By Michael Sussman, Amy Winger
Brands have never been more important than they are today. Consequently, brands are under more pressure than ever before. Age, religion, and geography are boundaries that no longer hold a monopoly over defining communities — brands have risen into that echelon to play the role of uniter.
Brands hold values that connect people emotionally, and they create virtual spaces and real-world places for those people to gather. This presents a unique opportunity for modern brands to live in people's daily lives in unique and meaningful ways. To achieve this, marketers must shift the way they assess brand health.
The gears for engaging with consumers need to change from pushing to attracting. Brands that go beyond building awareness to drive cultural currency have the ability to create meaning in people's lives and business success for the brand.
As brands balance the pressure to be a unifying factor in people's lives and the freedom to express and uphold a set of values, marketers must ask themselves what it is that makes or breaks a brand today. What must marketers do to create brand experiences that not only connect their brands to people, but enable people to connect to one another and their communities?
Being relevant only gets a brand into the consideration set, internal BAV data shows, and forces brands to compete on price with other relevant peers. But brands with a cultural magnetism create their own gravity beyond the functional dynamics of their category, resulting in a far deeper customer advocacy.
The Mechanics of Magnetism
Cultural magnetism is the level and ability of a brand to connect with people beyond the category expectations of value and quality. It supersedes brand relevance. And for marketers today, it can be the difference between a brand that electrifies a community of consumers and one that fizzles out completely.
Building a magnetic brand allows marketers to drive greater pricing power, deeper brand loyalty, and ultimately, stronger marketplace performance.
According to the Cultural Magnetism Index (CMI), a brand metric developed by brand experience agency VMLY&R and BAV, which together run the largest and longest-running brand study in the world, brands that imbue cultural magnetism connect with consumers in three ways: emotionally, culturally, and experientially. They inspire people's commitment and willingness to evangelize; they use voice, emotion, sentiment, topics, and clout to tap into cultural conversations and moments; and they go beyond functional utility to deliver emotional resonance consistent with the brand's core.
These three measurable dimensions of magnetism — emotional connection, cultural connection, and experiential connection — have the power to drive brand and revenue changes.
Marketers often refer to "brand emotion" and "brand love," but many of the most "loved" brands today are fatigued rather than lusted after. While brands such as Rite Aid, State Farm, and 7-Eleven may be cherished in the hearts of consumers, without an emotional connection their meaning in people's lives will wane.
To understand their brand's emotional connection, marketers must capture the depth of advocacy that their brand generates with people and communities and evaluate whether their brand has a role beyond category expectations.
As a case in point, Anheuser-Busch took its Michelob ULTRA brand beyond category expectations by steering the brand to a more human place. The category leader picked a muse and built the brand around that audience.
The team tapped into the CrossFit community and showed that Michelob ULTRA is a brand for people who work hard and play hard — not a brand for everyone looking for a low carb, low calorie light beer. By rallying their crowd, they elevated the brand past its category.
Emotionally connected brands inspire consumer commitment and willingness to evangelize.
While emotional connection may spark the relationship between a brand and consumer, integration into culture is what will keep the brand alive and flourishing. Brands should consider culture itself as a new medium — a canvas or stage on which to play out shared cultural interests.
New Balance, for example, knows the London marathon — with its wacky, party-like atmosphere and community togetherness — is one big high. Training for the event during the U.K.'s brutal winter months, however, is the lowest of the lows. Last winter, to keep runners motivated leading up to the race, the brand opened a pub for runners where the only currency accepted was miles run.
The pub showed runners that New Balance literally values their commitment and stands beside them all the way to the finish line. It's a good example of how a brand can tap into a community and show its support.
To make cultural connections, brands should live in people's lives and cultural interests. What's happening on social media most accurately reflects and informs cultural conversations, and magnetic brands use voice, emotion, sentiment, topics, and clout to create a broader, more meaningful connection with the people who matter to them in that space.
The brands that are successful in this area treat social media and content as core elements of the marketing mix. One excellent example of this is Wendy's.
Wendy's is a brand with high cultural magnetism and because of its deep understanding of its crowd, it has the brand athleticism to play in culture, well outside of category boundaries. In 2018, when the brand dropped a mixtape on Spotify, it moved into entertainment because its crowd asked for it.
Even though a mixtape wasn't in Wendy's marketing mix, the brand delivered it anyway — and its audience loved it.
Creating unique and impactful customer experiences is an increasingly critical component of building a culturally magnetic brand.
Brand building requires not only excellence in communicating brand value, but also requires extending the brand value to experiences that are thoughtful, relevant, connected, and impactful. These experiences certainly go beyond functional utility (e.g., providing customer support), and should create an emotional resonance consistent with the brand's core. Consider Apple's retail experience: the stores don't have checkout lines or cash registers, consistent with Apple's identity as an innovator.
Through the experience a brand creates for its audience, marketers can deepen the magnetism they create and use that to build a competitive advantage.
Committing to developing a superior customer experience requires extending brand-building efforts to each moment of the customer journey, even the unpleasant ones. Delta Airlines is a good example.
Delta is a brand that continues to push its customer experience innovation from a world of reactive to proactive. From automatic rebooking to sending outbound calls that have a live person on the other end within minutes of a flight disruption, the brand is easing the pain of a canceled flight in a high-touch way.
By solving for these moments, Delta is turning a negative experience of an itinerary change into a brand-building moment.
Like Delta, the best brands look for ways to add value for their crowd — developing innovative customer experiences that solve real problems and make life easier.
Where to Start: Building a Culturally Magnetic Brand
With the right data and analysis, marketers can evaluate their emotional, experiential, and social connectedness — and diagnose the strengths, challenges, and opportunities for their brands to become more magnetic in people's lives and culture.
With the right insights, they can even make strides toward changing society, as a collection of marketers in Poland did early last year. Together they took a definitive stance on sexism by buying a long-running adult magazine and transforming it into a powerful platform for women's advocacy.
The "Last Ever Issue" challenged constructs in Polish society and in marketing by reframing the very nature of "purpose campaigns."
A group of marketers from different brands in Poland teamed together to purchase an adult magazine and transform its final issue into a platform that challenges sexism and advocates for women's equality. It became the best-selling issue in 10 years. The effort is a prime example of the kind of impact brands can have when they tap into what resonates with audiences emotionally, culturally, and experientially. VMLY&R Poland/YouTube
By reframing the world in fresh ways, marketers unlock new perspectives and opportunities that go well beyond the next campaign cycle.
So how can marketers begin tapping into the emotional, cultural, and experiential dimensions of magnetism? First, they need to become one of their consumers, and consider the consumer reality and the brand reality as one.
In that mindset, marketers should ask themselves the following questions:
- Is the brand trying to be everything to everyone, or do marketers have a muse and a clear crowd they are designing for?
- Where are a brand's opportunities to stand behind its audience?
- Are marketers using the customer experience as a powerful brand-building tool, amplifying the brand's promise well beyond a campaign cycle?
- Do fixed mental models exist within a brand's (or agency's) organization that disincentivize new thinking?
- What does a brand's crowd really want? Are marketers organized to deliver?
An honest and thoughtful examination of the answers to those questions will put marketers on the path to building culturally magnetic brands.
Creating cultural magnetism is a long-term approach to brand-building that starts with a reflection back on the philosophy, people, and processes that power a brand. Ultimately, building a magnetic brand will allow marketers to drive greater brand loyalty, stronger marketplace performance, and move from brand love to brand fascination.
Michael Sussman is the CEO of BAV Group and Amy Winger is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.