Branding in the Age of Social Media – Harvard Business Review cont’d
September 16, 2020
While the rise of crowdculture diminishes the impact of branded content and sponsorships, it has greased the wheels for an alternative approach that I call cultural branding. The dramatic breakthrough of the fast-casual Mexican food chain Chipotle from 2011 to 2013 (before recent outbreaks of foodborne illness) demonstrates the power of this approach.
Chipotle took advantage of an enormous cultural opportunity created when the once-marginal movements that had challenged America’s dominant industrial food culture became a force to be reckoned with on social media. The chain jumped into the fray as a champion of this crowdculture’s ideology. By applying cultural branding, Chipotle became one of America’s most compelling and talked-about brands (though recent food-safety difficulties have dented its image). Specifically, Chipotle succeeded by following these five principles:
1. Map the cultural orthodoxy.
In cultural branding, the brand promotes an innovative ideology that breaks with category conventions. To do that, it first needs to identify which conventions to leapfrog—what I call the cultural orthodoxy. America’s industrial food ideology was invented in the early 20th century by food-marketing companies. Americans had come to believe that, through dazzling scientific discoveries (margarine, instant coffee, Tang) and standardized production processes, big companies, overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, would ensure bountiful, healthful, and tasty food. Those assumptions have undergirded the fast food category since McDonald’s took off in the 1960s.
2. Locate the cultural opportunity.
As time passes, disruptions in society cause an orthodoxy to lose traction. Consumers begin searching for alternatives, which opens up an opportunity for innovative brands to push forward a new ideology in their categories.
How Cultural Branding Builds Icons
Iconic brands are cultural innovators: They leapfrog the conventions of their categories to champion new ideologies that are meaningful to customers.
As a result, they enjoy intense customer loyalty and superior sales and profits, and garner loads of free media coverage. In business, few achievements are more prized than creating an iconic brand. Yet the two dominant branding models are not designed to do the job.
The first model, mindshare branding, is one that companies have long relied on. It treats a brand as a set of psychological associations (benefits, emotions, personality). The second model, purpose branding, has become popular in the past decade. In it, a brand espouses values or ideals its customers share. Over the past 15 years I’ve developed an alternative approach—cultural branding—to turn what was once serendipity into a rigorous discipline. Let me illustrate how it works, using the transformation of Jack Daniel’s from a near-bankrupt regional distiller to the maker of the leading premium American whiskey.
Whiskies compete to be perceived as upscale and masculine. In the 1950s the major brands sought to align themselves with the male ideal of the day: the sophisticated modern corporate executive. Jack Daniel’s, a small whiskey targeted to upper-middle-class men, was being trounced by the national competitors. How could it break through?
Mindshare-branding experts would advise the company to convey, very consistently, the key brand associations: masculine, sophisticated, smooth-tasting, classic. But that was precisely what Jack Daniel’s was doing—its ads mimicked the national brands’, showing alpha executives drinking smooth whiskey. And they didn’t work. Purpose-branding experts would encourage the firm to champion its core values. With that approach, the focus wouldn’t be much different: Those values had to do with producing classic charcoal-filtered whiskey for a sophisticated drinker.
Instead, the firm (tacitly) pursued a cultural-branding approach. Because masculine ideals are shaped by society, they change over time. The Cold War had dramatically affected Americans’ perceptions of masculinity. In the face of a nuclear threat, the corporate executive seemed too sedentary. Instead, the public was drawn to what had only recently been viewed as an anachronism: the gunslinging rugged individualist of the Old West, who, in the American mythos, had helped forge the country’s success. The enormous popularity of Western films was one indication of this shift. This massive cultural opportunity, which Marlboro and Levi’s leveraged as well, is obvious when analyzed through a cultural-branding framework—but invisible without one.
The Jack Daniel’s distillery was in a rural region of Tennessee that the postwar mass media portrayed as an impoverished land of hillbillies. Yet in the American imagination, the area was also one of the last authentic pockets of the frontier, where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone had gotten their start. So when American men yearned to revive the ideology of the frontier, the whiskey offered great potential as a symbol. This theme was first hit upon by men’s magazines (Fortune, True), which published stories romanticizing the distillery as a place run by frontiersmen, little changed since the 19th century. The company’s print-ad campaign simply emulated those stories, adding some folksy copy.
Jack Daniel’s quickly became the aspirational whiskey among urban upper-middle-class men; the branding converted its once-stigmatized location into a place where men were really men. Conventional models would never build a strategy centered on such a downscale version of masculinity. But in cultural branding, inverting marginal ideologies is one of the tricks of the trade.
For industrial food, the tipping point came in 2001, when Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation powerfully challenged it. This was followed in 2004 by Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me and in 2006 by Michael Pollan’s influential book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. These critiques dramatically affected the upper middle class, quickly spreading concerns about industrial food and providing huge momentum to Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and a host of other upmarket food purveyors. The same transformation is unfolding in other countries dominated by industrial food ideology. For instance, in the United Kingdom the celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have played a similar role.
