as Cultural Activism
Brands Become Icons: The Principle of Cultural Branding, Harvard
Business School Press (Sept. 2004)
brands are built by cultural activists. Yet, while many companies
would love to create a Nike, a Budweiser, or a Mountain Dew, most
are organized to act as cultural reactionaries, whose practices
are the opposite of the activism that is required. Managers typically
view identity brands through the prism of the mind-share model.
Mind share constructs a present-tense snapshot view of the brand,
which blinds managers to emerging cultural opportunities. And
mind share's impulse to abstract-to yank the brand out of its
cultural context-leaves managers arguing over adjectives that
are largely devoid of strategic consequences. Managers routinely
ignore the cultural content of the brand's myth, treating this
content as a tactical "executional" issue. As a result,
they outsource the most critical strategic decisions on the brand
to creatives at ad agencies, public relations firms, and design
To systematically build iconic brands, companies must reinvent
their marketing function. They must assemble cultural knowledge,
rather than knowledge about individual consumers. They must strategize
according to cultural branding principles, rather than apply the
abstracted and present-tense mind-share model. And they must hire
and train cultural activists, rather than stewards of brand essence.
Four Kinds of Cultural Knowledge
Managers require knowledge about their brands and their consumers
to develop strategy. For cultural branding, this knowledge differs
dramatically from the standard kinds of brand and consumer knowledge
that managers now rely on to guide their branding efforts.
Cultural knowledge focuses on the major social changes impacting
the nation, rather than on clusters of individuals.
knowledge examines the role of major social categories of class,
gender, and ethnicity in identity construction rather than obscuring
these categories by sorting people into "psychographic"
knowledge views the brand as a historical actor in society.
knowledge views people holistically, seeking to understand what
gives their lives meaning, rather than as customers of category
knowledge seeks to understand the identity value of mass culture
texts, rather than treating mass culture simply as trends and
to build an iconic brand, managers must assemble four kinds
of cultural knowledge (see below).
the Brand's Cultural and Political Authority
Identity brands are malleable assets. Their growth depends in
large part on whether managers understand the brand's historic
equities well enough to direct the brand toward the most advantageous
future position. In the mind-share model the brand is understood
as a set of timeless concepts. So the interpretation of its past
efforts and direction into the future is a simple matter. Once
the brand has earned valuable associations-the brand essence-don't
change anything! Consistency is the watchword, and brand stewardship
is the mode of management.
identity brands, the approach is different. We need to ask: What
assets has the brand accrued through its historic activities that
enhance (and also constrain) its future mythmaking ability?
brands build reputations, but not in the typical economic sense.
Rather, successful brands develop reputations for telling a certain
kind of story that addresses the identity desires of a particular
constituency. In other words, iconic brands accrue two complementary
assets: cultural authority and political authority. When a brand
authors myths that people find valuable, it earns the authority
to tell similar kinds of myths (cultural authority) to address
the identity desires of a similar constituency (political authority)
in the future.
the brand's cultural and political authority provides managers
direction to develop appropriate myths for the brand, and allows
them to rule out myths that are a poor fit. If Volkswagen's managers
in the 1990s had understood that the brand had earned significant
cultural authority in the 1960s to perform myths about individual
creativity, and political authority to assuage a cultural contradiction
that particularly afflicted the well-educated, urban, middle class,
they could have directed creative partners toward the types of
myths that would appeal to the new identity desires of the Bobos.
Develop Empathic Understanding of Followers'
In conventional branding models, consumer research seeks to unearth
deep insights into how customers think and behave. Researchers
watch people in the act of consumption and interview them intensively
to dig out tacit thoughts and feelings, all in the quest to reveal
"consumer truths" that the brand can hang its hat on.
Given the enormous attention paid to this kind of research in
branding, it is noteworthy that I was unable to find a single
example in which conventional consumer research contributed to
the building of an iconic brand.
Because iconic brands create value differently than mind-share
brands, they require a different kind of customer understanding.
