What do brands like Apple, Club Med, Diesel, Muji, Patagonia, and Virgin have in common? Why are they different from brands such as Casio, Mattel, Microsoft, and Samsung? Why do millions of fans identify with brands like Ferrari or Harley-Davidson? Why does it seem that everyone has a pair of Adidas Originals, Levi’s 501s, or Ray-Ban Wayfarers in their closets?
Brands with a devoted following are what we define as symbol-intensive. People are loyal to them not only for their functional characteristics, but also for the symbolism and significance they transmit. They allow a consumer to express his or her identity, signal status, and manifest a sense of belonging.
On top of that, symbol-intensive brands are able to maintain relationships with their customers that go beyond what we commonly think of as loyal, becoming ambassadors and brand champions. These fans believe that if the brand ceased to exist, it would have a negative impact on their lives. In other words, they find the brand irreplaceable.
In our recent book, Lifestyle Brands: A Guide to Aspirational Marketing, we classify brands inside the broad category of symbol-intensive brands as authority, solution, cult, iconic, or lifestyle brands. Our research shows that lifestyle brands are the most complete type of symbol-intensive brands because they are the most likely to inspire or motivate people and contribute to how they define their way of life. However, as the following excerpt from our book outlines, all five symbol-intensive brand types present viable strategies for brands seeking to capitalize on customer loyalty.
Mapping symbol-intensive brands
We propose a classification system that operates as a function of competitive scope and the type of benefits offered to consumers.
Scope depends on the number of market segments served by the brand: age, gender, price range, product categories, or occasion of use, for example. A brand covers a narrow scope when it focuses on a single product or segment, expands its territory when it adds profitable market segments through line extensions and related categories, and covers a broad scope when it offers a wide range of products or services in different, unrelated segments. To illustrate, a brand expands its scope when it moves from clothing to leather accessories or from menswear to womenswear. A brand achieves a broad scope when it moves from clothing to hotels.
In 2009, David Aaker published an article, “Beyond functional benefits,” in which he wrote that the types of benefits offered by a brand are determined by function, emotional, and social aspects.1 Functional benefits include characteristics of usefulness and functionality, such as durability. The brand in this case “performs” its duty, providing a necessary service, unlike emotional benefits, which are more subjective. Weight Watchers promises to keep your weight under control—a functional benefit to joining its program. Amazon offers the largest selection of books, CDs, DVDs, and consumer electronics.
Emotional benefits refer to the ability of a brand to stimulate emotional responses in customers during the purchase or use of a product. Emotional benefits add richness and depth to the experience of a brand and can be extremely varied, from entertainment to status, pleasure, or creativity. The broad category of emotional benefits can be further divided into two types: autodirected and heterodirected.
Autodirected emotional benefits tap into the need for personal gratification. As Aaker suggests, this category of benefits can be identified if you can complete the sentence “When I buy or use this brand I feel ___.”2 For example, a consumer may feel reassured by driving a Volvo, regenerated by drinking Gatorade, or healthier by eating Dannon yogurt. The choice to shop at H&M or Uniqlo has to do not only with convenience, but also with the emotional benefit that comes from being savvy enough to find the best deal. This category of benefits is very much linked to the product the brand offers.
Heterodirected emotional benefits meet the needs of customers to express their personalities in a social context. They complete the sentence “When I buy or use this brand I am ___.”3 Fashion and luxury brands often exhibit this type of benefit. Cartier and Louis Vuitton are status symbols and, like most luxury goods, express social standing, making those who own them appear successful.
Finally, social benefits allow a person to express membership in a group of people who share the same lifestyle, responding to the human need for self-actualization and community identification. The benefit in this case completes the sentence “When I buy or use this brand, the types of people I relate to are ___.”4 Those who own a Harley-Davidson are part of HOG (the Harley Owners Group); buying a Ferrari allows you to enter the “ferraristi” clan with pride.
By mapping the four types of benefits and the competitive scope expressed by the number of categories and targets addressed, we come to define two major areas of positioning: the area of functional excellence (brands offering functional benefits) and the territory of symbolic excellence (brands offering emotional and social benefits). We will focus here on symbol-intensive brands and their five categories, each of which has merits for attracting loyal customers.
