Battle of the brands. winners and losers in the culture war

Battle of the brands

Brands are beginning to question whether just knowing their consumer is enough to differentiate them. Being culturally relevant and future-focused is increasingly important because culturally connected brands can be nimble and operate in real time. They draw their meaning from culture as it shifts. Understanding the impact of these shifts can be critical to the future vibrancy of a brand.

How can you connect with, and measure, something as amorphous as culture? And how do you know when you’re doing it right?

For the past three years we have been measuring how successfully brands are connecting with the cultural zeitgeist with our Cultural Traction study, which can signify a brand’s future health. Unlike other brand studies that record a moment in a brand’s past, Cultural Traction is futurefocused, measuring its potential growth momentum.

For Cultural Traction 2013, we asked 62,150 people about 160 brands across 15 sectors in 10 countries to decide which brands are hitting the cultural bull’s-eye. The study measures a brand’s cultural vibrancy (VIBE) – how Visionary, Inspiring, Bold and Exciting it is. The change in a brand’s VIBE over time represents its Cultural Traction. If traction is decreasing, the brand is falling out of step and faces trouble. If it’s increasing, the brand has its finger on the right pulse and may be destined for greater things. A slide in either direction means the brand would benefit from exploring these cultural insights in more depth to support its marketing and innovation strategies.

With the exception of events such as 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008-9, or recent friction caused by tough austerity measures, most cultural change is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. When change really impacts our values, beliefs and behaviours, it’s important to monitor how well brands are responding. Successful, forward-thinking brands are the ones that are driving the change. In the 2013 study, the brands that lead the pack as the most culturally relevant and most credible tap into cultural trends.

Sexy tech brands Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and eBay dominate the Added Value Cultural Traction 2013 top ten. Home furnishing giant IKEA makes a surprise entry at number 4, ahead of luxury car brands BMW and Audi. While the top brand, Google, is less than 20 years old, Coca-Cola is almost 130. Its successful ranking at number 9 indicates that age is no barrier to being a brand icon when culture is used effectively to connect with consumers.

At the heart of our top 10 brands is a belief in freedom and opportunity to drive the human race forward. These brands inspire us to dream: take Sony’s ‘make. believe’. Google never disappoints in the way it uses creativity to look at things differently. This may seem generic for technology brands, but even though IKEA is a corporate behemoth, it nimbly appropriates the language of the street by using Banksy-style ads to open consumers’ minds to design possibilities.

But there are not many brands that can do this with such self-confidence and panache, which brings us on to the losers. In our study, booze brands are snoozing at the bottom of the league table. Coke’s FMCG peers are also low in VIBE, while tech brands Twitter and Yahoo! show that VIBE doesn’t always accompany technology. So what can we learn from the winners and losers?

Taking a bite out of Apple

Although Apple emerges ahead of Samsung in the study, leading-edge consumers are picking up on Samsung’s VIBE in our survey. Until mid-April, Apple was the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. It lost this to Exxon Mobil, which has a market capitalisation a few billion dollars above Apple’s $380 billion.

Our survey suggests the crown may slip further as Samsung is showing a more consistent and stable VIBE across the globe. Apple still leads (for now) in the US, western Europe and Australia, but it’s a bumpier road in Asia, which suggests a narrowing of the gap between the brands. Currently, Apple ranks ahead of Samsung by market value. Samsung ranks ahead of Apple by sales.

What may be driving the changes?  For 30 years Apple made ‘life on Earth’ work better – and Apple users feel one step ahead. But now it has softened its youthful, streetwise edginess and it appears to be talking to everyone. Apple may have become the corporate giant it originally rose against. It no longer universally owns ‘wow’ and Samsung’s approach to culturally relevant innovation suggests it has greater momentum moving forward.

Consumers have become used to an influx of innovation in the technology sector. It is now taken for granted that products will simplify and organise their lives; and, of course, there is an app for everything. Samsung has set itself up as ‘the next big thing’, targeting Apple as a lesser competitor.

What is now becoming increasingly important is a more human connection – not just between people, but between people and their tech. It looks as though Samsung has figured this out. Take its pop-up shops (known as Pins), where the product experience is a communal and entertaining one, or the positioning of the Galaxy smartphone as ‘designed for humans’ with technology that ‘goes beyond smart and fulfils your needs by thinking as you think, acting as you act’.

The lesson: be careful not to become the establishment you set out to overcome. The next big thing could be closer than you think.

IKEA: The best loved Swede since ABBA?

Few would have predicted fourth place – surrounded by the tech behemoths and premium auto brands – for the Swedish democratic design giant. The big blue and yellow box has built an empathetic persona around the world by focusing its offer and marketing on delivering clever small-space solutions, which are in tune with the struggling economic climate. It is enabling consumers to indulge their appetite for design, and to refresh their homes, by being practical, friendly and good value.

IKEA successfully taps into digital technologies and social media platforms in relevant and useful ways for its customers.
Klippbok, an iPad scrapbooking app, enables users to mix and match IKEA products to create inspiring moodboards and room schemes, while ‘share space’ invites people to upload photos of their own home decorating schemes that are tagged with IKEA products.

The future of retail lies in technology. It is changing the way we shop and the future is seamless, instantaneous and more experiential than ever before. Take Puma’s in-store iPads, which allow you to design your own shoe, for example, or Macy’s GPS system, which directs you to your chosen item. Adidas has a truly customised in-store digital experience. Consumers can browse, play, order and purchase from the complete Adidas range with videos, product specs, performance stats and Twitter feeds all rendered in real time.

So even for IKEA there are lessons. While it uses technology to inspire, it is not yet at the core of its shopping experience. By applying its intuitive, democratic design principles across the whole shopping experience, IKEA is in pole position to create the future of retail.
The lesson: embrace technology to create a multi-sensory brand experience if you want to stay ahead and be the envy of the rest.

