Monthly Archives: August 2010

An Ethnographic Perspective On Managing Brands For The Emerging Middle Class


Middle class consumerism has been an emerging global force that has largely defined the world’s economic culture in the past century.  As recent as the past couple of decades, that growth has been particularly pronounced in countries like China and India and have reached as far as Mexico, Brazil and yes, even the  U.S.,  where all of these consumer cultures have experienced social and economic flux.

The discussion at hand concerns rules for managing global brands on a regional level where steadily rising economic means and ambitions directly intersect with centuries-old cultural and spiritual traditions. In spending a significant amount of time conducting anthropological fieldwork among emerging middle class consumers in several countries over the past few years, some patterns I have noticed have given me pause.

In particular, especially when it comes to youth culture, there seems to be an active push and pull between the desire to achieve economic status and social mobility and an engrained motivation to maintain close connections to cultural and spiritual roots.  I have seen this among MBA students in India who are in active transition between small town family life and the urgent ambition to compete in a daunting employment environment. I have observed it among the generation of “only children” in China who feel the burden of achieving economic success to meet future family care obligations and a deep nationalistic pride, but desire to find a middle ground where they want for nothing and can experience the best that global innovation has to offer.  This trend is also seen among first generation Mexican Americans who work hard to seize the educational and economic opportunities their immigrant parents toiled to achieve and as adults begin a retro-acculturation process to remind them of the rich, proud culture from whence their ancestors came.

I think that in the interest of embodying an  emerging identity of world-citizenship that values the unity of forward thinking progress and efficiency, some global brands lose out on the opportunity to integrate the strong cultural traditions of the past that have shaped the human culture of today.  It is important for the stewards of entities with a strong global presence to keep in mind the realities of geography and very personal connections to cultural roots that define their consumer’s existence.  Especially as competition for share of wallet gets more fierce, it is important to make sure your brand can empathize while adding functional value.  Brands are identity, and should remember the value of cultural nuance that create meaning for the individual

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It’s Not Marketing BS If It’s True: Connecting To Consumers Through Brand Story


This blog is brought to you by inspiration from a recent project.

I had been working with a brand team and their advertising agency to help them understand if their brand was still relevant to the marketing target they had been speaking to since launch and to give recommendations on how to retool their brand creative brief to keep that connection alive.  At the end of the project, the team came face to with a reality that was less than ideal: their brand was not being embraced by the very target they thought they were so well tapped in to. Their under-the-radar marketing activity was simply not reaching the intended target who’s impression of the brand had been shaped in a static (and not so favorable) way by outdated mainstream advertising. The irony: the “under-the-radar”  grassroots stuff that the brand has been doing for years and years was a story that made perfect sense for the brand in the eyes of the target and connected really well to who they are as a company and a product.

So, why had this company not been speaking more loudly about all the “cool” stuff they have been doing?  Part of the issue was concern that talking about grassroots activity might be taken the wrong way…seen as being “poser”-like or giving themselves an undue pat-on-the-back to a target who might smell that kind of communication as stinky smoke and mirrors instead of something genuine.  The reality:  insights about this particular target is that they are, indeed, looking to use their brand choices as a means to subtly and creatively express their personal points of view as well as to give support the affinity spaces and causes  that are important to them.  Additionally, this target is in a life-stage that is actually very congruent to the “life stage” of the brand in question.  Net / net:  the brand and the target have synergies that make for a great human to brand connection.  Most importantly:  the brand has a story to tell about their history and their marketing that not only makes for a powerful brand myth, but is completely true!

Today’s American consumers (especially those who are in up-and-coming life stages) value authenticity and transparency in brand communication and relationships.  And like all humans throughout the ages, connect to really good stories;  those with mythology, those that demonstrate relevant  archetypes (see The Hero And The Outlaw by Mark and Pearson http://www.betterworldbooks.com/The-Hero-and-The-Outlaw-H0.aspx?SearchTerm=The+Hero+and+The+Outlaw).  The magic happens in this space when your brand’s true story connects to an archetypal narrative…and most stories do.  It’s one of those fascinating patterns in human history that makes life positively literary and profoundly interesting.  Narrative is a part of who we are as people and Brands are the way we bring humanity to product.

My point here is that Brand’s should embrace opportunities to share their origin story and / or mythology rooted in human truth with consumers.  Chances are there is a relevant connection there that the brand team may be unaware of.  Make a point to do consumer insight work that helps you understand the attitudes, values and motivations of your target.  Get a feel for the realities of that consumer’s life stage and where your  brand story and their life story have meaningful similarities.

If your brand is doing things that are more left-of-center and off-the-grid,  make a point to showcase  your non-mainstream activity in a mainstream space.  Even the most “niche” targets consume mainstream media…don’t buy the notion that the “cool kids” don’t.  Everyone loves to hear and share a good story that reminds them of our collective humanity.  It’s called cultural currency and it’s as good as gold. Give your consumer a reason to be proud to talk about your brand:  to know and share something about your story.

And every brand has a good story to tell. Some may take a little digging to find it, especially at a bigger organization…but it’s worth the journey.  Your consumers will appreciate you bringing them meaning and your brand will benefit from word of mouth and brand loyalty that come from a profoundly human story.

When was the last time you took your brand or your client on that journey of self discovery?  What about a similar journey focused on your consumer target to find those parallels?  The more insight you have about your consumer and your brand the more impactful your story will be.  Maybe now is the time for your team to start charting that path.

And if you need a good Sherpa to lead the way…