Authority brands: Demonstrating skillful mastery
Typically present in a narrow market segment, authority brands provide prevalently autodirected emotional benefits designed for personal satisfaction and pleasure. These are specialized brands considered to be real authorities in their segments. They often focus on patents, innovation, and distinctive styles or products; for example, the special “interwoven” leather of luxury brand Bottega Veneta. They are enriched by experiential product benefits.
BlackBerry, Illy, and Victorinox belong to this category, as does the Dr. Hauschka cosmetics brand, known for the integrity of its process and the purity of its ingredients. These are brands that have the power to influence and persuade by virtue of their particular expertise. By using these brands, customers feel reassured and gratified.
A brand may acquire authority status by demonstrating skillful mastery over generations, or in the short term through product or process innovations. In any case, a brand must constantly maintain authority over time and protect itself from obsolescence and attacks by competitors.
The competence of an authority brand, both superior and distinctive, is often the starting point for evolving into other types of brands; iconic, cult, and lifestyle brands often originate in a niche market where they have developed a successful product. Hermès was, and still is, an authority in luxury saddle making, but it has steadily moved into an iconic brand position by adding new product segments and emotional benefits. It has gradually evolved into offering more heterodirected emotional benefits.
Solution brands: Satisfying consumer desires
Similar to authority brands, solution brands provide primarily autodirected emotional benefits, but unlike authority brands, they appeal to a broader market, covering various segments of consumers through a wide selection of products.
Solution brands are generally very respected and offer a completely satisfying experience in many product segments: Philips in consumer electronics, for example. This category includes many of the best-known brands, which typically occupy a leading position and offer a wide range of products in competitive and cluttered sectors. Examples include Honda, Mattel, Microsoft, Nokia, and Sony.
Often, brands become solution brands by starting from a position of authority gained by developing a highly successful innovation, such as Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system or Samsonite’s plastic luggage. The brands then move to an iconic or cult status with products that symbolize an era, such as Barbie, Levi’s 501s, Sony Walkman, or Volkswagen Beetle. Thanks to this legacy, many solution brands still manage to provide their customers with auto-directed emotional benefits after many years.
Cult brands: Creating a community of devoted fans
Among the brands oriented toward symbolic excellence, cult brands are specialized and are very much tied to a single category or a specific market segment. These brands have the ability to offer a social benefit to specific communities of consumers who share certain values and passions, such as watch collectors, cigar smokers, rock guitarists, sailors, golfers, and bikers. For these categories of people, brands like Breguet, Cohiba, Fender, Nautor’s Swan, Ping, and Triumph generate almost a passion that needs to be shared.
Cult brands promote social activities and sharing of experiences among their respective customers. Unlike authority brands, cult brands do not base their strength on only one product or expertise; they also (and especially) base their strength on their ability to create affiliation and sense of belonging.
A widely cited example is Harley-Davidson. Although the bikes themselves are not the most advanced on the market in terms of technology, comfort, or drivability, Harley-Davidson customers still prefer the brand because they embrace its adventurous, free-spirited values and macho connotations of driving a chopper. Members of HOG are more than loyal customers; to them, the brand perfectly embodies their lifestyle. They idolize the unmistakable roar of the engine, and they sometimes even get tattoos of the Harley logo.
Harley-Davidson owners embrace the cult brand’s adventurous, free-spirited values. The community gathers at rallies like the one pictured, which was held at an American army base in Tuscany. Image by Joyce Costello, courtesy U.S. Army.
For cult brands, anecdotes that fuel storytelling are essential. In the ’60s, the historic arrival of Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Daytona did more than any advertising campaign could for the brand’s success in the United States. The parade at a Ferrari gathering is always an event to talk about. The fact that the motor shaft, the heart of a Ferrari engine, is still balanced and finished by hand is a story that fascinates legions of fans.
Moving through the cult phase is typical of many brands that become icons or lifestyles, but postcult, they maintain an original core of fans who give authenticity to the brand and remain their most important ambassadors.
