When Andy Warhol created his iconic Campbell’s soup cans image in 1962 the art world was divided. For some it was the ultimate representation of meaningless dystopia: a world in which sameness and commercialism had finally been exposed in all its generic ugliness. Indeed, at one of his early shows, a rival dealer displayed a pile of soup cans as an act of protest at the depths of generic banality to which Pop Art was making a descent.
Warhol, contrarian to the last, went on to see the iconic image of 32 soup cans, graphically demeaned of their marketing dollars, to be his most treasured work. He would reflect later that he wished he had only ever made this one painting and simply gone on to riff around it for the rest of his career. For Warhol, he had finally captured the greatest of meaning. Far from generic, this image encapsulated all that was meaningful about apparent sameness.
This cameo from over fifty years ago has a certain poignancy in foreseeing the great paradox, which surrounds brands today. To what extent have the great, global brands of the 21st century finally succumbed to the mindless, meaningless sameness that allows us to call them by name wherever we are in the world and whatever language we speak? To what extent is the ubiquity and universality of the global brands, available in splendid sameness from Bangkok to Birmingham, the final nail in the coffin of the very uniqueness which brands – as opposed to mere trademarks – were originally meant to embody?
The reality is that modern marketers and modern brands have to deal with this very paradox as perhaps the most real hurdle on their way to global success. Navigating the trap of sameness and dystopian genericism, while being truly meaningful to consumers in their very own world – be they in Sao Paulo or Singapore – is the great challenge of our time. It is this challenge that defines successful brands of today: creating real, personal and apparently tailor-made meaning for individuals, while operating in the ultimate mass market of the global stage.
Think Apple. It is almost guaranteed that wherever you are in public – be that a plane, train or any other public space – you will see the brand at large, usually plugged into the individual earholes of one of its consumers. It’s that intimate. Yet for every one of those millions of people with white cords dangling from their ears, it is the most personalised experience. It is a highly customised experience tailored to individuals – be that the unique playlist we make from the iPod’s (non-unique) MP3 capability – or the modestly bespoke hardware that hold this neatly in place. There’s certainly nothing that feels generic or impersonal about iPods, iPhones or iPads to those using them.
Think Nike. Another brand truly masterful in giving the very real illusion of being both a personal brand of deep meaning to those that wear their sneakers or sports apparel, whilst at the same time being available and visible on every street corner wherever you go in the world. Worse still, in the case of Nike, you don’t even have to qualify with any kind of athletic prowess. By Nike’s very own internal marketing definition, we all qualify for the privilege of the brand as we are all what they call “athletes”. These athletes range from the more sedentary armchair variety to those that actually run marathons and might perhaps qualify as sporty. It is a broad target audience apparently at odds with the discourse of personalised meaning that is targeted at the individual.
My former colleague Simon Clift, when he was chief marketing officer at Unilever, charged with globalising what is known as personal care, spoke of this great challenge confronting marketers. The challenge, as Clift stated, was to navigate the path between being “hopelessly local” whilst avoiding descending into becoming “mindlessly global”. In short, making the Dove beauty products, the Axe deodorants and the Vaseline skin cream the world over the most personal of experiences for their many users in pretty much every country across the world. If as marketers we fail to elevate our offer beyond the parochialisms of local markets and personalisation, we fall victim to the tyranny that is lack of scale, and ultimately an economic equation that is simply not viable. Conversely, an offer, which has charted the course of least resistance – a brand lowest common denominator – will fail to engage any self-respecting consumer’s attention.
So if this hallowed ground between the extremes of mindless globalism and hopeless localism is what global brands need to assume, then two questions emerge:
1. Is it feasible?
2. How do you actually do it?
Ironically, the very paradox that Warhol canvassed with relative ease can prove somewhat harder to unlock in the commercial world. Yet unlocking this is exactly what brands need to do, and it is this that will define their commercial success or failure.
Against the rub of dystopian misery, there is some real cause for optimism around global brand circles. The global challenge that businesses face is in fact more exacting and resultantly a force that has the potential to create ever better, more meaningful brands, as opposed to brands of dubious meaning and mindless, swashbuckling global ambition.
The creation of “Dirt is Good” in the super-competitive world of laundry detergents is a very strong case in point. Worth some $4billion globally – despite operating across some radically different washbowls, washing machines and attitudes to laundry – Unilever’s Omo brand is a case study in “mindful globalism” par excellence.
But Omo and Dirt is Good are only a part of the story. For beneath this single common idea, now operating across five continents, sits a number of brand names – from Omo to Persil, Rinso to Breeze, and more to boot. Such is the common conception of what this brand means – both within Unilever and, most importantly, in the consumers’ world – that the idea can easily hold together a common core of meaning across the globe, despite having different names.
