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How Brands Become Icons

Douglas B. Holt

The Principles of Cultural Branding

(Harvard Business School Press)

The Big Idea

The Great Idea in advertising is far more than the sum of the recognition scores, the ratings and all the other superficial indicators of its success; it is in the realm of myth, to which measurements cannot apply.”
—Leo Bogart


In the ad biz, “The Big Idea” is the Holy Grail, the creative solution that in a few words or images sums up the compelling reason to plop down your hard-earned cash for something you may not have known you even needed. Big Ideas have something called “legs”; they can be called upon again and again in different ways. Some Big Ideas include: “The Pepsi Generation,” “Where’s the beef?,” “Just do it” and the Energizer Bunny.


In the academy, theorists are also on the lookout for the Big Idea. There, the Big Idea is called a “paradigm shift.” Among other things, it seeks something known as “parsimony,” a simple concept or equation that explains a lot. Rational choice, that we naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, is the Big Idea of classical economics. Who owns the means of production and the social relations that result is the Big Idea of Marxism. The relationship of matter to the speed of light is the Big Idea of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The biggest of the Big Ideas of recent times is deconstruction, which underlies much of what we call theories of postmodernism.


In his new book, How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, marketing theorist Douglas B. Holt proposes a Big Idea. Simply put, according to Holt, the brands that attain the status of icons in consumer society operate at the cultural level. And more than merely reflecting people and the times in which they live, iconic brands offer myths that help resolve the contradictions of society; they’re channels for expressing desire and relieving anxiety.


The theory of cultural branding supplants prevailing marketing paradigms, Holt argues. Concepts like mind-share, emotional branding, viral marketing and cool-hunting can’t entirely explain the success of iconic brands like Nike, Mountain Dew and Harley Davidson. The mind-share and emotional branding paradigms claim to measure the unique attributes particular brands have in the minds of consumers. Because they’re driven from the top down, they often fail because they seek a “brand essence” that is universal and unable to respond to changing markets. Viral marketing and cool-hunting understand brands as leading indicators of ever-changing consumer tastes. But they can’t position a brand beyond the latest fad because they’re too driven from the bottom up with no larger strategy than identifying what may or may not be hip among a particular consumer segment. On the other hand, cultural branding consistently shows why some marketing campaigns succeed while others fail, across product categories and for a single brand over the ups and downs of market fluctuation.


Holt builds his theory from what are known in the research biz as extended case studies. He devises a method he terms “brand genealogy” to look at how brands fare in the marketplace over long periods of time. For this study, he surveyed thousands of ads for several major brands, overlaying media placements on top of five decades of American political, economic and social trends. He also looked at other cultural texts like movies and TV shows. The result is not only a breakthrough business study on how branding works, but a portrait of America since the end of the Second World War.


What Holt finds is that those brands that offer solutions to the crises of American society gain market share. And when those brands are out of sync, they sink regardless of how much money is spent promoting them. Iconic brands create what Holt terms “myth markets,” the opportunities for which arise when national ideology conflicts with social reality. Myth markets are based in populist worlds, the bedrock of culture. Some of the enduring myths in American culture are those of self-reliance, manifest destiny and America as the land of opportunity. Populist worlds include sports, the Wild West and the immigrant experience.


Myth markets succeed by providing mechanisms for working out ideological conflict through narratives set in populist worlds. Thus when America’s high-wage industrial base was being scuttled with the first waves of outsourcing in the 1970s, Budweiser’s extolling of the virtues of the traditional artisan served up a shot of old-fashioned respect with every brewski to embattled blue-collar men. When outsourcing began to make its way up the corporate ladder into the white-collar world two decades later, the genuinely amateurish pitches of Snapple bestowed a nonconformist badge of honor for slackers to carry with them all the way to their McJobs.


Not that the owners of these brands necessarily knew what they were doing. For example, Bud somehow got sidetracked, pulled aimlessly along by Clydesdales as they clopped down the road to lower market share. And when Quaker Oats Company bought out Snapple, they brought in “professionals” who proceeded to destroy everything the brand stood for.


The problem, according to Holt, is that corporate brand managers are typically MBAs who know all about revenue projections, returns on investment, media costs-per-point and such, but not a damn thing about the stories and life experiences that actually compel people to buy. What’s more, the methods they use to understand consumers are equally flawed by rational theories that reduce everything to numbers that can be entered into an Excel spreadsheet and summarily analyzed with the click of a mouse, just like Ben Stiller’s ultimately futile effort to use an actuarial risk-model computer program to figure out whether his life partner should be Debra Lessing or Jennifer Aniston in last year’s movie Along Came Polly.


Holt is a leader in the field of marketing and knows as much as anyone when it comes to consumer society. He currently teaches at Oxford University in England and was until recently on the faculty of Harvard Business School. He also has industry experience as a brand manager. Yet he doesn’t have much faith in quantitative market research. Not one of his case studies shows that asking consumers what they want actually helps improve market share. In fact, exactly the opposite may happen because too many of what he terms “feeders” (the fickle wannabes who use brands under the influence of their true devotees, whom he terms “insiders” and “followers”) may get into the research sample and skew the results in the wrong direction.


Indeed if there’s any lesson to be learned, it’s that history shows creativity sells. And contrary to a lot of current marketing theory, it’s breakthrough advertising, which is to say the Big Idea, that has done the most to construct the myth markets consumers literally and figuratively buy into. In part this is because, of all those involved in the process, the creative types at ad agencies, many of them frustrated artists themselves, are the ones who are most in touch with populist worlds by their own consumption of books, music, film, extreme sports, etc. This is also why ad agencies turn over creative staff so frequently: they continually need fresh meat to grind through the mill in the production of consumption. The exception is Harley Davidson, which became iconic while flubbing their advertising pitches for years. Their story, often cited by brand consultants for all the wrong reasons according to Holt, demonstrates how cultural texts, such as movies and music, and the media work as coauthors of mythic worlds in which brands exist in the popular imagination.


How Brands Become Icons is intended to be a manual for brand managers and their agencies, a theoretical model and a set of tactical steps for fine-tuning marketing efforts to be more effective. Yet one can’t help but see an implicit critique of consumer society lurking between the lines. Some of the more lively writing in the book is the social history Holt provides as the backdrop for the marketing campaigns that channeled the anxiety of everyday Americans into consumer desire, transforming their discontent into cash-register sales without ever really addressing the root causes. (As Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson sings, “I drank a dozen Buds, but I don’t feel any wiser.”)


When it comes down to it, branding is basically ideology, a collection of myths manufactured by companies to stoke the fires of capitalism. Brands, iconic and otherwise, sell us the idea that we can make our problems go away simply by buying things. The irony is that in America, consumer ideology is our culture, the very glue that binds us to one another and helps get us through the day. But of course that’s another Big Idea.

Vince Carducci is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College for Creative Studies, a private art and design school in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @cultrindustreez.


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