From Material to Meaning: How Selling Ideas (Not Products) Strengthens Brands (Incl. Case Studies of Coke, IKEA, Off-White, A Cold Wall)
An incredible shift in thinking that has happened in our recent past. Since the industrial revolution, a focus on materialism has been the prevailing focus in defining someone's identity. For example, the perfect American family had a large car, 2 story house, a picket fence and a selection of white goods. This was the image which was placed in our minds as the definition of success and personal progress. Our elders worked hard to live up to these ideals and obtain objects that acted as markers of success and acceptance in society.
Today, young people are forming their own 'images' based on values and ideas, rather than objects. We're building the foundations for a post-materialistic society, simplifying our lives and prioritising efforts which have a positive impact on us collectively. The digital revolution connected us globally which allowed people to see we're all in this one world together. 'Your experience in the US, UK, China, Africa etc is similar to mine. You have the same problems, same struggles.'
Whilst this isn't a new trend as young people have been challenging the status quo from generation to generation, this is the first generation where this is happening on a global scale. Ideas have always been an incredibly powerful force, though historically were owned by a select group. It's only in our recent past that ideas have been democratised globally, and this is the first generation to really benefit (and suffer) from it. Jayden Smith is the embodiment of this new cocktail of idealism and pragmatism. GQ summarised him as 'big heart, big talker, big ideas' and this is what it means to be present in today's world: have positive ideas, share them, and make a global impact.
This is not to say the age of consumerism is dying - in fact to the contrary - though there is a shift in mindset when it comes to purchasing as people are choosing products that fit within their belief system. There's more thought put into what people are buying and its impact on communities locally and globally. Consumers are buying from sustainable brands, pieces that have longevity, and researching what a brand stands for. It's not good enough to just make attractive products, you also need to stand for something within a specific community, otherwise, you lack substance and relatability, and you'll be in a never-ending race to chase the hype.
What's the take away? It's important for brands to be aware that whatever you're selling, you're operating within a community. The more global your brand, the bigger the community you're adopting. Define your community, understand what they stand for, and prepare to play the longer term game to set yourself up for success. From local to global, here are some brands that did it right: A Cold Wall, Off-White, IKEA and Coke.
A Cold Wall
Empowering underrepresented British youth.
Samuel Ross is a designer who grew up in the outer, lower socioeconomic boroughs of London, son to a working class family. These suburbs were defined by exposed concrete slabs which were used to rebuild Britain as part of an ambitious post-war project to house the growing middle class. One generation later, these boroughs are characterised by crime, prostitution and poverty, the concrete slabs which once were symbols of progress now barriers that divided and segmented society behind towering eyesores.
Samuel's label 'A Cold Wall' is a reference to these exposed concrete divides, repurposing the personal significance they have into a designs which connected with a global audience due to the growing division in a post-Trump/ Brexit climate. His lived experience and training as a designer cultivates into a specific brand that caters to a conversation on community, place, humanity, politics and our role as individual actors within it. (his latest runway show is literally called ‘HUMAN. FORM. STRUCTURE.’ where guests were giving eye protection and breathing filters from dust particles.)
Summarised eloquently by Hypebeast, "his creative vision was catapulted in a mere two years into the likes of Barneys New York, and to London Fashion Week for his inaugural fashion show for the 2017 fall/winter season. But these latest milestones come at a particularly poignant period against the backdrop of Brexit and the rise of Trump, whose groundswell of nativist sentiment bubbled up from within the very same concrete walls that birthed Ross’s transcendent aesthetic. To that end, his genre-bending designs play an invaluable role in razing traditional barriers in a world that finds itself increasingly vulnerable to the dangers of the categorizations of race, religion and culture."
Embracing luxury street-wear and the DIY culture.
Since the appointment of Virgil at Louis Vuitton, the acceptance that luxury can be 'street' has grown substantially but his approach to fashion still remains somewhat controversial within the establishment. The label's success was driven by embracing the do-it-yourself/hack culture that young people have grown up with, along with an awareness of how a fashion culture was being transformed by young trendsetters whose outfits blended trends seen between the runways and alleyways.
