Creating a unique and lasting cultural brand is the holy grail of advertising. Tapping into that nebulous mix of timing, attitude and emotion to not only recognize, but also reflect an ideology is something close to marketing magic. Only a few companies have succeeded, and even fewer do it well decade after decade—brands like Subaru, Starbucks, Apple and Ben and Jerry’s are a few that come to mind. Each of these companies offers consumers a brand that reflects more than cars, coffee, computers or ice cream—they were astute enough to recognize (or lucky enough to stumble upon) a shift in cultural mores and position their products as agents of change.
But how do other companies create something that seems to have no recipe?
1. Cultural brands recognize a disruption in society
For example, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was founded in the late 1970s and launched its product line in a market already flushing with other ice cream brands. They thrived in the 80s by positioning themselves as an antidote to the Reagan era when strong divisions between liberals and conservatives were just starting to become apparent. The brand became identified with the ideas of peace, love and harmony, and a sort of rebirth in counterculture.
2. Cultural brands create a sense of community in consumers
Brands that reach iconic cultural status don’t just offer products; they provide a sense of community. Maybe as a direct result of reflecting and offering participation in new cultural movements, these brands give consumers entry to an elite club of like-minded individuals and offer all the benefits that come with that level of brand experience. Subaru is a perfect example—its products bring to mind a class of consumers that is family-focused, outdoorsy, value and safety-conscious, and ecologically aware. Whether these assumptions are always true, partially true or completely false doesn’t dilute the brand experience.
3. Cultural brands create an experience with the consumer
Cultural branding goes beyond the product to include how consumers experience the product. Companies like Starbucks have enriched their products (and expanded their product line) by attending to the customer environment. Overstuffed chairs, good music, upscale décor details and soft lighting all create a salon-like atmosphere that complements the coffee and encourages customers to linger and keep coming back. And that experience isn’t lost when customers leave—it’s become part of the brand itself and is reflected in every mermaid-emblazoned cup we see on the street.
4. Cultural brands offer strong products and services
Of course, no brand has cultural staying power without a strong product or service. Though the brand experience may be just as compelling—or sometimes even more compelling—the product must be able to stand on its own merits.
Apple’s success in becoming the cultural brand powerhouse grew out of its technological and design innovation that continues to change the world of personal computing. Each of the corporate brands in our examples thrived by first bringing a high-quality product to market and then creating a compelling story around it.
5. Cultural brands are supported by a consistent brand infrastructure
The adjunct to a strong product or service is the infrastructure that surrounds it—this is the essence of what the brand stands for and how the company operates. The image that surrounds the best cultural brands transcends the product to include the experience, the story, the community—and infrastructure that delivers it all with consistency.
Target has succeeded quite well at delivering and communicating the infrastructure component of its brand. The company prides itself on giving a portion of its profits back to local communities. Customers, in turn, feel that their purchases help drive charitable giving and that their communities are the beneficiaries. In this way, the brand becomes a literal mechanism of social change and customers see a reflection of themselves in the good works of the company.
Brands that have become part of our cultural landscape have broadly embraced and nurtured their relationships with their customers. Whether by luck or by study, these brands offer their customers the right formula of social awareness, community, experience, products and infrastructure. The result can’t be overstated: the brand enters our cultural lexicon. It nearly self-perpetuates the brand story and it becomes part of our cultural and historical identity. You can’t buy that kind of advertising.
Kentin Waits is a freelance writer and marketing specialist based in Portland, Oregon. His work has been featured in US Airways magazine and top-rated blogs such as Wise Bread, the Consumerist, and MSN SmartMoney. When he's not writing, Kentin runs a small online antiques business.