The attraction of cultural magnetism

The attraction of cultural magnetism

How brands are building lasting connections

Brands have never been more important than they are today. Consequently, they are under more pressure than ever before. Age, religion, and geography no longer have a monopoly over defining communities – brands are now part of that echelon, playing the role of uniter.

Brands hold values that connect people emotionally. They create virtual spaces and real-world places for those people to gather. This presents modern brands with a unique opportunity to play a creative and meaningful role in people's daily lives. But to achieve this, marketers must change the way they assess brand health.

The gears for engaging with consumers need to shift from pushing to attracting. Brands that go beyond raising awareness to build cultural capital not only create meaning in people's lives, but also drive business success.

As brands balance the pressure to be a unifying factor in people's lives with the freedom to express and uphold a set of values, marketers must ask themselves what makes or breaks a brand today. What must marketers do to create experiences that connect their brands to people and in turn enable them to connect with one another and their communities?

Being relevant only gets a brand into the consideration set, internal BAV data shows, and forces them to compete on price with relevant peers. But brands with cultural magnetism create their own gravity beyond the functional dynamics of their category, resulting in far deeper customer advocacy.

The mechanics of magnetism

Cultural magnetism is the ability of a brand to connect with people beyond category expectations of value and quality. It supersedes brand relevance. And for marketers today, it can be the difference between a brand that electrifies a community of consumers and one that fizzles out completely.

Building a magnetic brand allows marketers to drive greater pricing power, deeper brand loyalty, and ultimately, stronger marketplace performance.

According to the Cultural Magnetism Index (CMI), a brand metric developed by brand experience agency VMLY&R and BAV, which together run the largest and longest-running brand study in the world, brands that imbue cultural magnetism connect with consumers in three ways: emotionally, culturally and experientially. They inspire people's commitment and willingness to evangelise; they use voice, emotion, sentiment, topics and clout to tap into cultural conversations and moments; and they go beyond functional utility to deliver emotional resonance consistent with the brand's core.

These three measurable dimensions of magnetism – emotional connection, cultural connection and experiential connection – have the power to drive brand and revenue changes.

Emotional connection

Marketers often refer to "brand emotion" and "brand love", but many of the most "loved" brands today are fatigued rather than lusted after. While consumers may cherish brands such as Rite Aid, State Farm and 7-Eleven, without an emotional connection their meaning in people's lives will wane.

To understand their brand's emotional connection, marketers must capture the depth of advocacy that their brand generates with people and communities and evaluate whether it has a role beyond category expectations.

As a case in point, Anheuser-Busch took its Michelob ULTRA brand beyond category expectations by steering it to a more human place. The category leader picked a muse and built the brand around that audience.

The team tapped into the CrossFit community and showed that Michelob ULTRA is a brand for people who work hard and play hard – not a brand for everyone looking for a low carb, low calorie light beer. By rallying their crowd, they elevated the brand past its category.

Emotionally connected brands inspire consumer commitment and willingness to evangelise.

Cultural connection

While emotional connection may spark the relationship between a brand and consumer, cultural integration is what will keep it alive and flourishing. Brands should consider culture itself as a new medium – a canvas or stage on which to play out shared cultural interests.

New Balance, for example, knows the London Marathon – with its wacky, party-like atmosphere and community togetherness – is one big high. Training for the event during the UK's miserable winter months, however, is the lowest of the lows. Last winter, to keep runners motivated leading up to the race, the brand opened a pub for runners where the only currency accepted was miles run.

The pub showed runners that New Balance literally values their commitment and cheers them all the way to the finish line. It's a good example of how a brand can tap into a community and show its support.

To make cultural connections, brands should live in people's lives and cultural interests. What's happening on social media most accurately reflects and informs cultural conversations, and magnetic brands use voice, emotion, sentiment, topics, and clout to create a broader, more meaningful connection with the people who matter to them in that space.

The brands that are successful in this area treat social media and content as core elements of the marketing mix. One excellent example of this is Wendy's.

Wendy's is a brand with high cultural magnetism and because of its deep understanding of its crowd, it has the brand athleticism to play in culture, well outside of category boundaries. In 2018, when the brand dropped a mixtape on Spotify, it moved into entertainment because its crowd asked for it.

Even though a mixtape wasn't in Wendy's marketing mix, the brand delivered it anyway — and its audience loved it.

Experiential connection

Creating unique and effective customer experiences is an increasingly critical component of building a culturally magnetic brand.

Brand building requires not only excellence in communicating brand value, but also in extending the brand value to experiences that are thoughtful, relevant, connected, and effective. These experiences certainly go beyond functional utility (e.g. providing customer support), and should create an emotional resonance consistent with the brand's core. Consider Apple's retail experience: the stores don't have checkout queues or cash registers, in line with Apple's identity as an innovator.

Through the experience a brand creates for its audience, marketers can deepen the magnetism they create and use that to build a competitive advantage.

Committing to developing a superior customer experience requires extending brand-building efforts to each moment of the customer journey – even the unpleasant ones. Delta Airlines is a good example.

Delta is a brand that continues to push its customer experience innovation from reactive to proactive. From automatic rebooking to sending outbound calls with a real person on the other end of the line within minutes of a flight disruption, the brand is easing the pain of a cancelled flight in a high-touch way.

With these initiatives, Delta is turning the negative experience of an itinerary change into a brand-building moment.

Like Delta, the best brands look for ways to add value for their crowd – developing innovative customer experiences that solve real problems and make life easier.

Where to start: building a culturally magnetic brand

With the right data and analysis, marketers can evaluate their emotional, experiential and social connectedness – and diagnose the strengths, challenges, and opportunities for their brands to become more magnetic in people's lives and culture.

With the right insights, they can even make strides toward changing society, as a collection of marketers in Poland did early last year. Together they took a definitive stance on sexism by buying a long-running adult magazine and transforming it into a powerful platform for women's advocacy.

The Last Ever Issue challenged constructs in Polish society and in marketing by reframing the very nature of purpose campaigns.

By reframing the world in fresh ways, marketers unlock new perspectives and opportunities that go well beyond the next campaign cycle.

So how can marketers begin tapping into the emotional, cultural and experiential dimensions of magnetism? First, they need to become one of their consumers, and consider the consumer reality and the brand reality as one.

In that mindset, marketers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is the brand trying to be everything to everyone, or do marketers have a muse and a clear crowd they are designing for?
  • Where are a brand's opportunities to stand behind its audience?
  • Are marketers using the customer experience as a powerful brand-building tool, amplifying the brand's promise well beyond a campaign cycle?
  • Do fixed mental models exist within a brand's (or agency's) organisation that discourage new thinking?
  • What does a brand's crowd really want? Are marketers organised to deliver?

An honest and thoughtful examination of the answers to those questions will put marketers on the path to building culturally magnetic brands.

Creating cultural magnetism is a long-term approach to brand-building that starts with a reflection on the philosophy, people and processes that power a brand. Ultimately, building a magnetic brand will allow marketers to drive greater brand loyalty, stronger marketplace performance, and move from brand love to brand fascination.

Amy Winger & Michael Sussman

VMLY&R & BAV Group

published on

12 March 2020


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