Great myths are grounded in an empathic understanding of people's
most acute desires and anxieties that, because they are generated
by social forces, touch the lives of a broad swath of society.
Resonant myths spring from an understanding of people's ambitions
at work, their dreams for their children, their fears of technology,
their difficulties in building friendships, and so on. Notice
that we are not talking about consumer behavior "truths"
or emotional hot buttons-the usual language of consumer research.
Indeed, the kind of understanding necessary for building identity
value rejects thinking of the brand's customers as merely consumers.
Iconic brands address existential issues far beyond the usual
benefits and behaviors associated with a product category. So
consumer research must seek out the most significant identity
projects of existing and prospective customers, and identify the
most acute tensions that inflict these projects.
Further, this mode of understanding goes well beyond documenting
people's attitudes and emotions to acquire an embedded sense of
what life really feels like if one were in their shoes. The kind
of knowledge required to build an iconic brand is more like what
an author requires to write a great novel or screenplay. Great
authors are highly attuned to the world around them so that they
see the world through the eyes of the other. The best ethnographies
in anthropology and sociology achieve a similar result. Likewise,
the most successful authors of icons have empathic antennae that
connect with the critical identity issues that animate the lives
of people they encounter. As a result, these authors create cultural
texts that embody the society's particular existential concerns.
Empathic understanding like this can't be distilled and formalized
into a research document. Nor can a manager gain this understanding
indirectly. It cannot be outsourced to a research firm or brand
consultancy, transferred to a research department, and finally
distilled for those who are writing a strategy or creating brand
materials. Icon builders reject conventional market research,
and rightly so, for it lacks both the breadth and the depth of
understanding required. Either managers must acquire this understanding
firsthand, or they must gather and live with research that presents
rich portraits of their customers' lives, not glance through a
Power- point summary of key findings.
For brands with an effective myth, managers need to cultivate
empathic understanding of the identity projects of their followers
and insiders. For brands in search of a new myth, managers should
dig into the identity projects of prospects who best align with
the brand's cultural and political authority.
And ignore the brand's feeders! Most customers of
iconic brands are neither dedicated followers of the brand's myth
nor insiders tapped into the brand's populist world. Rather, they
are feeders: cultural parasites who use the brand for fashion,
status, and community by feeding off the customers at the nucleus
of the brand. Because their preferences are directly influenced
by the desirability of the brand generated in the nucleus of followers
and insiders, their preferences are of little use in guiding the
brand strategy. Moreover, since feeders usually maintain a vague
and idiosyncratic understanding of the brand, research that includes
them will badly distort strategy.
because feeders often dominate sales, managers tend to build strategies
from research heavily weighted toward how feeders understand and
value the brand. Managers of iconic brands like ESPN, Nike, and
Patagonia, never aim their strategies at these peripheral customers.
Rather, they work to create the most desirable myth for their
nucleus of followers and insiders and use this desirability as
a magnet to attract others to the brand.
the Brand Team into the Populist World
Iconic brands rely on populist worlds as source materials for
their myths. Populist worlds are typically far removed from the
life experiences of the majority of the brand's customers. Consequently,
brand strategies guided only by a customer worldview can never
make the necessary creative leap from identity desires to identity
brands are usually built by people deeply immersed in the populist
worlds that they draw from. At Nike and their agency Wieden and
Kennedy, you'll find inveterate jocks who live and breathe sport.
In its halcyon days of Volkswagen Beetle advertising, DDB creatives
drew from the New York City intelligentsia with whom they circulated.
Thirty years later, the lead creative on "Drivers Wanted,"
Lance Jensen, drew inspiration from his lifelong experiences inhabiting
the indie bohemia. Mountain Dew's lead creative Bill Bruce was
a proto-slacker who worked in a record store before turning to
Anheuser-Busch and DDB-Chicago have had great success with Bud
Light, in no small part because both sides of the account are
stocked with mostly Midwestern guys who share their target's sense
of humor because they've grown up in a similar cultural climate.
