Brands are going counterculture to win consumers

Brands are Going Counterculture to Win with Consumers

It’’s an American thing. We’’re attracted to individuals who swim against the cultural tide. Artists. Rebels. Challengers of mainstream groupthink. Heroes, real and virtual, who accomplish amazing feats against overwhelming odds. They are all the purveyors of unconventional viewpoints, lifestyles and philosophies, forming subcultures within society. They also make significant impacts when their ideas and the brands which they champion are adopted by the mainstream.

We’’ve seen stellar examples of this phenomenon. A small group of motorcycle racers made the Harley-Davidson brand a cultural icon when it was co-opted by originals and rebels; James Dean, Elvis and Marlon Brando, among a slew of other famous HOG aficionados. Van’s, the sneaker of California skateboard fame, became a pop cult favorite after it was adopted by rockers, art students and cool, fashion-forward kids (and, of course, Jeff Spicoli). Jack Daniel’s, a small Tennessee whiskey brand, became an icon for champions of rugged individualism, from military leaders and presidents to celebrities who were swigging the whiskey on film, (remember Paul Newman in Hud?) and in their personal lives (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, among others). New generations have continued to make these brands their own, hence their rise to iconic status –– and their adoption by a wider swath of the general population.

The success of these brands wasn’t based on advertising or their own marketing endeavors. It was the result of their appeal to subcultures who were early adopters because they offered them a unique manner of self-expression. When their fans became hard-core zealots, they did the marketing for them. In the past, it took time to build communities around brands, but with the instantaneous, global reach of the Internet, the process now occurs at lightning speed.

Having said this, sub-cultural groups get restless and move on to other brands unless they’’re given compelling reasons to remain loyal. What keeps iconic brands relevant is their commitment to uncompromising quality and innovation while staying true to their core brand principles.

Branded content on social media: to market or to inspire?

There are countless persuasive books, articles and podcasts that urge marketers to leverage branded content; to use storytelling to reach their audiences via social media. Marketers are told that if they can engage consumers in a direct manner, their brands will be adopted and beloved. But has this always been effective? Many marketing researchers say “no”.

Most consumers are bypassing advertising and brand outreach in its many forms, including those on social media platforms. Sure, they’re tallying “likes” for brands but is that being translated to increased buy-in, loyalty and WOM (word of mouth)? Consumers are being bombarded by countless brands clamoring for engagement via storytelling, as well as viral campaigns, and they’’re tuning most of it out.

Sophisticated consumers know when they’’re being marketed to; what they’’re really yearning for are brands that inspire them. And here’s the truth: while brand stories should matter, too many of them are based on the usual, the banal and the trite. They might be important to brand owners, but many of them aren’’t inspirational.

When brands dare to stake their existence on an appeal to a consumer subset, they have the power to inspire and create a subculture of their own. These groups then create their own social media outreach to connect with each other. Brands have much more power when they inspire communities to form around them. They are able to make cultural breakthroughs in a noisy marketplace cluttered with brands that will never make an impact. Subcultures bypass marketing and media in their many forms. They’’re simply not interested in what is being done or said. They are co-creators of their favorite brands and they conduct their own media outreach.

Leveraging pop culture hotness

Because of the Internet, the passion of subcultural brand communities can catch fire among mainstream consumers rapidly. Think of recent brand phenoms: from Angry Birds, Pokemon, Trolls and LEGO to Budweiser aka America in a stunning rebrand. The level of success that these brands achieved was unexpected by most people, but their communities spread their enthusiasm into mainstream consciousness very quickly. How long they remain hot will depend on how their brand owners manage and extend these properties.

Extending brands through licensing program design

Licensing program design should play a pivotal role in effectively extending countercultural brands. Great design is crucial in the development of consumer products and packaging to present the assets of these one-of-a-kind properties in an equally unique manner. But the scope of licensing program design can and should go beyond products and packaging. Well-conceived licensing campaigns that are designed to expose the brand in unexpected ways –– that bring inspiration, enjoyment and deeper engagement with consumers are the biggest winners.