Dove soars clear of rival Nivea

Many of the brands with strong VIBE have a halo that radiates well beyond their immediate business. Their purposes tend to include some form of social good that favourably impacts individuals, communities and/or the planet.

Arguably, few brands have done a better job of this than Dove, Unilever’s flagship hygiene and beauty brand. Dove is out-VIBEing key competitor, Nivea, and is the only packaged goods company to receive outstanding scores worldwide for being inspiring.

In the US, Dove earns a higher score on ‘committed to making the world a better place’ than any of the 60 brands in that market, with the exception of TOMS Shoes. It is truly exceptional to see a ‘soap brand’ inspire consumers and make them proud to be associated with it.

What’s the key to Dove’s sustainability success?

Its decade-long real beauty campaign to build self-esteem is a lesson in the art and science of seamless integration of a social good story into a brand’s equity.

With only 4% of women considering themselves beautiful, Dove relates itself to a fundamental insight of its market. Most women feel pressured to live up to fictional and unachievable definitions of beauty.

Women love this brand because it understands them and is investing earnestly to redefine beauty, promoting confidence, rather than anxiety. It does this by partnering with organisations such as the Girl Scouts and through award-winning social media campaigns, reaching millions of girls in an effort to help them feel better about who they are.

Dove’s investment in the Dove Men + Care line has meant that men’s perception of the brand’s cultural vibrancy has rocketed.
The brand leverages the changing role of men in society, with a particular focus on fatherhood. Its men’s range recently sponsored the ‘Dad 2.0’ conference and also promotes being ‘comfortable in your own skin’.

Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign is 10 years old, but the brand is keeping its cultural conversation fresh and changing the world in the process.
The lesson: Look to culture to find the insight which triggers a conversation to stand the test of time.


BMW and Audi: revving up for success

In the realm of premium automotive brands, two manufacturers – BMW and Audi – are driving high VIBE by appealing to our emotions in a bold and exciting way.

R&D and innovation have always been the hallmark of premium car brands such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. Today, cars are becoming the ‘fourth screen’ in our lives – providing mobility within mobility – by connecting us to apps, smartphones, tablets and technology at large.

Let’s not forget that it was Toyota that led the eco revolution with the Prius and its cult following from Hollywood. In an age when high fuel costs are putting far more emphasis on energy efficiency and carbon reduction, one might expect gas-guzzling premium cars to be losing their appeal. This category used to be about exclusivity, pleasure and seduction, but now brands like Audi and BMW need extra layers of value to stay relevant.

So how have they bucked the trend? Audi is building its eco-friendly strategy on the back of its existing product range and brand values. Its electric engine concept e-tron is being incorporated into existing A1 and A3 models, as well as the R8 Spyder sportscar range, proving that being green does not have to be disruptive or reduce desirability.

Similarly, BMW’s i-concept extends rather than disrupts its brand values, offering exciting futuristic design with rational efficient fuel consumption.

BMW and Audi are sensitively responding to a key shift in culture. There is a move away from a personal fulfilment through self-interested consumption towards social responsibility, diversity and sustainable values. These two brands have successfully balanced desire with reason against the backdrop of the global financial crisis to position themselves as responsible, sustainable and socially aware.

The lesson: Show that you’re listening to what the world is saying by delivering game-changing innovation that inspires.

Alcohol: Is booze snoozing and losing?

Smirnoff, Absolut, Heineken, Budweiser, Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal: big brands with big budgets, big volumes and big visions. While there’s no denying the size and power of these giants, they are up against some serious challenges to remain culturally relevant in the years ahead.

Despite Pernod Ricard’s healthy returns – it recently announced a 6% rise in profits – the larger global brands are not leading the innovation stakes and are not initiating genuine emotive, meaningful conversations with their consumers.

A key challenge is coming from niche craft alcohol brands, such as Kernel Brewery, whose production story is all about flavour, or Chase Vodka, which prides itself as a labour of love. Arguably, mainstream alcohol brands have lost their shine. They no longer feel like exciting cultural innovators, but industrial and boring.

They have also arguably lost much of the emotional space they once occupied to technology brands. What phone you have is far more important in communicating your identity and values than the beer you choose to drink. And on top of this, technology brands are eroding the very ‘social bonding’ territory that has been the preserve of alcohol for so many years.

The mass market brands need to think bigger and outside their own category. When Johnnie Walker embraced a bespoke luxury experience, it was a great marketing campaign, but perhaps not big enough. What is big enough? Action, not just advertising. For example, Absolut, which has pushed its creativity with unique limited edition products. And beyond the alcohol category, Burberry, which has designed its flagship London store as a physical manifestation of its website – interactive, innovative and delightful – and Instagram, which captured the imagination of a whole generation by allowing users to explore and express their own creativity.

So how can the booze brands reclaim the cultural conversation? They should by using their size, fame and clout to start relevant dialogues with consumers and be heard. By focusing on creating stories that have tangible impact, mean something to people and allow their brands to be a part of people’s lives, they can create a resonance in their own category and in the wider world.

The lesson: Reclaim the cultural conversation to be part of people’s lives. Take inspiration from other categories.

Social relevance

So what does Cultural Traction mean for brands, today and tomorrow? Ultimately, having cultural traction means being able to participate in what is going on in society and categories outside your brand. Successful brands don’t just keep up with cultural shifts, but drive them in the most relevant way for their consumers. The losers in the 2013 culture war are more likely to be focusing on ‘what is’, while those sitting at the top are asking ‘what if?’. Culture really is the stuff of life. Those brands that ignore it do so at their peril.


Kate McDougle is director of marketing at Added Value UK. This article was taken from the June issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here.