Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What is 'cultural branding,' and how did Trader Joe's do it?

Douglas Holt, the author of "How Brands Become Icons,"  divides brand theories into four broad categories...
  • Mindshare
  • Emotional
  • Viral
  • Cultural

How Brands Become Icons is a deep, scholarly book, and I won't try to provide a functional summary. I do recommend that you download and read the relevant chapter here, if you want to learn more.

My take on it is that Holt's first three categories are all variations on traditional 'strategic' branding. 

I think he'd agree with me that the first three are, usually, progressive stages in brand evolution. Don't get me wrong; brands don't inevitably evolve along this path, but a brand that fully succeeds at each level moves to the next one. My interpretation of Holt's theory is that if you do a great job building mindshare, you will in the process make an emotional connection with the consumer. Once you make that emotional connection, you enter their social conversation--that's 'viral' in this age of Facebook, Twitter, etc. but the difference is in the way we communicate, not what we communicate. That glowing screen is just the new water cooler.

Cool enough for Anthony Bourdain, without the slightest hint that it's gone to the proprietor's head.
What's the quantum leap from that to a cultural brand? Click that 'Read More' link to find out...

I guess the best way for me to describe my brand-building goal is to say, I don't want the consumer to just... 
  • Identify my brand and be aware of my benefit -- i.e., give me the benefit of mindshare
  • 'Like' my brand -- i.e., prefer it, and purchase it
  • Endorse it and talk about it
...although those are all good things.

I want the customer to go further. A cultural brand is a part of the consumer's life, and a part of their own definition of who they are. It helps consumers to define their circle of friends.

Remember the Chili's restaurant ads with the jingle, "Gimme' my babyback, babyback, babyback..." for ribs? Sure you do. If you were lost in suburban America, and hankering for ribs, you might well make a conscious, rational choice to stop there.

I live in Kansas City, though, where ribs are an art form. (If you're visiting KC and want a suggestion for barbecue, you have to make sure to only ask one Kansas Citian at a time for his recommendation, because if you ask two, together, you'll provoke a fistfight.) 

Everyone who lives here has his own favorite rib joint. Mine is The Woodyard. On a nice summer evening, when my wife and I gravitate to The Woodyard, it's not some rational choice -- it's not the result of anything that's ever been communicated to us in any mediated way. The Woodyard doesn't advertise, at least not that I've ever noticed (and I would.) I'm sure if you talked to the owner (and you will; he's right there) and mentioned his 'brand' he'd look at you, shake his head, and think how sad and empty the lives must be of effete 'Easterners'.

Is this kind of idiosyncratic cultural brand scalable to Fortune 500-sized companies? My experience at Trader Joe's suggests, surprisingly, that it is.
Sorry, I got a little carried away there. My point is, in a city with dozens of great BBQ joints, that one is our place. It's not the answer to a question about barbecue, it's the answer to a question about us. 

Great small businesses like The Woodyard become small-scale cultural brands. They achieve that status in their customers' minds as a result of one-on-one interaction. They build trust and history the old fashioned way. 

Until my Trader Joe's experience, if someone told me that was a method that could be used by a Fortune 500 company, I'd've thought they were nuts -- that it was not scalable. But Trader Joe's proves two things: that it is scalable, and that it's possible to go direct to cultural brand status, without passing through the traditional stages, and without using the traditional tactics of brand managers, communications strategists, and ad agencies. 

The key to each quantum leap up through Holt's levels -- and especially the key to achieving cultural brand status -- is not what you say about your brand, it's how you listen. Great strategic brands listen, too, of course. But the genius of Joe Coulombe was in realizing two things: First, that listening to customers was something too important to trust to focus groups and research companies; and second, that the act of listening itself, conducted on a massive scale, is a brand-building technique.

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