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Brand Hijack

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I have to admit that I’m not a marketer. But I am a consumer, occasionally a conspicuous one. And it is with that perspective that I read Alex Wipperfürth’s book Brand Hijack, which is all about “marketing without marketing,” or, perhaps more accurately, about marketing without appearing to be marketing. And it is with the eye of the intrigued consumer that I found the book’s insights into good marketing strategies, the “cults” of branding, and the current socio-cultural trends among consumers to be both compelling and somewhat unsettling.

A “brand hijack,” according to Wipperfürth, is “the consumer’s act of commandeering a brand from the marketing professionals and driving its evolution.” The book’s premise is simple: traditional marketing isn’t working, or isn’t working as well as it once did. The author points out that professional marketers have always been able to revert back to the seemingly “immutable laws of marketing:” that branding is the most critical element of commercial success, that you simply need to identify a compelling connection between your product and the target audience, and you create an “aspirational image” associated with the brand to create the connection between audience and product. Indeed, the traditional marketing suggestion isn’t just that I’m buying a car; I’m buying into the image associated with the car (young and hip if I go for the Honda Element, Nissan Xterra, or Mini Cooper, powerful and virile with the latest sports car, established and successful if I opt for a Lexus, Mercedes, or the like).

But Wipperfürth contends that the past decade has seen some remarkable brand launches that completely ignored the traditional rules and instead stand witness to the idea that consumers, rather than marketers, are often dictating a brand’s success based upon their own perceptions rather than the splashy marketing. He notes that Starbucks and eBay both built successful “brands” without the typical “quintessential advertising campaign” and that both Palm and Red Bull seemingly ignored customers’ stated desires and yet produced new product markets. And he points out the seemingly incomprehensible fact that Pabst Blue Ribbon became the fastest-growing domestic beer after years as an industry also-ran – even though “it tastes like backwash and hardly can be said to offer aspirational benefits.”

The core of Wipperfürth’s idea about the “new” marketing is that consumers are increasingly sophisticated. I remember reading recently how a film industry insider criticized what he perceived to be the commentary of casual fans, as if only those “in the know” could comprehend or coherently offer criticism of a film’s quality. The reality is that in our increasingly media-saturated society, an increasing number of consumers are media-savvy; they know and understand the techniques and tricks just as well as those on the “inside.” Anymore, lots of students study film in college and consume them in ever-increasing quantities; likewise, consumers are becoming ever more aware of the manipulation of advertisers – and thus more sensitive to it. Sorry, Pepsi, but once fans know that Jeff Gordon’s contract requires him to grab a Pepsi after a victory and carefully turn the bottle so that the Pepsi logo is clearly visible to the cameras before he takes a swig, the importance of that advertising link is decreased. More, fans often end up laughing, rather than embracing the product – one of those “oh look, he really is doing what that article said he had to do” type of moments.

Indeed, the author of Brand Hijack puts it like this: “How do you market to an audience that rejects marketing?” And he says that as “schizophrenic” as this question might sound (albeit perhaps only to its audience of staid marketing types), it’s time to ask it because American consumers are increasingly ignoring corporate America’s overt advances.

Take Signe Nordli, the cover girl for Playboy‘s “Women of Starbucks” issue: She may drink her daily double, non-fat, venti almond latte, but she’ll buy whichever laundry detergent happens to be cheapest at the supermarket. Or Marc Anthony: An admitted Prada addict and style maven who has been known to match the color of his sunglasses with his girlfriend’s shirt, he wears an inexpensive Kiehl’s aftershave instead of designer cologne. Or Ellen Feiss: the apparently stoned teenager from Apple’s infamous “Switch” ads looks as if she buys her clothes at the thrift store.

That baked teenager scares the hell out of us marketing professionals. How will anyone be able to convince her to shed her second-hand jeans for Seven for All Mankind low-riders? Why is Apple the brand she deems worthy?

I can assure you it didn’t happen by accident.

Echoing the words of the Cluetrain Manifesto, the author offers this word of advice: marketing managers aren’t in charge of brand development anymore. Consumers are, and in ways they never managed before (a feat the Cluetrain boys would undoubtedly attribute, at least in part, to the advancement of networked communications that empower consumers and allow them to express their “voice” in new ways). The author’s principal point is that for a brand to truly stick with consumers, it needs to collaborate with its users; it needs to allow them to give the brand a meaning and life of its own. Of course, Wipperfürth also believes marketers have a role to play in shaping the “serendipity” of what he calls the brand hijack; it’s that whole “marketing without appearing to do anything” line. He quotes a Red Bull PR manager as acknowledging that while the company doesn’t do “traditional” advertising, it still spends quite a bit of money on the “illusion” of serendipitous success.

From Pabst Blue Ribbon and Red Bull to Apple’s iPod and Doc Martens, Brand Hijack examines the ways in which consumers have embraced and shaped product image; the author also examines how many companies get it wrong (including, for example, Doc Martens, whose workmanlike boots managed to appeal to a broad cross-section of consumers until the company’s marketing team decided to develop a splashy, trendy ad campaign that cost the company much of its customer base simply because it seemed as though the company had “sold out”). He drives home the principle of honest passion by contrasting the success of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream with the failure of Coca-Cola’s Frutopia fruit drink. Both Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s and a representative of Coca-Cola spoke at a seminar Wipperfürth attended in London; he noted how Cohen talked “passionately” about the company’s sustainable vision, always seeming genuine and credible.

