I'm reading Bogusky and Windsor’s Baked In and, while frequently meh, the book does sport some wisdom. The crux in my opinion is this:
"[A] brand’s products and marketing not only tell the same story but also have a deep connection to culture and the flexibility to be extraordinary."
This got me thinking about how brands have existed throughout time, active within a culture. Particularly, one of my favorite: Budweiser.
[Disclosure: Budweiser is a client. In 2010, I completed quite a bit of content strategy for their website redesign and even dug around for a few days in their St. Louis archives.]
What can we learn from brands like Budweiser; brands that have been cultural landmarks for over a century? And what can these classic brands portend for the future?
From roughly the industrial revolution through, say, the 1950s, brands offered consistency. They communicated to consumers that this product would be the same each and every time; they stressed dependability.
As Budweiser gained in popularity with this new light lager, imitators tried to encroach on their territory. Adolphus Busch fought this infringement – very much protecting his good name against these inferior products.
The Budweiser brand stressed consistency in these early days, but prohibition ended consumers' ability to remain loyal. And a funny thing happened – American beer drinkers got used to the sweeter taste of illegally-produced "bathtub" beer.
After prohibition ended, Budweiser implemented the "Budweiser Test." They dared consumers to try Budweiser for 5 days straight and then try another brand. 5 days of consistency was enough to revert customer taste back to Budweiser. Another win for brand equaling consistency.
Bogusky and Windsor claim that this changed in the 1950s. Mass production became wide-spread and competing products often reached a level of parity unseen before the modern era. Consistency was no longer the problem; now brands were used to differentiate products.
It's no surprise that American advertising shifted during this time from a product's features to a focus on how the brand made a person feel. With many light lagers available, marketing tactics employed characters, frogs, and even a particular Bull Terrier in order to make drinkers of Anheuser-Busch products feel differently about themselves. The proliferation of these tactics, especially from the '50s through the early 2000s, they were participating with a brand at least in part due to the different way it made them feel compared with other brands.
Brands are fundamentally different in our culture now, though. The consumer acts as co-facilitator, helping to define a brand in ways that made many companies nervous in the '90s and early '00s.
Instead of consistency or differentiation, we now care about how we interact with the brand on a much more personal level. Our brand loyalty is based on how much we act as its advocate.
No surprise, then, that "engagement" has been the buzzword for the last decade. The Budweiser brand has become accustomed to providing a forum for consumer engagement. Critical Mass recently helped Budweiser with their National Happy Hour campaign in which the Budweiser brand facilitated in-person meetings with friends.
Customer interaction has become key and, if they add to that experience, brands can provide a critical component of that experience.
What’s the Future Hold?
How will consumers interact with brands in the future? No amount of tea leaves will prove anything, but current trends may point the way forward.
Brands are created more and more in the mind of the individual. In a very real sense, I suspect the Budweiser brand will be created in each of our own images. An ultra-personalized, individual brand seems to be where the market is moving.
As a brand moves almost totally outside any company's purview, the only real possibility for connection is a brand's essence in the mind of each consumer. Likewise, as we move to a semantic web (web 3.0), our online interactions will be more predictive, based more on how each of us view the world. Why would brands be any different?
What this means for Budweiser is, of course, many years into the future. However, by laying the groundwork today – of focusing on the consumer, as acting as a facilitator for each consumer's social life – Budweiser is making in-roads that will likely assist as we all move toward web 3.0.
Baking It In
As a brand that has thrived in our culture for over a century, Budweiser didn't have the chance to bake their marketing into the product. But they have a real chance to bake it into the customer experience.
I don't write this as a Budweiser fan-boy, but as a metaphor for any brand hoping to live and prosper in a web 3.0 world. As Bogusky and Windsor paraphrase a friend: "Why are so many people afraid of so many things, but they're never afraid of mediocrity?" In the end, brands like Budweiser that actively live and evolve within a culture will succeed. The ability to evolve has quickly become the key element to bake into your brand.