Barbara Rybicki: Is Your Brand Vibrant Enough To Survive Or Lead Cultural Change?

Barb Rybicki, VP Cultural Insight at Added Value, discusses why companies need to stay abreast societal trends as well as market trends.

Why brand success hinges on connecting to the cultural zeitgeist – and which brands do and don’t.

Consumer insight has long been the mortar that builds and renovates brands. But what about the broader culture consumers and brands inhabit, those outside-in forces of change that shape us? It’s hard to imagine how that consideration can go missing in strategy plans. The reality is that many brands don’t have a sense of their own cultural health or where they or their category stand in the broad cultural landscape. It’s not something revealed through monitoring social media conversations. Insight comes from analysis of cultural relevancy, an essential perspective for fostering brand growth.

The future is what’s especially critical to a brand’s vibrancy. Brands that actively shape culture live alongside us and ahead of us. We consumers are not stagnant. We thrive through change and brands can be powerful catalysts.

Added Value’s latest Cultural Traction™ 2013 Report asked 62,150 people in 10 countries across 15 sectors and 160 brands to decide which brands are getting it right. We measured each brand’s cultural vibrancy, a.k.a. VIBE – multi-faceted dimensions of how Visionary, Inspiring, Bold, and Exciting they are. The change in a brand’s VIBE over time represents its Cultural Traction. Brands with increasing traction deftly tap into culture and have a promising forward growth trajectory. Those with decreasing traction drift out of sync with culture and face stagnation or worse.

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Google and Apple top the global list for VIBE, and the leaderboard leans tech heavy. With an ‘innovate or perish’ standard for the category, they universally pop for Excitement. Google stands out for Inspiring and Exciting while Apple skews Visionary and Bold. Still, in the U.S. Google’s VIBE score slipped 8% from last year, and Apple’s fell 10%. Meanwhile, Samsung is proving precocious. At #3, with a more consistent VIBE globally, and catching Apple as Inspiring (i.e., having a point of view and standing for something I want to be a part of) in the USA, a Samsung shakedown seems surprisingly supposable.

What to make of the non-tech interlopers in the Top 10? IKEA may have been unanticipated at #4, but the brand refreshes and unlocks possibilities, from its store walkways to its smartphone interactive catalogue. Audi and BMW ensure that engineering innovation intersects with eco-efficiency. Across 10 countries Coke resonates as Visionary, Bold, and Exciting, continuously inventing culturally relevant routes to happiness.

Meanwhile, brands with lowest VIBE concentrate on the present. Not that there’s anything wrong with tuning into life right now. Every brand must, more nimbly than ever in the digital age. Beverages, alcoholic and not, naturally foster carpe diem; that’s part of their point. We crave Twitter’s “instaneity” of gratification, whether on the receiving or giving end of Tweets.

That the low VIBE brands embrace the present so tightly helps make some of them look and feel disruptive and surprising, particularly in advertising expressions (e.g., Heineken’s James Bond affiliation, Smirnoff’s proposal to unleash your playful side).

But their emphasis on mainly connecting with consumers in the present narrows possibilities and keeps long-term commitment at long range. Brands that matter most stay with us fluidly – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This isn’t a matter of icon status or longevity (Budweiser wouldn’t be in the bottom if so).

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On the surface, it seems a lot to ask of some of the categories in our bottom ranks – that somehow they get in cahoots with Google, Apple, Samsung, Audi and shape the future.

Yet Coke has managed to turn happiness into far more than a refreshing swig by switching up what optimism involves in sync with changing times and challenges. Credited as Visionary, Coke is re-inventing corporate storytelling, as illustrated by its website that functions as a social and sustainability platform to facilitate consumer learning, inspiration, and sharing.

And then there’s IKEA which understands that furniture is the background to our dynamic lifetimes. VIBE shows that IKEA Excites through democratized design in step with cultural shifts, spreading creative freedom to growing middle classes in developing countries and opening possibilities for budget-minded westerners sprucing up smaller spaces.

Ultimately, cultural vibrancy requires feet on the ground and eyes on the horizon to foster freedom, open up possibilities, and move us forward from where we are right now. Bottom ranking brands focus mainly on what is – whereas top brands go farther by realizing that the key to staying relevant is to embody what if.

Brands help create the culture that affects who we become and how our lives evolve. This is the essence of what it means for a brand to have Cultural Traction.

Barb Rybicki is the VP of Cultural Insight at Added Value.

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