Brands that won new customers through shared values

Markets change. Consumers age. Children grow, gain purchasing power, and develop their own brand preferences. Trends emerge and evolve. Cultures intermingle.

To stay relevant, most brands need to change along with markets. And the most effective way to do that is to discover the shared values that motivate customers and make the brand itself a medium for sharing these values. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to consider a couple of iconic brands that have continued to grow over a long history -- succeeding precisely insofar as they developed and shared values in harmony with the changing times.

Jell-O: From aristocratic delicacy to middle-class family fun

For hundreds of years, gelatin was made by laboriously boiling animal bones, straining the liquid, skimming off the fat and allowing it to cool and settle for at least a day. The result was a moldable delicacy that only the wealthy could afford. With the invention of powdered gelatin, the addition of flavors and the spread of refrigeration, gelatin desserts finally became accessible to the middle class. But it wasn't until the Jell-O brand began creating its identity around shared cultural values that the product finally took off in a big way.

In the early 20th century, ads appeared in Ladies' Home Journal showing fashionable young women serving Jell-O and declaring it "America's Favorite Dessert." Salesmen distributed free recipe books -- one of the earliest examples of content marketing. Jell-O molds were even given to immigrants at Ellis Island, establishing a uniquely American appeal that would be passed down for generations.

Since then, Jell-O has repositioned itself repeatedly -- as the essential ingredient in a fad for congealed salads and layered desserts. As a dieting staple. As a convenient line of pre-packaged snacks. And most notably, as a fun food that brings kids and adults together -- from Bill Cosby's 30 years as Jell-O's kid-friendly, adult-smart spokesman to today's "Fun Things Up" campaign, positioning Jell-O snacks as a pleasure families can count on from the innocence of childhood through the challenges of adult life.

Dove: From ideal beauty to personal empowerment

Dove began its remarkable rise to brand success in the 1950s. Early messaging positioned Dove as a "beauty bar" that moisturized skin by incorporating "1/4 cleansing cream," unlike from ordinary soap. Taking on the era's zeitgeist of science and progress, ads encouraged women to test the product for themselves, washing one side of their face with soap and the other with Dove.

Later campaigns pivoted from science to emotion. In 1960s ads, Dove products kept homemakers beautiful. By the 1990s, the ads were enacting a sensuous ideal of thin-waisted, dewy-skinned beauty. For three decades, the best reason to use Dove was to please someone else. By the turn of the century, women simply weren't having any more of that. Aging customers didn't want to be reminded of discarded beauty ideals, and potential new customers were raised to believe in themselves rather than the need to please others. Self-esteem and empowerment became part of everyone's personal story of growth. And that insight became Dove's brilliant vision for completely remaking the values at the core of the brand. You already know the results: notable, provocative, viral engagements like Real Curves, Evolution, Onslaught, Pro-Age, Real Beauty Sketches and Selfies. It was all about finding values to share -- not impose -- and creating meaningful stories to lead the values conversation. It may be the best move Dove ever made.

Anticipating tomorrow's values

It's easy to see successful re-creation of brand values in hindsight, but the challenge for brands is how to create meaning around the values that will resonate with consumers going forward. There's often an element of risk.

For example, look at the criticism that came from some quarters when Cheerios first portrayed a mixed-race family. Or when McDonald's France portrayed a young gay man, possibly about to come out to his dad, with the tagline "venez comme vous êtes" (come as you are). Can a backlash of Twitter storms and threatened boycotts ultimately hurt these brands? We suspect not because they're tapping into a broad-based cultural shift and sharing values the vast majority of consumers want to believe in -- inclusivity and respect. Plus, major brands like these can afford some risk. Nabisco took a risk with its Honey Maid brand, portraying a variety of families not usually seen in ads -- including a young boy and a newborn baby with two dads -- with the tagline "This is Wholesome." When inevitable backlash came, Honey Maid turned the risk taken to an advantage. In a second ad, a pair of artists created the word "Love" out of printed copies of hundreds of offended emails and tweets the brand had received. They then surrounded the word "Love" with ten times as many messages that had been received in support of the "This is Wholesome" campaign.

Honey Maid proved that taking a big risk can work in a brand's favor by tapping into an emerging sense that very disparate groups can still hold closely shared values. It's also possible to anticipate where the audience's values are headed without taking much of a risk at all.

Today's consumers will inevitably be older tomorrow. Brands that want to hold onto their loyalty across the decades need to speak to the changing ways they look at the world. That might mean honoring the aging process itself -- a big part of the Dove story we've already told.

Or it might mean turning from an innocent to a nostalgic view of youth, as Hello Kitty has done. Hello Kitty's earliest fans are now in their 40s. Children are still the main target audience, but over the past 25 years, Hello Kitty has learned to follow its devotees well into adulthood with tea sets, toasters, cellphone and laptop cases, pajamas, spectacles, bedsheets, automotive accessories and many other products for adults with a Hello Kitty theme. It's an approach that keeps adults connected to their youth and also closes the circle with their own kids. Sanrio Co. adds about 600 new products a month to the approximately 15,000 Hello Kitty items already available and has become a familiar brand worldwide. Much of that success has to do with learning to understand not only how children think, but also how adults inevitably come to think back on childhood.

Listen, learn, believe

There's risk in not adapting. Many brands that originally entered Asian markets with a promise of Western style luxury are losing their appeal. They're increasingly being dismissed as "tu" -- a Chinese word often used to describe a country bumpkin or someone who is behind the times. Hip, urban youth who regard the image of foreign luxury as backwards are instead turning to time-honored brands that evoke the craftsmanship and tradition of their own Chinese culture.

Those 100+ year-old brands, in turn, are at risk not because of a shortage of customers but because the younger generation interested in buying these traditional products has little interest in learning the traditions that go into making them.

That's the kind of conundrum that any brand -- if it expects to last -- will face repeatedly through its history. But it's also a huge opportunity for brands that can learn to express the cultural values their customers are looking for without being hobbled by old values that no longer serve a practical purpose. It's about listening to customers and learning their values. But the goal can't just be to convert them. You have to be willing to convert yourself -- to make the brand stand for something -- to stand apart from the competition and together with the people you want to reach.

Kathryn Sloane is the director of growth of APAC, SGK.

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