Iconic brands: Defining timeless style
Within the universe of symbolic brands, iconic brands become the bearers of universal values and the tellers of stories. They express their values and stories through a range of products characterized by instantly recognizable and iconic codes. Using these brands is a statement that generates heterodirected emotional benefits for the consumer.
Icons are timeless; even fashion brands avoid being considered trendy after they gain iconic status. This happened for French luxury brands such as Chanel and Hermès and for globally admired jewelers such as Bulgari, Cartier, and Tiffany. Fashion brands become iconic when they are able to move beyond trends by continually incorporating the elements that have made them successful over time. Their signature looks are present across touchpoints—in products, communications, and store environments.
Iconic brands often come from a position of authority or cult, extending the appeal of their range of products beyond their original circle of followers. At the height of their success, they are well-known brands that are both loved and desired. Long-term success is mainly determined by their ability to stay in tune with the deep, shared values of a diverse community.
When deep cultural changes occur, the mythologies of iconic brands lose relevance and consumers seek a new legend. However, iconic brands cannot betray their core values in order to respond to shifts in society. In the late ’90s, the clothing brand Gap was an icon of American casual style, namely “an American classic with a twist.” After fast-fashion chains entered the market, Gap decided to follow in their footsteps. By doing so, it quickly lost its iconic status and suffered from lackluster economic performance.
Lifestyle brands: Inspiring a new world order
Lifestyle brands are able to generate social benefits in a relatively high number of business segments and become recognized phenomena. These brands have an ideology, dictate the rules, and indicate a way of life and express it in an original way across categories.
Patagonia, for example, offers an environmentally friendly way of life. With Nike, one enters a community that’s pushing the limits. Volcom, with the tagline Youth against establishment, gives a label and a sense of belonging to those who are “against” the world of adults. When a lifestyle brand emerges, it creates a disruption and proposes an innovative viewpoint on the world. The driver may be the product (The Body Shop with natural cosmetics), shopping experience (Abercrombie & Fitch with its stores), service (Club Med), communication (Diesel), or a combination of these elements.
A lifestyle brand almost always takes its energy from youth to assert and enforce change. Brands like Apple, Burton, Nike, and Virgin initially targeted youth and young adults, convincing an increasing number of people that their adoption would reinforce and amplify their own ethos, culture, and social identity.
Another clear indication of lifestyle status is the existence of a call to action, a rallying cry urging the faithful to be the bearers of a movement, a vision of the future through an active attitude. Apple’s Think different, Camper’s Walk, don’t run, Diesel’s Be stupid, and Nike’s Just do it are now historical examples of something more than a simple slogan or a tagline.
Lifestyle brands almost always originate from the insight of a visionary leader who anticipates a deep social need. In this case, the intuition does not remain exclusive to a circle of followers but instead generates a broader value. Compared with iconic brands, which crystallize their legends, lifestyle brands maintain a strongly dynamic perspective, always remaining in motion and fueling their own point of view of the world.
Sticking to a path
Our model does not try to oversimplify a complex reality. We recognize that not every brand will fit perfectly into one of these categories. However, it is crucial that every brand gravitate to one direction, to one of the five types of brands and symbolic territories that we have defined.
A brand cannot remain, in the words of Michael Porter, “stuck in the middle.”5 Brands at risk do not have a specific destination or a clear and sustainable role in symbolic value creation for their customers. They can be forgotten just as quickly as they were able to gain notoriety and fame. Such brands are potential fads.
In contrast, the five different brand types we identified represent truly significant and stable platforms that can be used to sustain a brand’s symbolic value and attract a loyal customer following. Brands that work to tell a story and fit into consumers’ lives will stay top-of-mind for years to come.
- David Aaker, “Beyond functional benefits,” Marketing News (30 September 2009).
- See note 1.
- See note 1.
- See note 1.
- Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors (Free Press, 1980).
This excerpt was first published in the Hub as “Lifestyle brands” (November 2013). hubmagazine.com
© 2013 Landor. All rights reserved.
Read more on this subject from the authors at lifestylebrandsblog.com.