"Whassup?!" on the other hand was outsourced to an African
American director from Brooklyn. So, when DDB tried to take over
the creative content, the campaign lost its verve.
Emerging Cultural Contradictions
Cultural activism centers on identifying and responding to emerging
cultural contradictions and the myth markets that form around
these contradictions. Managers of incumbent brands must monitor
how their brand's myth works in the culture, tracking how changes
in society influence the effectiveness of their brand's myth.
Likewise, managers seeking to develop new iconic brands must pinpoint
emerging cultural opportunities.
spot contradictions in society and isolate how these contradictions
are addressed by myth markets, managers need to adopt a genealogical
approach to the marketplace. Genealogical research documents emerging
socio-economic contradictions, and then examines how the texts
of the culture industry (films, ads, books, television programs,
and so on) respond to these contradictions with new myths. Rather
than static, microscopic research that delivers a snapshot of
individual consumers, genealogy is macroscopic and dialectical.
most brand managers today rely on present-tense models of branding,
they have little guidance in pushing the brand into the future
other than keeping up with trends and trying to predict the next
big thing. The false assumption here, which stems from the popularity
of viral branding, is that brands must be first in the race to
commodify new culture before it becomes hot. In the cases that
I've studied, this assumption rarely holds. Rather, iconic brands
play off cultural texts that the other culture industries have
already put into play. In other words, iconic brands usually borrow
from existing myth markets rather than create new myth markets
Manager as Genealogist
In the mind-share model, the manager is anointed the steward of
the brand's timeless identity. The manager's role is to identify
the transcendental core of the brand and then maintain this core
in the face of organizational pressures to try something new.
In the cultural-branding model, the manager becomes a genealogist.
Managers must be able to spot emergent cultural opportunities
and understand their subtle characteristics. To do so, managers
must hone their ability to see the brand as a cultural artifact
moving through history. They must develop sensitive antennae to
pick up tectonic shifts in society that create new identity desires.
And they must view their brands as a cultural platform-just like
a Hollywood film or a new social movement-to respond to these
desires with effective myths.
knowledge is critical for building iconic brands, yet is sorely
lacking in most managers' arsenals. This knowledge doesn't simply
appear in focus group reports, ethnographies, or trend reports,
the marketer's usual means for getting close to the customer.
Rather, such knowledge requires that managers develop new skills.
They need a cultural historian's understanding of ideology as
it waxes and wanes, a sociologist's charting of the topography
of social contradictions, and a literary expedition into the popular
culture that engages these contradictions. To create new myths,
managers must get close to the nation-the social
and cultural shifts and the desires and anxieties that result.
This means looking far beyond consumers as they are known today.
Cultural branding strategy is a plan that directs the brand toward
a particular kind of myth and also specifies how the myth should
be composed. A cultural strategy is, necessarily, quite different
from conventional branding strategies, which are full of rational
and emotional benefits, brand personalities, and the like. Let's
return briefly to two iconic brands examined earlier-Volkswagen
and Mountain Dew-to find out why.
Volkswagen Branding Strategy
In the early 1990s, as the company struggled to survive in the
U.S. market, Volkswagen North America gave its longtime ad agency,
DDB, one last chance to revive the brand's once potent equity.
DDB research identified that Volkswagen had carved out a distinctive
mind-share position in the auto market as a brand engineered for
great driving at a value price. In the 1980s, Volkswagen had developed
new models-the Golf, Jetta, and especially the GTI-that performed
more like their German brethren (BMW, Mercedes, and Audi) than
the squishy handling of a Toyota or Ford. Since the mid-1980s,
advertising had emphasized the excellent engineering and developed
the tag line "the German Engineered Volkswagen."
