The new brand strategy dichotomy: likeable or cult

The new brand strategy dichotomy

Some excellent points raised by Carol Phillips in her post The Hostile Brand Strategy on Branding Strategy Insider. I’ve said for some time that the middle market is the muddle market – and that a more polemic approach by brands is, in my view, inevitable.

Carol’s analysis of hostile brands shows this burgeoning dichotomy in action, with even relatively mainstream brands like MINI-Cooper, Marmite and Hollister, increasingly playing hard to get. She has highlighted a sign of marketing in our times: the popularity contest vs the non-popularity contest.

I wonder though whether this is more than a schism between likeable and if-you-like brands. To me, it points to a radicalisation not just of attitude but also of availability, involvement and even access. Carol draws attention to the adage, “it’s better to mean something to somebody than everything to nobody”. I’m going to go one stage further and suggest that brands increasingly have to mean something to anyone or one thing to somebody. The middle ground between those positions is dying.

Cult brands are increasingly the speakeasies of consumerism.

In the green corner – the likeable brands. Based on scale, globally focused, universally appealing, instantly recognisable. Huge, familiar, instantly findable, comforting. In the red corner – the cult brands. Based on exclusivity, narrowly focused, unseen and unappealing to most, only recognised by those in the know. Polemic, difficult, hard to find, testing, deeply attractive to believers with a similar worldview. Cult brands are increasingly the speakeasies of consumerism. If you don’t play by their rules, you’re barred.

To me, this inclination towards one approach or the other is the continental drift of branding – and I expect it to accelerate in the years ahead as brands look for ways to encourage consumers to be more definite. Ubiquity versus unique. Engaging versus enraging. And, as Carol puts it so nicely, more and more versus defiantly less.

The marketers vs the cultrepreneurs

However, I don’t think the ongoing challenge for brands behaving badly lies just in the behaviour itself – that’s relatively straightforward in a world looking for things to view. Rather, the challenge for polemic brands is to use their bad behaviour to their competitive and commercial advantage rather than simply to garner attention. Equally, likeable brands must find ways to continue to engage and compel consumers in the face of more and more radical plays for attention.

As the camps separate, and the Love to buy/Hard to buy stakes lift, the one word everyone needs to keep their eye on is “buy”.

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