If a strategy is defined as a plan of action to achieve an objective, a brand strategy should be a plan of action for how to create value.
The Cultural Disruption is based on the following principle:
Brands create value by solving cultural problems
Brands are cultural
Products and services may be functional, but brands are inherently cultural objects; carriers of meaning created from our shared cultural context.
A brand’s value is determined by its ability to solve problems for people.
There are two kinds of problems: functional and cultural.
A product category is defined by the functional problems it solves, and companies will typically focus innovation and promotion efforts around a few key functional benefits (or if you add some spin, emotional benefits). This, however, creates a race to the bottom as resources are spent on incremental improvements that are easily copied and go largely unnoticed by consumers.
Cultural problems are the tensions that arise within and between people and groups of people as they – driven by their moral intuitions – compete to survive and thrive in modern society. Cultural problems, then, relate to identity, status and belonging.
THE CULTURAL DISRUPTION MODEL
The Cultural Disruption model defines and solves what we call a brand’s Unique Cultural Problem (UCP).
A UCP must fulfil three criteria:
In order to avoid having to engage in a price- or functional benefits driven race to the bottom, we must solve problems no other brand can solve. Contrary to popular belief, positioning a brand effectively isn’t about squeezing in between competitors on an arbitrary category map. The goal is to create a distinct choice between your brand on the one hand and the rest of the category on the other.
We must solve problems people care about solving: those that somehow prevent them from surviving and thriving in modern society. Do people care about saving the world? Sure, some do some of the time, but that doesn’t mean most of us don’t spend most of our waking hours worrying about the day-to-day maintenance and enhancement of our own identity and status.
Interestingly, adherence to “social justice” values such as diversity and equality is our time’s most potent status symbol, as evident from the endless stream of virtue signalling in social media. The peacock’s tail has evolved. Nobody said we were rational.
We can only promise to solve a problem that we have the opportunity and intention to solve. Ambition is great, but must be based on reality.
We arrive at the UCP by analysing the three areas of a brand’s context that corresponds to the above criteria:
Social change creates friction, making culture a goldmine for tensions as people and groups compete for moral superiority. We look at who our customer and potential customers are, what groups they belong to, how they see themselves and the world and what problems they encounter in their quest for identity, status and belonging.
Everything communicates, and every category has converged on a set of conventions and clichés that convey its orthodox of commonly held values and ideology, however subtly and however unintended.
Rather than looking at competitive messaging to interpreting the intentions of marketers, we conduct a sub-textual analysis of the category as a whole in order to understand how it is perceived by people: what problems it solves, fails to solve or even creates.
We look at the company’s history and assets and its brand equity in order to understand what kind of problems we can credibly promise to solve.
Companies typically have a traditional brand strategy with mission, vision, values, personality and attributes. While often generic and unspecific, it helps inform the brand’s potential and limitations. From generic values we can derive more specific values, and a personality will inform the various personas.
By zooming in and out of these three areas, we test the problems we identify in one area against the criteria of the others, ultimately arriving at the UCP.
For example, if we apply this method, we’d quickly be able discard the vast majority of strategies based on the brand-purpose bandwagon that the major banks, telcos and airlines have jumped on. Not only do they fail miserably on at least two points, differentiation and authenticity, they don’t even come close to solving a problem for people. Merely talking about safe and generic values nobody believes you care about in order to justify carpet-bombing us with retail messages is just an deceptive, lazy and ultimately ineffective attempt at modernising the out-dated persuasion-disruption model.
THE CULTURAL NARRATIVE
The best way of conveying meaning is through story. In the same way that people use brands to tell themselves and others a coherent story about who they are and what they believe in, a brand strategy should tell a similar story about the brand.
The ultimate output from the Cultural Disruption process is a brand narrative that outlines who the brand is, what it believes, what problem it exists to solve and how it will go about solving it:
It takes the form of a traditional universal narrative in which the hero, triggered by an incident, must leave his natural world to go on a mission and overcome obstacles, fight enemies and resolve conflict in order to achieve an objective.
Something like this:
ACT 1: INTRODUCTION
What does the category currently look like?
The UCP: how, why, when and for whom did it occur.
The antagonist? Who or what are we fighting.
ACT 2: THE MISSION
What is the plan for how to solve the UCP
What obstacles will we face?
How do we deal with conflict?
ACT 3: THE RESOLUTION
What will the world look like when the USP has been solved (if it ever will)?
How will we set the story up for a sequel (how do we evolve the brand)?
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION?
Marketers use creativity in an effort to spin and disguise product messages. We use it instead as a way of coming up with ingenious solutions to the UCP.
In terms of innovation, we see the product merely as a communications channel through which to deliver the brand promise, albeit by far the most credible and effective one.
The objective is for the brand to deliver on one promise, to solve the UCP. Implicit in such a promise will always be that the product is of high quality.
A promise to solve a cultural problem includes an implicit promise to also solve functional problems. In our minds, cultural problems exist at a higher level than functional problems, and can thus only be solved after the lower-level problems have been taken care of. Think of it as a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for brands. Since this is only a presumption actual product experience will deliver the final verdict, which means you have to deliver, but promoting functional aspects instead of focusing on the UCP causes only confusion and ends up diluting the brand.
The goal is for product innovation to be informed by the cultural strategy. AirBnB is currently the best example of this ideal. In cases where genuine innovation comes first (e.g. disruption), the trick is to understand the cultural implications of the gap this creates between you and the rest of the category, so that it can be reinforced and kept coherent across the brand’s channels.
This is a brand strategy and creative brief, all in one, the role of which is to guide and inspire everything a company says and does. As long as everything you do somehow fits into your narrative, i.e. goes towards solving the UCP and fulfilling your mission, you will always be perceived as distinct, coherent, relevant and authentic.
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