This re-appropriation of culture was bred through social media where young people would create their own cultural assets across fashion, film, music with their own spin that spoke to their community. This reappropriation was grounded in intellectual, hyper-aware sub-cultures that communicated through their creations online. Off-White became the vehicle that legitimised this digital process. In an interview with BoF, Virgil explained: “In a large part streetwear is seen as cheap. What my goal has been is to add an intellectual layer to it and make it credible."
Before Off-White, Virgil tried tapping into this movement with his first label, Pyrex Vision. “We saw kids from Harlem presenting Rick Owens and Raf Simons in a different way that connected directly to culture and Pyrex Vision became the aesthetic of that... [Until then] high-fashion was dictating what was happening in culture and for the first time that had been reversed by this generation of influential kids. That, in turn, affected the market.”
Read the in-depth article on BoF.
Designing how we live by understanding the nuances of cultures and communities.
IKEA arguably has the largest impact on domestic living globally with their products shaping the living spaces across millions of households around the world.
Whilst I concede that it is in fact their products which strengthens their brand, the 'idea' they're selling is an (almost) invisible one. IKEA are masters of selling the utopian living space adapted to meet cultural normalities of different countries, religions and lifestyles. Their community is as varied and diverse across nations with different cultures as it is united by universal human truths, all homes are meant to provide comfort, safety and convenience. To tackle this duality and provide products at a localised level for a global audience, IKEA invests in anthropological research to uncover how different cultures around the world live.
"The more far away we go from our culture, the more we need to understand, learn, and adapt," Ikea's head of research Mikael Ydholm told Fortune Magazine. This research allows them to adapt and reflect a societies representation of 'ideal living' across their global markets, each factoring in the local cultural nuances. IKEA release a summary of their research online on the 'Life At Home' microsite.
Read more on Ikea's incredible research process and how they took over the world at Fortune.
Promoting emotional connection across boundaries.
Coke has taken an interesting route to be one of the global brand leaders. Their first campaigns leveraged the nation pride present during WW2, as the US fought battles overseas. Coke positioned itself as the taste of America, and both soldiers on the front line and families back at home would drink Coke to feel closer together as a nation.
Following, the war the US had to rebuild their communities and the ideal of the nucleus American family was the formula to introduce structure back into society. The Nucleus family became the mainstay of what it means to be American, and Coke adapted by evolving their relationship with nationalism from looking across the national border to inside the walls of your home. Drinking Coke represented taking care of your family, being the responsible, caring house-wife.
In 1971, Coke turned it's attention globally once more, though this time to unite us during the heart of the Cold War. The ad which ends the Mad Men series 'I'd like to buy the world a Coke' was born. The Coke brand leveraged its long association with bringing people together to execute a contextually aware campaign that spoke to its global community, by understanding the cultural tension present.
In the late 70's racial tension in America grew. Coke showed a way for the country to come together through conflict resolution which captured the imaginations of millions of Americans. Coke released the 'Mean Green Joe' (1979) commercial as healing glue. The ad featured a young Anglo boy in the player tunnel holding a Coke. African American defensive tackle, "Mean" Joe Greene, limps down the tunnel passed the boy who asks whether he needs help. Joe waves the boy away until in condolence, offers Joe his bottle of Coke. Joe finally accepts and ends up finishing the bottle of Coke. The kid sulkily walks away until Joe in an act of comradeship throws him his players shirt, with the famous slogan "Hey kid, catch!"
This brings us to the millennium where many people reading this article would recognise the tagline 'Open Happiness,' again speaking to a global community dealing with the growing tension of racial divide, terrorism and an uncertain economic future. (It's just a shame Coke has now dropped the cultural awareness strategy and moved to 'Taste the Feeling')
p.s. If you'd like an actionable plan on how to take your meaning to market, download our deck below which includes our brand-culture integration one pager.