the magic of the cultural brand

1. Define the basic difference between a cultural brand and a plain old run-of-the-mill brand.

We have identified a distinctive set of components attaining an emotional appeal with the consumer. These 5 elements of a cultural brand - social context, experience, community, products and services, and infrastructure sensibility - work in tandem to build the brand. A plain old run-of-the-mill brand may be very strong on community building or may be a product of exceptional quality but loses out on the other essential components. Granted, it may be one or the other of these elements that might be the thing that entices a consumer to enter that brand world, but all five plays a role in making that consumer want to come back.

Beyond establishing these five elements, the real key in building a cultural brand is in identifying and truly understanding that people are changing. They're changing the way they live, where and how they shop and what they buy. And knowing this, we have to understand that with this change consumers are resonating to products and brands that reflect the values they hold and the values they are developing. So, therefore, a cultural brand encompasses, represents these changing values; it represents this changing experience people are longing for and participating in; and it represents the community that's a part of this shifting culture.

The notion of the cultural brand, like so many other innovations, is a product of synthesis that embraces both art and science.

2. It seems to me that creating a brand that qualifies as "cultural" takes a lot more than just clever positioning. It also takes uncommon insight, superior execution, and probably a lot of just plain luck. Agreed?

I agree with all of this, including "just plain luck." Because a lot of the brands that we have found that have gained "cultural" status really were "at the right place, at the right time." But the uncommon insight is the understanding of the consumer and the recognition of these consumers' complexities and dualities - that what they say they do, they don't always necessarily do and that their behavior is not and will not change over night. We're not looking for people that are just trying a new product or brand, we're talking about people that become involved in the community, in the experience of a brand, people who become evangelists of that brand for the long haul.

In the book, we talk about The Grateful Dead as an example of a cultural brand. We are hard pressed to think of a better example of culture and community driving sales than this. The Grateful Dead sold out concerts year after year from coast to coast. This, despite the fact that the band was never known for their musical talents. But, if you've ever attended one of their concerts you cannot help but be struck by the feeling of cultural cohesiveness among fans, "Deadheads," many of whom would travel great distances to attend shows and some of whom traveled around the country (and Europe) to do so. There was a unique discourse among Deadheads, a shared sense of difference from others, shared social rituals and a clear sense of moral responsibility tied to the counter-culture roots of this "scene." The elements of community were crystal clear. And this is all part of building a cultural brand. At first glance, however, the band would appear to have some of the worst brand consultants in history. Fans were permitted to sell tee-shirts, stickers and other trinkets with the band's logo on them - many with unique variations of the logo - and some that were less than appealing. A brand manager's nightmare. Lost revenue, brand management issues and a counter-culture movement controlling your image would, for some, stand as serious problems or liabilities that should be addressed and resolved immediately. The band, however, understood that community and experience were key elements of their successÉtheir financial success.

This is not to say you need to go to this extreme to become a cultural brand. But, management needs to be particularly attentive to innovations initiated by the customers themselves, and to do its best to nurture such organic initiatives where appropriate or just plain get out of the way.

3. In the food industry, what are the products/companies that you would identify as having achieved "cultural brand" status, and why?

Certainly Whole Foods Market, I'd also say Stonyfield Farm and even Kashi. What these companies have been able to do is combine the sense of this postmodern world, this sense of changing culture, that people don't want to live in the past but they are taking elements of soul values from the past that they have incorporated into their lifestyle today. This is what we call "retrieval, which we talk about in the book. So, for example, Whole Foods has what people think of as an authentic experience. The products are real, natural, whole. The store is warm and comfortable. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and at the same time unique and individual. This experience represents what the neighborhood market should be - with stacks and baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, exotic products and gourmet treats. You trust them to provide you with the best food products to keep you healthy and whole. Consumers feel welcome here, they feel special, they feel soulful. This experience is something that's important to them, and it has an effect on their wellness - emotionally, physically, mentally.

Kashi, on the other hand, has created a kind of community around storytelling - how consumers use the product, cook with the product, lose weight with the product. In essence, how they've incorporated Kashi into their lives. This storytelling helped build a network of loyal users, where the Kashi users, themselves, became evangelists for brand. From listening to these stories, Kashi was also smart enough to stand back and recognize how people used their product. People were eating it, cooking with it; so, Kashi designed a Meal Planner on their website. Kashi also had a big appeal for weight management; out of that recognition they created Kashi Go Lean. They've been very good at moving with the consumer. No, Kashi is not a household name. By no means is it a mainstream brand. But for its group of extremely loyal users, Kashi has built a world, a community, where consumers can participate on their own level, at a level that they feel comfortable. Stonyfield has also created a unique kind of culture for some customers. Here people are not just buying Stonyfield yogurt for the product attributes alone, they are also buying into the emotional appeal of the brand as well. Stonyfield Farm is a company that represents integrity, quality and even a sense of humor. And those are the values this simple yogurt represents, that Gary Hirshberg has created a brand that is representative of the shifting values that people feel good about. People wouldn't buy the product if it didn't taste good, but they will buy a lot more of it, be much more loyal to it because of the whole infrastructure sensibility of the brand as well.

One key factor to keep in mind here is that none of these brands would be considered cultural brands if they first did not offer a product or service of extremely high quality and strong performance. None of the things we say about the importance of cultural branding has relevance for brands that cannot compete on this basic level.

4. Let's take a non-food industry example for a moment. I think you'd argue that the Chicago Cubs are a cultural brand, while the White Sox are not; or that the Yankees are, while the Mets are not. What is the real difference here? Is it just time and tradition? (It's not winning because the Cubs always lose.)