new strategy pushed the communications from product features (e.g.,
tight turning radius) to benefits (Volkswagens provided a great
driving experience for people who really enjoyed driving and appreciated
the feel of the car on the road). After many months of deliberation
to concoct the strategy and then to develop the best creative
idea based on the strategy, Volkswagen and DDB produced the aforementioned
disastrous "Fahrvergnugen" campaign. The campaign delivered
precisely on Volkswagen's strategy, communicating very clearly
that Volkswagen built cars for people who really enjoyed driving
and appreciated performance. Yet, while these odd ads made good
on the mind-share strategy, the campaign managed to communicate
an approach to life-sensory-deprived, mechanical, and isolated-that
was virtually the inverse of what Volkswagen had historically
championed in its myth.
DDB was fired, a new marketing team at Volkswagen asked Arnold
Communications to pitch the account. Like DDB, Arnold spent months
doing research to devise a strategy. Arnold's strategy was spurred
by a J. D. Power survey, no doubt similar to what DDB drew from,
describing Volkswagen owners as people who viewed driving as an
experience rather than as a utilitarian means to get from A to
B. According to the survey, Volkswagen customers liked to drive
fast and appreciated the finer points of how the car performed.
Hence, the agency developed an advertising strategy to communicate
that Volkswagen is a car for people who love to drive. After months
of debate, Arnold arrived at a mind-share strategy nearly identical
to that used by DDB to produce "Fahrvergnugen."
this strategy, however, Arnold crafted an entirely different campaign,
"Drivers Wanted," which evolved into a huge and enduring
success. Like the "Fahrvergnugen" campaign, "Drivers
Wanted" also communicated the drivability benefits of Volkswagen.
But the campaign was different in every other way. On the same
product-benefit platform, Arnold built a myth about iconoclasts
who are able to find ways to be creative and spontaneous in everyday
life. What made the myth successful was that Arnold had located
a way to update DDB's Beetle myth about creativity in a way that
worked in the social milieu of the United States of the late 1990s.
Dew Branding Strategy
Consider also PepsiCo's strategy for Mountain Dew in 1993. The
strategy emphasized the experiential qualities of consuming the
brand, exhilaration and excitement, which were delivered by its
sugary, caffeinated buzz: "You can have the most thrilling,
exciting, daring experience but it will never compete with the
exhilarating experience of a Mountain Dew."
by this strategy, PepsiCo and BBDO bet the brand on the disastrous
"Super Dewd" campaign, in which a cliché African
American cartoon character stomps around the inner city, chugging
Mountain Dew while skateboarders and bikers scoot by. The action
was exhilarating, to be sure. But the story didn't fit at all
with Mountain Dew's cultural and political authority, which was
the championing of wild-man ideals for non-professional rural
the same time, the marketers created a side campaign for Diet
Mountain Dew-a campaign that later became "Do the Dew"-from
the same strategy, with the additional directive to encourage
trial of the diet drink. Unlike "Super Dewd," the "Do
the Dew" campaign tapped the most viable cultural opportunity
for Mountain Dew in the early 1990s: a new wild-man myth that
combined the cultural raw materials from the emerging extreme
sports populist world with ideas borrowed from Hollywood's slacker
Volkswagen, identical strategies produced very different campaigns
with diametrically opposite results. Mountain Dew's strategy failed
to rule out a grossly ineffective campaign and, likewise, provided
no direction to BBDO creatives in devising a winning campaign.
In 1993, there were literally hundreds of expressions of "thrilling,
exciting, daring experience" available in American culture.
BBDO creatives might have drawn on any of these expressions to
craft Mountain Dew ads. The strategy document gave no clues as
to which were better expressions.
and Volkswagen spent many months with their agencies debating
the proper adjectives to attach to their brands, adjectives that
would distinguish the brands from their soft drink and auto competitors.