I would venture that it is the very fact that Dirt is Good contains an idea at its very core, that it means it can prosper and bring meaning to housewives the world over, regardless of nationality or so-called stage of market development. At the core of Dirt is Good is an idea that the brand presents and goes on to resolve. It resolves the tension which operates beyond, yet hugely pertinently also within the world of laundry; namely that as parents we seek to be ever more libertarian in how we bring up children, as opposed to succumbing to disciplinarianism. Being a freer parent as the great symbol of progress – generation to generation; who does not aspire to that? And beneath all of the marketing collateral, which so effortlessly positions this brand as being deeply relevant to the indigenous consumers it serves so meaningfully, lies a single insight: “It’s only when you are free to get dirty that you can truly experience life and grow.” An insight, which encapsulates the great tension of parenting as lived through children, and all of which pertains to keeping clothes clean.
This is a priceless global approach, which does not countenance mindless genericism. This is the real 21st century challenge for brands – not how to navigate all of the new digital media and marketing opportunities that technology now offers us, but rather how to create brands that inculcate and embody meaning at their very core. Without the latter, the former will remain a series of clever executions that may reach millions, but will remain unallied to any common core meaning. And of course, the challenge is to be able to create these brands as we look forward, as opposed to succumb to lazy journalism that merely commentates on them after they have already become successful.with a bigger, more macroscopic conception of their world. They touch the idealised selves of their consumers.
It is by locating the universal human value that connects deeply with consumers in the category, that we create a bond of very personal intimacy, while at the same time creating a band of broad affinity across a wide cross-section of people. That’s the thing about values – we experience them in a deeply personal way, while they are at the same time universal and therefore shared by their very nature. It is this phenomenon when applied to brands that enables them to become “mindfully global”.
What we need is something of a recipe for brands that can transcend the banality of their often generic functionality, and keep them relevant the world over. A recipe for what we might call global brands we believe in.
First, the brands we truly believe in pursue their own agenda. They have a view of the world that is borne of who they are, where they come from and, often, from their founding myth. It is this deep, ideological DNA that forms the root system from which the ensuing distinctiveness is nourished and fed.
In the case of Apple, it is of course the iconoclasm of Steve Jobs himself. Likewise the founder, Phil Knight, at the root of Nike’s global success story. Yet it is not always the case that a founder exists to wave their ideological magic over the brand. In the case of Dirt is Good, the unique belief in a more human understanding and depiction of the world in which a laundry detergent plays is evident way back in the reels of the brand’s history. Humanity is somehow of the essence of Unilever, and of its Omo/Persil brand, and this transmits through the brand idea today. It is this very humanity as the ideological core of the brand that gave birth to this idea and created a connection to consumers that sustained it across different locations.
Second, brands we believe in resolve something for the user – by unlocking a tension or realising a desire, they move the world of their consumer forward by means of this resolution. They allow the consumer a glimpse of themselves seen differently – not who they are, but rather who they aspire to be. In the case of Omo, the libertarian parent; for Apple, the creative free-thinker; and for Nike, the athlete – whether chained to the sofa or pushing off the blocks at the running track. It is by resolving this tension, or realising this desire, that brands create attractiveness, and ultimately distinctiveness, in their subjects.
Closely allied to this is the fact that the brands we truly believe in connect at a higher point of relevance to the consumer’s wider world. They create connection beyond the microscopic world of the what, and connect with the why. They touch a universal driving value and, in doing so, they create an emotional connection and deep personal meaning with their target. They connect their specific category – be it running shoes, computers or washing powder – with a bigger, more macroscopic conception of their world. They touch the idealised selves of their consumers.
A fourth critical component of creating a successful global brand we believe in is to create a ritual so that the idea sitting at their very core, for which they stand, can be experienced and lived by the consumer. For Nike, it is the extraordinary trial, which is the ritual of Run London – and you can insert any other of some dozen or so city names here. It is by allowing consumers to live the idea in such a real experience that the idea becomes truly integrated, inculcated and, of course, meaningful. Premium spirits are highly reliant on using a ritual to embed their distinctive meaning in a consumption pattern, which makes the idea at their very core deeply experiential and personal. By insisting on a unique serve, the world’s favourite cocktails embed their own unique blend and create an intoxicating ritual. That is why the likes of Hendrick’s gin work so hard to ensure you take your tipple with its quirkily British slice of cucumber. It reminds you whoever you are, wherever you are, of your idealised self as the idiosyncratic, yet savant sophisticate that you want to be.
In addition to these factors, it is important to mention the teams who manage the brand. it is these people who define these brands and successfully navigate the perils of being generic to remain truly relevant to the individuals they serve. They see their task as one which is way beyond the commercial or the merely functional. They drive their brand with a zeal and desire that has true purpose. And by connecting with their brand in this way, they become brand activists as opposed to mere brand managers.
Like Warhol some half a century before them, they see the real possibility that is true meaning which sits within the apparent sameness they peddle so passionately – for this is the real possibility of the modern-day global brand. Like the soup cans, they can be apparently generic, yet filled with deep personal meaning. And by connecting with their brand, they become brand activists as opposed to mere brand managers.