More than ever, we need brands that re­flect our iden­tity even as we change

Campaign UK - - FRONT PAGE - The for­mer PPA busi­ness colum­nist of the year has a PHD in mar­ket­ing, an MBA from London Busi­ness School and is a part­ner at Pas­sion­brand @he­lenedw HE­LEN ED­WARDS

The elec­tion re­sult has shown that peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties change. How do brands en­sure they don’t get left be­hind?

The de­mo­graphic group who sealed the elec­tion for the Con­ser­va­tive Party, pro­vid­ing 38% of its en­tire vote, were skinny, long-haired ide­al­ists in flares, who vowed never to trust any­one over 30 and liked to chant at Glas­ton­bury that “if you’re not part of the so­lu­tion, you’re part of the prob­lem”.

At least, they were once, many decades ago, long be­fore they got richer and fat­ter and more con­ser­va­tive in ev­ery sense. Long be­fore their ob­ses­sions veered to prop­erty prices and triple locks. Long be­fore they turned 65.

It must be all but im­pos­si­ble for the ac­tual 18-24 group now – the ones who turned out in force for Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour – to pic­ture that pen­sioner co­hort as the arty teens and re­bel­lious stu­dents they once were. It’s prob­a­bly hard for the older group to imag­ine it them­selves, to re­mem­ber and iden­tify with the “youthquake” they were once part of.

And it will be harder still – not that they’ll try – for the youth­ful Cor­bynistas of 2017 to imag­ine that they, too, will change out of all recog­ni­tion over the com­ing years. Change styles, change tastes, change pri­or­i­ties, change al­le­giances.

Change brands too. But not all brands. Some will come along for the ride. Which is an amaz­ing feat, when you think about it.

There was a nice Volk­swa­gen print ad a few years back that cap­tured this phe­nom­e­non. The art di­rec­tion was sim­ple, in that clas­sic VW style, show­ing a three-quar­ter im­age of an old but cared-for V W camper­van. The head­line read: “It be­longed to a Trot­sky­ist, a Maoist, a Demo­crat and a Repub­li­can with­out ever chang­ing own­ers.”

The charm was in the truth – the in­sight that cer­tain ob­jects can be not merely con­tin­u­ously owned but con­tin­u­ously loved through life’s up­heavals, lurches and ide­o­log­i­cal eli­sions.

These are “life brands” – the ones that make sense to you and re­flect some­thing of your iden­tity back to you even as you morph into all the peo­ple you once vowed you would never be. Coca-cola has what it takes – as apt in the gnarled hand of a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian to­day as it was in the hands of the kids on that sin­ga­long hill. Vir­gin pulls off the trick for some of its sub-brands. Evian, Mcdon­ald’s, Con­verse and Swatch are all con­tenders.

The defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of life brands are sim­plic­ity and au­then­tic­ity. They don’t change too much and don’t ac­tively seek to adapt to the char­ac­ter me­an­der­ings of even loyal cus­tomers. That V W ad it­self was a cel­e­bra­tion of the vir­tu­ally un­touched de­sign and tech­nol­ogy of a 60-year-old prod­uct in a world where change is all about.

As with all de­sir­able brand ty­polo­gies, there are fakes – brands that set out to be with you for the du­ra­tion by plan­ning a course on your be­half.

Fi­nan­cial ser­vices are al­ways at it: “For the jour­ney,” Lloyds Bank says, but it’s more a re­flec­tion of its own self­ish am­bi­tions – plot­ting your route through its pre­or­dained seg­ments – rather than be­ing there for you, which­ever strange way you may turn.

In any case, it’s hard to be a life brand in a love­less cat­e­gory. Banks and in­sur­ers may suc­ceed in keep­ing your cus­tom through in­er­tia, but the dis­tin­guish­ing bond of af­fec­tion will never be there.

The most re­mark­able feat of gen­uine life brands is to fos­ter their ap­peal across two dis­tinct tem­po­ral di­men­sions. They work lon­gi­tu­di­nally – part­ner­ing a co­hort through its mess­ily se­quen­tial phases of life. But they com­bine this with the hor­i­zon­tal plane, ap­peal­ing to peo­ple at each of those dif­fer­ent life stages to­day, from stu­dent to re­tiree and all the way sta­tions in-be­tween.

In that sec­ond ca­pac­ity – and with­out get­ting too car­ried away with this – life brands serve some kind of so­cial pur­pose at times when the gen­er­a­tions seem never to be far from each other’s throats. Since their suc­cess is rooted in ubiquity rather than seg­men­ta­tion, they bring a lit­tle co­he­sion and whole­ness to our daily in­ter­ac­tions.

We can’t take this think­ing too far. A 20-year-old hor­ri­fied by the iso­la­tion­ist ve­he­mence of an age­ing Brex­i­teer will not be mol­li­fied by the con­sump­tion quirk that they both like the same cola. But it is a small con­nec­tion, a gen­tle re­minder that these two peo­ple are not from dif­fer­ent plan­ets, a lit­tle light ad­he­sion in the so­ci­etal cracks.

Life brands are still just brands – noth­ing more sub­stan­tive than that – but, in these choppy times, where two UK polls within a year have ex­posed deep fis­sures be­tween the gen­er­a­tions, they are at least more part of the so­lu­tion than the prob­lem.

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