With the White Sox and the Mets, you're just going to a ball game; with the Yankees and the Cubs you are going to an experience. It goes back to the first three of the components of a cultural brand - experience, community, social context. The Yankees have rituals and traditions; and they're soulful and they've got components of experience and community. You see this in the monuments to past players in the outfield, of Roger Clemens patting the forehead of Babe Ruth before he pitches in each game, the symbol of history and culture of baseball enveloping all of Yankee Stadium. One of the teams great traditions is their uniforms, with their blue pinstripes and interlocking "NY," arguably the most famous, the most recognizable in all of sports.

The Yankees are a winning team, but it doesn't take a winning team to make a cultural brand. Take the Cubbies, for example. The Cubs have just as much tradition. They are Chicago. Their tradition is based upon the ivy covering the outfield wall, the fans sitting on the rooftops of surrounding buildings, Harry Carry singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." In the Cubs' case, it's not about winning, it's about creating an experience for the Cubs fans at each and every game. It's the hope of winning the World Series someday.

In both examples we can see how each team has understood this tradition, this experience and has cultivated it to enhance its cultural brand status. With the Yankees, look at the uniforms - they are all but unchanged for the past 60-some-odd years. Now they remain the only team in baseball that doesn't include the players' names on the back of their shirts, keeping the essence of the Yankees with the team, not individual players. With the Cubs, we see how they have continued the legacy of Harry Carry in each 7th Inning Stretch, by bringing in different bands or singers or celebrities to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." This baseball tradition has become somewhat meaningless in other stadiums. Here, we relive one of baseballs great social rituals with excitement and delight.

5. Does a cultural brand necessarily have to be "up market"? Does the proliferation of the price/equation work against the creation of cultural brands?

I think one of the most counterintuitive things is that a cultural brand has to be "up market," when, in fact, what we're talking about here is not a luxury product, we're talking about values. Take organic products for example. Some of our demographic information shows the Hispanic-American and Asian-American consumers are much more likely to choose organics for many of their food purchases. Additionally, compared to the Caucasian group, certain ethnic groups are much less deterred by price and much more motivated by family reasons to purchase organics. This goes against the current commonly held belief that organics are high-priced gourmet item only for yuppies. Organics represents particular values and traditions to these families - you can't put a price tag on that.

Conversely we're finding high-income consumers hunting down Dollar Stores, which are fast reaching cultural brand status, to find that one "bargain" they are looking for. Here, the "hunt" becomes the experience the store offers. There's a whole community built around these consumers sharing stories about their most recent find.

6. At one point in the book, you identify Apple Computers as having created a cultural brandÉand yet, some would argue that it has sacrificed profitability in the process. Are there certain inherent dangers in becoming a cultural brand in terms of business models?

Apple forgot who they were. They forgot where they came from. And along the way they left behind the components that established them as a cultural brand in the first place. Most importantly, they forgot about the people who refer to themselves as "Mac People." Steve Jobs left. John Scully took it over. Scully ran Pepsico and ran Apple like it was Pepsico. It just didn't operate the same way. As they moved into the computer mainstream, they forgot what made them unique. When Steve Jobs came back, they rediscovered that infrastructure sensibility - the essence of what the company and the brand stand for - that was lost in the beginning. It reinvigorated not just the product, but the whole culture and the brand that they developed at the outset. Today, we see Apple Stores popping up that are incorporating those same components - experience community, the very fiber that has kept Apple together.

7. Can you market research your way into developing a cultural brand?

Market research is only a tool to help identify what those components are that create successful brands. For example, through market research we identified the five components of a cultural brand I've been talking about - social context, experience, community, products and services, and infrastructure sensibility. And it's market research that helps you understand where your brand fits in relationship to those components. But, the most important thing market research can do for a company or brand is to help you hear, decipher and understand the voice of the consumer.

And those companies ahead in understanding how these consumers are changing and how they are connecting with them will shape the marketplace of tomorrow.

8. Is it easier for a small company, whether retailer or manufacturer, to develop the characteristics of a cultural brand? What are the unique challenges for companies like, say, P&G or Albertsons, that want to develop these characteristics?

Yes, there's no question. Inherently, he characteristics of a cultural brand fits much more successfully with smaller companies. Bigger companies have traditions in how they look at branding scenarios. They have a built, set infrastructure in how they market and develop new brands. They have insight teams, marketing teams, R&D teams they've done this for years. A smaller company, however, is not tied to its own infrastructure and the way they've done things. They are much more nimble and can move when (or better yet, before) the consumer moves. What we're actually talking about with a cultural brand is a process of looking at the consumer and the market differently, with a new eye, because the consumer is looking to the brands they use and buy differently.

9. When we are talking to consumers about what they see as cultural brands, what are the key words or phrases that we should be listening for?

We should be listening for communities, phrases like "our brand," "my store"; stories that consumers want to share with us that move beyond product attributes and include the emotion and feeling consumers connect with the brands they love as they incorporate them into their lives.

10. In the word of 2004 and beyond, are we going to see more cultural brands in the food retailing and consumer packaged goods arenas? Fewer? And why?

Absolutely we'll see more. Why? Because, as I've said before, we are changing the way we live, the way we shop and the way we buy. And as people are shifting culturally, they are resonating to things that are more soulful in nature and expressing that in ways that are important to them, the touchpoints of life. Yes, we are going to see a lot more companies and brands connecting with consumers in a more soulful way.

Creating culture by building community and experience is not only profitable for these companies, it also represents an opportunity to provide consumers with a sense of place. It is a means by which to establish synergy between society and the entity that in the long run certainly has greater value than a series of 30-second clips on one of the major networks. Indeed, in this post-Enron environment, it is especially important for companies to engage in dialogue with consumers and shareholders. Cultural brands can be used to facilitate such a dialogue, while bringing people together in a way that can be good for society as well as consumers and your company.

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