Yet, in the end, the selected concepts provided guidelines so
vague and imprecise that campaigns from the most brilliant to
the most mediocre could be evaluated as on-strategy. What marketers
have been calling a brand strategy for decades is not doing the
work that strategy is supposed to do: forcing tough decisions
by specifying criteria that distinguish better choices from worse
single most debilitating mistake that managers can make in regard
to the long-term health of an identity brand is to develop a strategy
so abstract that it yanks the brand out of its social and cultural
context. Product design and benefits are the platform on which
myths are built. A wide variety of myths can be built atop any
product-benefit platform, and most of them are worth little to
for Identity Brands
then, is a strategy for an identity brand? Cultural brand strategy
must identify the most valuable type of myth for the brand to
perform at a particular historical juncture, and then provide
specific direction to creative partners on how to compose the
myth. Drawing from the cultural knowledge described above, a cultural
branding strategy should include the following components:
Target the most appropriate myth market. With
knowledge of the country's most important existing and emerging
myth markets and the brand's cultural and political authority,
managers look for the best fit. The most opportune myth market
is the one that the brand has the most authority to address.
Mountain Dew's equity made the slacker myth market a perfect
choice, while the Indie myth market was a natural fit for Volkswagen
given its cultural and political authority.
Compose the identity myth. Managers shouldn't
usurp the role of their creatives, but they must give specific
direction on creative content if they are to play a significant
strategic role. The first step in composing the myth is to prepare
a myth treatment: a synopsis of the myth that
describes the identity anxieties the myth should address and
the way in which the myth will resolve these anxieties. Next,
managers must describe the populist world in which the myth
will be located, and the strategy for the brand to develop an
authentic voice within this world. To maintain legitimacy, the
executions of the myth must aim in part at the insiders who
control the populist world that the brand inhabits. Brands win
this authenticity with performances that express the brand's
populist world literacy and its fidelity to the world's values.
Finally, managers need to work with their creative partners
to develop the brand's charismatic aesthetic,
namely, an original communication code that is organic to the
the identity myth. When a brand performs the right myth
targeted at the right myth market, consumers jump on board,
using the product to sate their identity desires. They come
to depend on the brand as an icon and remain fiercely loyal,
but only as long as the brand keeps the myth fresh and historically
relevant. Once established, myths must evolve creatively and
also weave in new popular culture in order to remain vital.
the identity myth. Even the most compelling identity
myths will eventually falter, not because competitors attack,
but because societal changes drain their value. The seemingly
rock-solid value of a brand's myth in one year can come unglued
the next. Socio-economic and ideological shifts reconfigure
the identity desires of the nation's citizens, sending them
searching for new myths. These cultural disruptions create extraordinary
opportunities for innovative new identity brands while also
presenting treacherous hazards for incumbents.
the most successful brands routinely struggle to understand the
cultural disruptions that send their brands into tailspins. Witness
Volkswagen's two-decade-long struggle to regain its iconic stature
and Budweiser's dead-end experiments that stalled the brand for
most of the 1990s. Other brands, like Miller, Levi's, and Cadillac,
have yet to recover.
Manager as Composer
Brand managers must act as composers of the brand's myth. Too
often, the job of the brand manager is reduced to adjective selection-the
management of meaningless abstractions. As cultural activists,
managers treat their brands as a medium-no different than a novel
or a film-to deliver provocative creative materials that respond
to society's new cultural needs. While they must leave the actual
construction of the myth and its charismatic voicing to creative
talent, managers must become directly involved in the composition
of the myth, or else they give away the strategic direction of
Cultural Activist Organization
Marketing organizations are today dominated by spreadsheets, income
statements, reams of market data, and feasibility reports. The
rationality and pragmatism of the everyday business of marketing
smothers cultural activism. Moreover, the breeding ground for
brand managers-M.B.A. programs in business schools-conscientiously
socializes managers into a psycho-economic worldview that runs
directly counter to the cultural point of view needed for identity
brands. Many business schools marginalize social issues as the
domain of not-for-profit ventures and treat the texts of the culture
industries superficially, if at all. Most M.B.A.'s leave their
programs without even a rudimentary ability to evaluate an ad
from a cultural perspective.
