism provided by The Campaign for Real Beauty gave women alienated by the traditional discourse surrounding beauty a way to express an element of their own identity, that of body shape, with a far greater degree of confidence.
The Identity Branding model we have developed asks brand-owners to do the following:
- Consider the brands consumers as social beings.
- Look for problems / issues that may produce a “social deficit” in any part of their lives, not just socio-economics (consider the role of social categories – age, sex, class, ethnicity – in identity construction)
- Interrogate all relevant sources for possible material to use as a basis for “social support” (e.g. the attitudes & lifestyles of brand consumers themselves, current & emerging aspects of popular culture, new/emerging social trends.)
- Construct a new brand proposition that is based on a “social support” idea.
- Check brand for fit & credibility.
In demonstrating the applicability of the model Gavin and I used 3 case studies; Adidas: We Are London, Dove: Campaign For Real Beauty and Carling Black Label: I Bet He Drinks. Below is an example of how in the 1980’s Carling Black Label addressed the social deficit felt by men in the North of England, caused by high unemployment. In doing so CBL created a social support idea for the target which presented them as straightforward, honest and savvy blokes who, despite their current difficulties, always had this (and CBLs championing of it) to fall back on as a form social support.
Whilst the Identity Branding example we have used above shows the applicability of our model, we have feel it will be more successful when applied to certain categories than others. Categories that we have identified as more suited to the Identity Branding approach are as follows:
- Fashion and beauty brands
- Technology brands
- Alcohol brands
- Sports brands
- Car brands
…and we will be keeping an eye out for any brands from these categories who aim to provide social support for their consumers in the future.