After Ben Cohen’s speech, Coca-Cola’s U.K. General Manager went to the podium dressed in gray pinstripes to lecture us on the karmic and psychedelic free spirit of Frutopia, a drink that would make the world a better place . . .

Everyone in the audience knew right then that Fruitopia would fail. Its psuedo ’60s hippie persona was simply too much of a stretch for the buttoned-up executives from the American South. Frutopia was exposed as a corporate poseur before it even launched.

In other words, Fruitopia was basically an exercise in corporate hypocrisy, just another fruit drink masquerading as something it wasn’t and being marketed under a scheme that sought to tap into “aspirational beliefs” that it simply couldn’t sustain. Wipperfürth does an excellent job of comparing successful brands to cults, and he examines what he calls the new “tribal” mentality of consumers. He believes that in the new age of marketing, appealing to the hive mentality of the brand tribe in subtle ways, while being receptive to the tribe’s manipulation of the product in unexpected ways. If “brand communities” are the emerging social trend of the new millennium (perhaps in contrast to Wired magazine’s suggestion that brands are dead, or at least in decline), then companies will have to figure out how best to connect with them.

These tribes are ephemeral; they are constantly forming, dissipating, and reforming. Nevertheless, they readily embrace, adopt, and alter brands in the marketplace. As Ostergaard and Jantzen put it, “Product symbolism creates a universe for the tribe.” Companies that learn to feed and foster these brand communities will find themselves with an invaluable resource.

The author also suggests that the emergence of the “brand tribe” will dramatically alter how marketers relate to consumers and will require not just traditional consumer interviews but an “anthropological approach to understanding subcultures, their rituals and consumption patterns.” While this may be true, I personally (as a consumer) question his contention that excellent products will become less important than communal belonging and that “the link is more important than the thing.” This is the sort of thing that marketers have always believed – i.e., that what they do, which is provide the “aspirational belief” or in Wipperfürth’s vision, the “communal belonging” – is not only of value, but of paramount importance. Personally, I don’t discount the importance of the marketing and the associative imaging of products, but ultimately you have to deliver something more – you have to deliver a product.

Far too often companies buy into the notion that the image they present (or solicit and shape via a manufactured “brand hijack”) is going to be sufficient to sell a product. Often, however, if the resulting product sucks, the tribe is quite quick to move on. Indeed, that is really part of the dilemma marketers face in dealing with consumers who don’t like marketing; savvy consumers understand that they’re being played, and they’re willing to tolerate the game as long as they sense that the company is playing fairly and providing a product that satisfies them. If Apple had created a crappy mp3 player and attempted to market it, there wouldn’t be the kind of “communal community” of iPod users there is today. I can understand why the author might believe that the communal link is of critical importance, but I really think there’s a corollary being missed here: the “link” is only sustainable to the extent that there is a product which satisfies the community. If the community becomes dissatisfied, either because they sense that the company is somehow “selling out” or because of a sense that the product does not meet expectations, they’ll bail.

That said, I found Brand Hijack to be a fascinating glimpse inside the world of modern marketing. Some of the comparisons between “brand tribes” and cults were actually a bit eerie, but what was perhaps a bit more unsettling was simply the fact that even those who think they’re resistant to marketing may not be as immune as they believe. After all, as the author points out, many of today’s most ardent anti-brand communities are some of America’s most “logo-loyal” consumers, at least when it’s their brand. “Cases in point: anti-corporate bike messengers like Kyle Hanson swear by their Timbuk2 bags. Burning Man free spirits like “Ginger” think old-school VW bugs are the only way to travel.” Ultimately, empowered, media-savvy consumers don’t preclude the game of marketing; they just change the rules and the balance of power. In that regard, Brand Hijack is an engaging examination of the new playing field.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Good review. There is a missing close to a hyperlink, however, that is messing up the formating.

  • Thanks, fixed it. 🙂

  • This new pattern occurs because buyers are more sophisticated, so they’re buying more PBR? Um.

  • The fact that consumers are more resistant to marketing or more savvy about blatant efforts to get into their pocket doesn’t prevent them from chasing “hip” or occasionally lacking taste buds. 🙂

  • I always get sucked right into your reviews, Bill. This one especially interests me as I’m just finishing up William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and its heroine “cool hunter.” Great stuff.

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You�ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com�s Book Reviews column.

  • Eric –

    Thanks for the kind words. I take it you enjoyed Pattern Recognition? I haven’t read it yet, although I’ve picked it up more than a few times.

  • It’s actually the first Gibson novel I’ve read, surprisingly enough. It starts off slightly slow but picks up speed throughout. All in all it’s great fiction — fast-paced and taut and interesting.

  • marie

    I disagree with the comment about people buying pepsi, because, it is in Jeff Gordon’s contract. Nascar fans are very loyal to their drivers and my family will buy merchandise supporting our drivers over anything else.

  • Ok, the products quality is key… he dosent say that`s not true, if you re-read the book you will find out that he explians that consumers, besides, knowing about marketing strategy they understand that the quality in some products is not far from each other. (coke and pepsi, etc)

    you cant use this kind of marketing in every product or service, you have to create a new strategy for every one, that includes all the instruments you can, to get where you want.