As we alluded to in our blog post “A Reputation is not a Brand”, a strong brand is a powerful means of establishing and communicating credibility, as well as connecting with customers and prospects. The shortcoming in modern branding is that, except for innovators like IBM and Deloitte, most B2B brands have a static identity that, though often somewhat effective, fails to fully engage audiences in the ever changing, tumultuous environment of the digital age.
Traditional branding attempts to associate a company, product, or service with a set of attributes, benefits, and emotions. This is called mind-share branding. There is also emotional branding—really more of an extension of mind-share branding—which appeals directly to a consumer’s wants, aspirations, and emotional needs.
Mind-share and emotional brand strategies define more objective attributes, such as unique selling propositions, product/service benefits, as well as subjective attributes, such as brand essence, brand attributes and personality, and brand values. They are meant to act as a stable core identity that a brand expresses through all marketing initiatives and messaging. Though more traditional, many of the most powerful brands in the world, such as Coca-Cola, use this form of branding because it provides a solid base that can be communicated down through multiple departments and generations of staff. These strategies work because over time, through consistent messaging, they enable a company to carve out space in a customer’s mind and own certain attributes and associations.
These strategies, focused on establishing and developing a stable base, are limited in the modern era of strategy, which demands improvisation and adaptability. A society’s attitude towards a certain topic can shift in an instant and people’s attention flows from one fashionable topic to the next. The world is turbulent and any strategy, brand-related or otherwise, must be malleable and agile. A traditional brand can still survive and do quite well in this environment, but to truly excel and capture the interest of audiences it must engage with current ideology and conversations with a clear, focused perspective. This is cultural branding.
According to Douglas Holt, CEO of Cultural Strategy Group, cultural brand strategies should create and perform an identity myth, which are myths that address the most important social tensions of a nation (How Brands Become Icons, Holt 2004). Dove is one example of a company that has excelled at this. Since 2000, Dove has committed itself to targeting flashpoint cultural issues or discussions. Its brand is now less of the series of attributes it used to be—gentle, mild, honest, clean, and authentic—and more the ideologies it has promoted. Dove’s Real Body campaign did not start the movement towards real beauty and acceptance of one’s body, but it took hold of it and broadcast it. As a result, Dove is no longer the cleanser that is gentle on sensitive skin, but the personal care brand bound with healthy body image and self-esteem.
This form of branding can seem risky as it requires a company to take a stance on a potentially contentious topic and perhaps alienate some potential or prospective customers, but as Michael Porter said, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” A key step in selling a product or service is deciding what it is and is not by positioning it relative to the competition. By engaging in a discussion with a clear perspective, companies can more easily define themselves and stand out.
We believe more traditional branding is still an essential base, but companies can build on that traditional base with creative campaigns that tap into and seek to direct ideologies. Mindshare branding is meant to be a timeless base. To be constant, the brand must be more abstract, and not directly aligned with any one time. Cultural branding principles can help activate a brand in the present cultural context, without compromising its ahistorical core. Those principles allow a brand to shift organically while remaining true to the base brand.
What can less consumer focused businesses learn from this? Don’t be afraid to stand for something. Keep your ears open for important discussions or movements related to your industry and use them to promote an ideology that is consistent with your core brand. Talk about what your core audience or niche cares about now. Move culture in your industry forward. Influence or disrupt the prevalent ideology.