Before social media, the influence of these works would have remained locked within this small fraction of society. Instead, crowdcultures grabbed the critiques and blew them up, pushing industrial food anxiety into the mainstream. News about every major problem linked to industrial food production—processed foods loaded with sugar, carcinogenic preservatives, rBGH in milk, bisphenol A leaching from plastics, GMOs, and so on—began to circulate at internet speed. Videos of the meatlike substance “pink slime” went viral. Parents worried endlessly about what they were feeding their kids. Crowdculture converted an elite concern into a national social trauma that galvanized a broad public challenge.
3. Target the crowdculture.
Challengers to the industrial food ideology had lurked at the margins for more than 40 years but had been easily pushed aside as crazy Luddites. Small subcultures had evolved around organic farming and pastured livestock, eking out a living at the fringes of the market in community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. But as social media took off, an influential and diverse cluster of overlapping subcultures pushed hard for food innovations. They included advocates of evolutionary nutrition and paleo diets, sustainable ranchers, a new generation of environmental activists, urban gardeners, and farm-to-table restaurants. In short order, a massive cultural movement had organized around the revival of preindustrial foods. Chipotle succeeded because it jumped into this crowdculture and took on its cause.
4. Diffuse the new ideology.
Chipotle promoted preindustrial food ideology with two films. In 2011 the company launched Back to the Start, an animated film with simple wooden figures. In it, an old-fashioned farm is transformed into a parody of a hyper-rationalized industrial farm: The pigs are stuffed together inside a concrete barn, then enter an assembly line where they are injected with chemicals that fatten them into blimps, and then are pressed into cubes and deposited in a fleet of semis. The farmer is haunted by this transformation and decides to convert his farm back to its original pastoral version.
Crowdculture converted an elite concern into a national social trauma.
The second film, The Scarecrow, parodied an industrial food company that branded its products using natural farm imagery. The company is actually a factory in which animals are injected with drugs and treated inhumanely. It cranks out premade meals stamped “100% beef-ish” that kids, oblivious to the real process, eagerly gobble up. A scarecrow who works at the factory is depressed by what he witnesses until he gets an idea. He picks a bunch of produce from his garden, takes it to the city, and opens up a little taqueria—a facsimile of a Chipotle.
The films were launched with tiny media buys and then seeded out on social media platforms. Both were extremely influential, were watched by tens of millions, generated huge media hits, and helped drive impressive sales and profit gains. Each won the Grand Prix at the Cannes advertising festival.
Chipotle’s films are wrongly understood simply as great examples of branded content. They worked because they went beyond mere entertainment. The films were artful, but so are many thousands of films that don’t cut through. Their stories weren’t particularly original; they had been repeated over and over with creative vigor for the previous decade or so. But they exploded on social media because they were myths that passionately captured the ideology of the burgeoning preindustrial food crowdculture. Chipotle painted an inspired vision of America returning to bucolic agricultural and food production traditions and reversing many problems in the dominant food system.
The bête noire of the preindustrial food movement is fast food, so the idea that a major fast food company would promote that story was particularly potent with the crowd. Chipotle was taking on pink slime! Moreover, boutique locavore food was expensive, but at Chipotle people could now assuage their worries with a $7 burrito. Because they tapped into anxieties percolating in the crowdculture, Chipotle’s films never had to compete as great entertainment.
5. Innovate continually, using cultural flashpoints.
A brand can sustain its cultural relevance by playing off particularly intriguing or contentious issues that dominate the media discourse related to an ideology. That’s what Ben & Jerry’s did so well in championing its sustainable business philosophy. The company used new-product introductions to playfully spar with the Reagan administration on timely issues such as nuclear weapons, the destruction of the rain forests, and the war on drugs.
To thrive, Chipotle must continue to lead on flashpoint issues with products and communiqués. The company has been less successful in this respect: It followed up with a Hulu series that had little social media impact because it simply mimicked the prior films rather than staking out new flashpoints. Then Chipotle moved on to a new issue, championing food without GMOs. Aside from the fact that this claim challenged its credibility (after all, Chipotle still sold meat fed by GMO grain and soft drinks made with GMO sweeteners), GMO was a relatively weak flashpoint, a contentious issue only among the most activist consumers and already touted by many hundreds of products. These efforts failed to rally the crowdculture. A number of other flashpoints, such as sugary drinks and industrial vegetable oils, generate far more controversy and have yet to be tackled by a major food business.
Of course, leading with ideology in the mass market can be a double-edged sword. The brand has to walk the walk or it will be called out. Chipotle is a large and growing business with many industrial-scale processes, not a small farm-to-table taqueria. Delivering perishable fresh food, which the company is committed to as a preindustrial food champion, is a huge operational challenge. Chipotle’s reputation has taken a painful hit with highly publicized outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus contamination. Chipotle won’t win back consumer trust through ads or public relations efforts. Rather, the company has to convince the crowdculture that it’s doubling down on its commitment to get preindustrial food right, and then the crowd will advocate for its brand once again.
….Implementing cultural branding in a social media society and market is key. We are here to help you Soar by Design. E mail is today and tell us what time and day works well for us to contact you.
….to be continued
Source: Harvard Business Review
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