Iconic brands have broken out of this rationalized mind-set to
make contact with the nation's culture. They are exceptions to
the rule, led by the intuitions of ad agency creatives and the
occasional marketing iconoclast. Because companies have not nurtured
a cultural perspective and the talent that goes with it, the primary
architects of iconic brands have been copywriters and art directors.
Not surprisingly, the members of the brand team with the greatest
cultural competencies take the lead. As a result, cultural strategies
have evolved haphazardly by the chance engagement of talented
creatives, rather than through the consistent deployment of a
For brand owners that seek to build iconic brands, the challenge
is to develop a cultural activist organization:
a company organized around developing identity myths that address
emerging contradictions in society; a company organized to collaborate
with creative partners to perform myths that have the charisma
and authenticity necessary to attract followers; a company that
is organized to understand society and culture, not just consumers;
and a company that is staffed with managers who have ability and
training in these areas.
Mind-share branding is today slipping out of favor even among
its most loyal stalwarts. And commingling brands with culture
seems to be in. Procter & Gamble, The Coca-Cola Company, and
Unilever all have made significant gestures of late to move in
new directions, often mentioning Hollywood as the most likely
In a speech to the Publicity Club of London, Niall Fitzgerald,
then chairman of Unilever, proclaimed that the "interrupt
and repeat" model of advertising is in decline, and so marketers
can no longer push "messages and memorability into the skulls
of the audience." In
place of mind share, Fitzgerald sees advertising moving into the
space occupied by other culture industry products like film: "Today
we should conceive and evaluate our brand communication as though
it were content-because today, in effect, that is what it is.
We are in the branded content business."
is certainly right. Marketing companies can no longer ignore that
consumers have become tremendously cynical about advertising and
can now act on this cynicism with technologies like TiVo, which
allows them to edit out ad exposures. Instead, advertising is
looking more and more like entertainment. Madison Avenue and Hollywood
are becoming incestuous partners.
how should companies, long enamored by mind share, proceed? Fitzgerald
seems to suggest that branded content is a new-to-the-world proposition.
But, as this book makes clear, the most successful identity brands
have long focused on delivering branded content, at least since
the beginning of the television age in the mid-1950s. The extraordinary
successes of Marlboro and Volkswagen in the 1960s; Coke and McDonald's
in the 1970s; Nike, Budweiser, and Absolut in the 1980s; and Mountain
Dew and Snapple in the 1990s were all the result of branded content.
So managers interested in new branding models would do well to
glean some lessons from their predecessors rather than try to
reinvent the wheel.
provocations beg the question: What branded content? If
brands merely deliver entertainment like most culture-industry
products, they will be handicapped from the start. We live in
a world oversaturated with cultural content, which is delivered
not just by the traditional culture industries (film, television,
magazines, books, and so on) but also increasingly by video games
and the Internet. How can a thirty-second ad compete with a film
or rock concert in terms of entertainment value? Or, alternatively,
why would customers seek out a film when the plot is stilted by
greatest opportunity for brands today is to deliver not entertainment,
but rather myths that their customers can use to manage the exigencies
of a world that increasingly threatens their identities. To
do so, companies would do well to follow the lead of the most
successful brands of the past half-century rather than throw their
marketing budgets at Hollywood. Brands become cultural icons by
performing myths that address society's most vexing contradictions.
Holt is the L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at the Saïd Business
School, University of Oxford. His research applies a socio-cultural
lens to key issues in branding, advertising, and consumption.
Recently, Holt has conducted historical research on iconic brands
to develop a new cultural approach to branding. This model is
published in How
Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding (Harvard
Business School Press, 2004), as well as in related management
and academic articles. He has also analyzed global branding from
a novel cultural perspective ("How Global Brands Compete" Harvard
Business Review, September 2004). He has published a Harvard teaching
note and a number of teaching cases that develop a cultural point-of-view