If brand owners want to see how effectively this can be done, they should take a page from Universal Pictures’ Minions. With two Despicable Me films released in 2010 and 2013 and Minions released in 2015, we would have expected to see a surge in licensed consumer product sales during those time periods with a drop-off shortly afterward. But that hasn’t been the case. If anything, the Minions franchise is getting stronger.

In a June 2016 article in Variety, Marty Brochstein, senior VP of industry relations for LIMA (Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association) observed that Universal’s Minions “grossed a surprisingly strong $1.16 billion worldwide in 2015. “The merchandising for both the films (Minions and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) was really effective because the movies had become part of the cultural conversation. There’s an emotional connection to the properties.””

Let’s think about what lies at the core of this astounding success. What’s striking about the Minions property is how countercultural it is. How could a bunch of strange little yellow men that utter weird noises, specialize in slap-stick humor and offer their services to dictators and associated bad guys throughout history become such a hit? This flies in the face of the hugely popular superhero genre films that have amassed huge box office success over the past few years. I think the answer is that the Minions brand appealed to a strong subcultural group whose enthusiasm and WOM made it hugely appealing to the mainstream. These little guys aren’t evil at all; they’re loveable, cute and zany with an undeniable passion for bananas. They make it cool to be nerdy and to even celebrate it.

Packaging a hot licensed property in unexpected ways

Minions licensed consumer products have flooded the market – from plush and toys, food and beverage to apparel and decor. But Universal didn’t just do the expected in the packaging of its hot licensed property. In promotional deals around the release of the Minions film in July 2015, Universal painted L.A. and the rest of the world yellow. Deadline/Hollywood noted: “On the city’s famed Sunset Blvd., the Cinerama Dome was taken over by minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob climbing over the yellow sphere to grab a banana on the marquee.” A Minions bus toured the area. Outdoor boards on La Brea Avenue featured Minions as the subjects of some of the world’s greatest art masterpieces. McDonald’s restaurants across the globe plastered images of the prankster Minions across storefronts and incorporated bananas into their menus and Happy Meals.

And there’s more. In an unprecedented move, Amazon began to use Minions boxes to ship some of its products to consumers. In another groundbreaking decision, The Pantone Color Institute officially introduced Minion Yellow as a permanent addition to its color spectrum. This is all-encompassing licensing program design and it is brand packaging in many forms, keeping the Minions brand in front of consumers in a highly entertaining, memorable fashion.

These zany little creatures inspire a sense of enjoyment and laughs among consumers – in an ongoing, and sometimes unexpected manner. It has been pointed out that people from the age of 3 to 83 are fans of the Minions, even though a relatively small group of consumers were early adopters of the entertainment brand. They will likely continue to be. Quoting the Minions: “Never let your friends feel lonely! Disturb them at all times!”

Do counter-cultural brands have to be dramatic?

No. But they do have to buck mainstream culture – and current trends. While entertainment brands are often the chief catalysts of pop culture trends, daring consumer product brands have the power to accomplish this in any category. Great brands in the toy industry come to mind. They appeal to a small group at first. Then the influencers within those groups use social media to form communities around these brands to cement their success.

Mattel’s Monster High brand bucked the accepted cultural definitions of beauty and elevated the quirky and the imperfect to new heights. It’s cool to have imperfections and tweens love the brand and the message. The Moose Toy Company’s Shopkins brand has made mundane collectibles representing everyday items cool in the face of the cultural trend to develop high tech, interactive toys with downloadable software. Hasbro’s Pie Face has taken advantage of the emerging trend of family-oriented games with a certifiable hit – one unlike anything else on the market. Pie Face is all about taking turns with one’s opponents to see who will get a whipped cream-laden sponge in the face. It’s clearly low tech and silly in a world burgeoning with video games.

As brands like these grow and license their properties to create consumer products and packaging, they need to think about extending licensing program design to magnify their presence in the marketplace and to deepen the level of engagement with their fans in a creative, unexpected manner. Then, they need to step back and allow their fans to market their properties to the mainstream. And they will.

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