Review – Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands

Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands

by Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron

Reviewed by Brian Christian

“Consumers – the ultimate arbiters of market innovation efforts – often find offerings to be innovative even though they seem quite pedestrian from a product design standpoint. It turns out that blockbuster new businesses do not necessarily require radically new features that fundamentally alter the value proposition.”

Many business books are written with the intention of discrediting conventional business practice and heralding a revolutionary new philosophy…but few succeed.  The authors usually fail at the discrediting – finding fault where too little exists – or at the heralding – proposing an alternative that lacks a genuinely new way of thinking.  In “Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands,” authors Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron give us an important contribution to the disciplines of marketing, branding and innovation. This book will be valuable to these three communities of practice but also to anyone who simply enjoys a good business book. Holt is a career academic, a former Harvard B-school professor and now chair of marketing at Oxford. Cameron has built his career in advertising. Their case examples make for an engaging road trip through the history of branding and advertising in the United States, with interesting backstory on many iconic brands along the way.

This book was published in 2010 and was recommended to us by Carol Philips, the President of Brand Amplitude, whose business it is to build innovative brands. The book is squarely focused on consumer brands with little to say about commercial or industrial brands but, as will be discussed below, many of its insights and recommendations are relevant for B2B businesses as well.

The basic premise of “Cultural Strategy” is that it is possible for consumer-facing businesses to achieve extraordinary results with non-extraordinary, undifferentiated offerings by appealing to sub-cognitive, cultural ideologies. In the authors’ words

Ideological opportunities provide one of the most fertile grounds for market innovation. Yet, these opportunities have gone unrecognized because of the extraordinary influence of economics, engineering, and psychology on management thinking. These disciplines purposely ignore cultural context and historical change in order to present a tidy theory that is easy for big companies to work with. We argue that it is in these untidy hard-to-measure parts of social life that some of the greatest innovation opportunities lie.

Most brand strategies today pursue mindshare marketing, which the authors define as the easy reliance on functional or emotional benefits in an attempt to dominate the cognitive landscape for consumers. The situation persists for two reasons, Cameron and Holt argue. First, these mindshare benefits — “cars that run longer with higher miles per gallon…cell phones that have more applications…hard drives that hold more data” — are easy to communicate and understand for a large marketing organization (brand bureaucracy) that must translate the brand strategy into an array of consumer touchpoints. This makes it simple to maintain a consistent message in a complex tactical execution program.

Second, testing and measuring consumer reactions to mindshare concepts is relatively straightforward, because the benefits exist at the cognitive level. In this age of scientific marketing, marketing professionals highly value the ability to measure consumer reactions to branding concepts in a variety of ways.

But the problem with the mindshare marketing approach is its inability to deliver truly disruptive brand innovation. The authors claim that it is impossible to stake out a genuinely breakthrough brand position when the positioning exists at the level of superficial, cognitive product benefits. In their words, this is the functional benefits trap. Since product benefits are probably not much differentiated from the competition, the brand position cannot be much differentiated either and, hence, an innovative branding opportunity is lost. As an example of how technical or functional benefits fail to strongly move consumer purchasing behavior, Holt and Cameron cite Nike’s early efforts in the 1970s, when it promoted its shoes on the basis of technical superiority.

To escape the functional benefits trap, marketers increasingly are focusing on emotional benefits, the softer values and feelings associated with the product or brand. But that, too, is ineffective. “Although ‘laddering up’ to the consumer’s ‘higher order values’ may seem noble and sophisticated, the result is simply to push for vague abstractions that hold negligible value for consumers. We are witnessing an emotions arms race in which companies vie to own one of the short list of top emotion words,” the authors write.

“Cultural Strategy” proposes a more effective approach to brand strategy based on cultural innovation or innovative cultural expression — consisting of an ideology, myth and cultural codes that tap into deep subconscious desires of consumers. The authors claim it is more effective to connect your brand to deep historical and cultural undercurrents in society than to simple, undifferentiated benefits claims. In other words, consumers often adopt brands to represent their ideological self image, not to solve problems. The authors give a number of examples over the past 60 years – Nike, Snapple, Starbucks, Marlboro, Levi’s, ESPN and others – in which marketers and brand managers found cultural innovation success. But these wins were largely due to trial and error and the lucky coincidence of circumstances. A good part of the book analyzes these brand success stories to assemble a roadmap of sorts so that future brand strategists need not depend on happenstance.

Nike is one of the case stories the authors spend a lot of time on. After early failures with the mindshare marketing approach, Nike found its way over a period of years to a resonant ideological position the authors call combative solo willpower. This ideology, represented by the now famous tagline, “Just Do It,” captured the zeitgeist of the late 1980s and 1990s. This was the Reagan era of small government, individualism and self-reliance. Over time the ideology continued to evolve and eventually became synonymous with the struggle of oppressed athletes all over the world, striving to overcome their circumstances through sport. Over the years, in consumers’ eyes, Nike took on racial, gender and class discrimination. The Nike story illustrates the authors’ notion that consumers will want to believe that performance is better when the brand ideology resonates with their own personal ideology.

Another exemplary success the authors cite is that of Jack Daniels. In the 1950s Jack Daniels was one of many regional, unprofitable whiskey brands. Ten years later it was the premier whiskey brand in the United States. Over the next several decades, the brand grew into an international icon. Holt and Cameron credit this transformation to a local (Lynchburg, Tenn.) ad agency that connected Jack Daniels to the ideology of frontier masculinity. The authors label the prevailing cultural association for whiskey brands at the time as masculinity status. This was the decade that saw the emergence of the company man as an aspirational achievement for young professionals. But an undercurrent of resistance to this subservient characterization was also building. The new Jack Daniels branding played on this undercurrent and enabled all those “company men” to identify with a more masculine and adventurous persona.

From the perspective of strategic innovation practitioners, we find much to like about “Cultural Strategy.” First, it promotes the possibility of strategic innovation along an important dimension of the overall business model: the Brand. Too often, the brand has been ignored as a legitimate component of the business model that itself can be the subject of innovation.

Second, the brand innovation methodology proposed by the authors in the last part of the book promotes the same bottom-up, iterative, outward-looking approach that Inovo has found so effective in numerous innovation initiatives that have addressed both the offering itself and the business model, across many industries.

At its core, “Cultural Strategy” is about innovation applied to the brand. A better title for the book might perhaps have been, “Strategic Brand Innovation: Using Cultural Ideologies to Build Compelling Consumer Brands.” While the case examples are almost exclusively drawn from the world of advertising, the ideas and methods presented also apply to other ways of creating brand identity. Still, more examples of brand innovation using methods other than advertising would have been useful and strengthened the authors’ case.

It also is worth emphasizing a point the authors make but only in a minor, passing way – that branding and brand innovation are just one piece of a larger puzzle for which innovation is necessary. But while brand innovation is critical, it is not sufficient for transformative business success of consumer brands. We would argue that the first priority of any strategic innovation endeavor is both the offering itself and the business model that enables the offering — and that brand is but one of a handful of crucial business model components.

Cultural Strategy” is an important contribution to innovation discussion and practice. It succeeds in presenting a genuinely novel and useful perspective on innovating brand.

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