Cultural Branding - start it now!

Cultural Branding is a term coined by Douglas Holt (2004). He promotes brands as icons connecting with cultural myths. Here, culture does not mean “high-culture”. Instead, depending on your customers, culture can refer to national culture, but even more often, to the shared sub-culture of a smaller group. Such as the Harajuku girls in Japan, the Harley Davidson devotees wanting to connect with their young rebellion inside, or the moms who want to dress their baby-girls with pink Hello Kitty products from head to toe.

Who owns the brand meaning?

In my view, cultural branding is about understanding the cultural background and myths of both the brand and its many users, and co-creating the brand together with the users so that it fits into their everyday life. This is where cultural branding differs from traditional branding, where the “brand owner” claims some superior position in defining the brand. Nowadays, brands like McDonald's and Starbucks can and do have different meanings for their Western users than for their Chinese consumers, for example. Localizing these service brands has meant that the Chinese have been given the opportunity to decide for themselves how they want to incorporate these brands into their lives. Therefore, McDonald's is a place for a young Chinese couple to go on a date in a country where public dating has not been typical. And Starbucks provides a small trip abroad, without forcing coffee down the Chinese throats, but instead providing a choice of tea or beverage more fitting to the local taste. Unfortunately, Finnish takeaway pizza brand Kotipizza, instead, has not fully taken on the free advice provided by users in online discussion groups, to create more appetizing and familiar tastes for their Suzhou customers for this non-Chinese format for food. Luckily, the cold smoke salmon pizza, which also won the bronze medal at the America’s Plate International Pizza Competition 2010, interests Chinese consumers, too.

Are you green with envy or reaching the flying altitude?

The Internet has provided a platform for totally new cultures to emerge. These might no longer have any national connections, but are based on some other common set of shared values. Examples include indie-travellers who share their experiences online, or those who build their lives around ecological values. The gaming industry has shown that the Internet provides other opportunities, as well, since the entertainment brand Angry Birds has been adapted into promoting education expertise with as much enthusiasm and success as it is being used for selling candy (by Fazer), soft drinks (by Olvi), or children’s wear (by Reima). It is also enlightening to see that while many Finns are mocking the Angry Birds and expecting it to flop, the above and many other big brands rather see the value it provides for them. Fazer, Olvi, and Reima, among others, are taking advantage of the success of the brand and the media reach it provides, and have joined in on the flight to new markets. Angry Birds has done a great job in co-creating their brand with local users for example by making local versions of the game Seasons to engage Chinese, Japanese and other Asian consumers. This is paying off for the other Finns connecting their own products with the brand, too.

Taken by the storm or getting lost in the Super Bowl?

Another interesting example is Supercell with their games the Clash of the Clans and Hayday. Personally, I am a bit worried about the recent developments ever since the majority of the company was sold to Japanese investors. Don’t get me wrong; I am applauding the business transaction, itself. But two issues are disturbing me. First, while I think it is marvelous that the founders are giving back to the community by ways of several charities, I wonder if this takes too much time off the true focus of the company. But second, and more importantly, I agonize over the fact that the company totally missed the mark for their biggest marketing investment yet, the Super Bowl 2014. I have no idea who designed their campaign, but apparently they had even less of an idea what the Super Bowl and advertising on the big screen and TV is about for the Americans (see for example this post by David Sable from Y&R advertising https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140205012759-234814-super-gmoot-bowl). At best, the commercials in the connection of the Super Bowl are something that creates a big part of the event, and the best ones are positively recalled decades later. Therefore, one thing has become of essence in designing commercials for the Super Bowl: the element of surprise, often with a humorous connection. Unfortunately, Supercell saw the arena just as a demo platform of their product, and even pre-released (!!!) their ads. For the Americans, this meant killing the suspense factor for one key part of their Super Bowl experience. Rather, Supercell should have thought about how their potential users watch the Super Bowl, and how they could connect and engage within that situation. Hopefully, the brand was not harmed failing to do this, but even in the best case, it was a lot of potential engagement down the drain.

So what can you do, right now? 1) Define the cultural values of your brand as of now. 2) Learn about the values of your brand users, and how and why they engage with the brand. 3) Make local adjustments in both the product or service and the communication so that your brand becomes their brand. 4) Start again from point one. 

Because, if it is not their brand, there is no brand. Simple as that.