Creating a brand that consumers identify with
Cultural resonance refers to the degree to which claimed brand meanings reflect, reinforce, and shape meanings from the collective social space that links consumers to others in a shared language and interpretation of experience.
In essence, cultural resonance measures how well your brand resonates with consumers on a socio-cultural level. Can they relate to your brand?
Culturally resonant brands are fixed in the social experience and fundamentally embedded in the fabrics of cultural life. In other words, when a consumer resonates with a brand, they tend to incorporate the brand into their identity and are thus more likely to remain loyal to it.
Due to this, a brand that can create and maintain cultural resonance can have a far-reaching impact on the overall market share in their segment.
In this post, we’re going to share 8 ways to obtain cultural resonance and embed your brand in the hearts and minds of consumers for generations to come.
Brand equity and resonance report
Lessons retailers and brands in any sector can learn from changes in grocery.
1. Insinuate your brand into the cultural bedrock of society
While all meanings are constantly in motion, some are more durable and persistent over time. McCracken (1997) calls this “cultural bedrock,” as it represents the solid foundations that such meanings can reliably provide.1
Freedom and independence, for example, have long been noted as enduring American values, while “belonging” is cited as a core value in Eastern cultures. Traditions and rituals also have cultural significance in large part because of the reliable communication value they provide.
A brand can insinuate itself into the cultural bedrock through any number of strategies:
- Through alignment with core values (e.g., Apple represents individual freedom of expression)
- Cultural archetypes (e.g., the hero in Nike; the outlaw in Harley)
- Pivotal historical moments (e.g., Coca-Cola and World War II)
- Time/decade meanings (e.g., Levi’s jeans and the 1960s)
2. Adapt branding to operative trends with currency value
Some cultural meanings are “hotter” than others in the sense that they play a critical role in defining the character of contemporary life. Hot meanings capture fads and trends or reflect fashions of the moment.
Brands often align themselves with currency meanings as a path to the creation of brand strength.
For example, Absolut has relied on a strategy of cultural currency for building its brand for over twenty-five years. This strategy has provided a steady stream of iconic print advertisements that essentially playback the meanings-of-the-moment that defined the character of the day (e.g., “Absolut Release” ran in 1986; “Absolut Stardom” ran in the celebrity-crazed 1990s).
3. Leverage opposing meanings to create opportunities for processing and relating
The presence of opposing meanings in the portfolio creates energies and tensions around the brand and, therefore, increased opportunities for processing and relating.
Contradictory meanings can also manifest through juxtaposition against the prevailing ideology and in service of cultural revolution and change.
Mountain Dew, for example, became an icon aligned with the emergent ‘Slacker’ mentality in the early 1990s and thus gathered momentum against the goal-driven, free–agent ethos that was popular during this time of materialism and economic advancement.
The Martha Stewart brand also gained traction by pitting itself against the popular ethos: in this case, the feminist mystique and the rejection of traditional female roles that this characteristically entailed.
4. Be emblematic of acknowledged social roles
Another way a brand can connect to culture is to become emblematic of acknowledged social roles.
Research has revealed the presence of consumption constellations: collections of (functionally unrelated) brands a consumer displays across different product categories that are intricately linked to the expression of a particular social role. Consumers associate with certain brands because they jointly denote experienced mothers or savvy businesspersons, for example.
5. Be emblematic of the consumption-based meanings of the product category
Brands also can become part of the culture by becoming emblematic of the consumption-based meanings the product category itself conveys.
These “category meanings” are important because they provide a context in which specific brands are constructed and defined; category meanings serve as the standards against which consumers judge all brands.
Category resonance is revealed by comparing the meaning portfolio for a given brand versus salient, category-level meaning to gauge the relative alignment or disconnect therein.
Harley-Davidson, for example, has great category resonance. It has come to stand for all the meanings that define the essence of motorcycling, including freedom, adventure, and escape.
Brands that lay claim to fundamental category meanings possess advantages of saliency and consideration that can drive brand penetration, usage, and overall brand strength.
6. Add strength and stature to your brand by creating cultural meaning
As we have discussed, cultural production systems can serve as significant sources for creating brand meaning.
Harley-Davidson, for example, benefited tremendously from the famed riots in Hollister, California in 1957, which were later codified in Marlon Brando’s rebel role in “The Wild One.”
Since culturally-generated meanings are innately more authentic and powerful, activity that creates cultural meaning adds strength and stature to a brand.
In the ultimate testament to this dynamic, co-created brand meanings fold back into the culture and themselves become part of the social discourse, thus contributing to cultural evolution over time.
Budweiser’s “Whassup?” campaign provides a well-known example of this phenomenon. Recognition of the benefits of cultural co-creation has sparked a powerful marketing trend.
7. Make your brand multivocal
Multivocality concerns the range and diversity of meanings comprising the brand’s portfolio of associations, as defined across consumers.
It reflects the fact that a given brand (concept) may exhibit varied interpretations according to the unique meaning-seeking needs and demands of particular subgroups. A multivocal brand arguably possesses the power to attract broader and more diverse groups of meaning seekers, thus growing brand strength through numbers.
Martha Stewart, for example, embodies an aspirational WASP lifestyle for certain women, legitimization of the homemaker role for some, and status education for others.
Snapple’s founders followed a similar meaning-making philosophy and supported a celebrity spokesperson list that included such diverse endorsers as the late Rush Limbaugh (a staunch conservative Republican) and Howard Stern (a radical, often off-color news commentator).
The multivocal brand invites participation and co-creation since it is not constrained by a tight and closed meaning system around the brand.
The multivocal brand also enjoys strength advantages in the form of increased “legs” for usage and brand extension, since multiple-meaning platforms provide a range of product occasions and offerings that can legitimately be defined.
8. Encourage community building around the brand
A final route by which a brand can attain socio-cultural resonance presents itself in the form of a community organized around the brand.
Muniz and O’Guinn (2005) define a brand community as “a specialized, non-geographically bound collective based on a structural set of social relations among admirers of a brand.”2
These researchers emphasize three defining characteristics of brand community:
- A consciousness of kind and sense of belonging to an in-group through shared product consumption
- Rituals, mythologies, and traditions that reify the community and brand culture and help it to stay vital over time
- A shared sense of obligation to other community members
Derivative aspects of communities involve oppositional loyalties or strong attitudes against competitive alternatives whereby community members maintain “true” membership that is restricted and small.
Community allows users to connect with each other, building the brand by facilitating and deepening connections between brand admirers.
Learn more on building brand equity and resonance
Bottom line: Building positive brand intent is not enough. Creating a standout brand that customers love, trust, and buy requires that you investigate the market and its consumers to better understand them and their needs. Then you can execute a winning plan to convert brand intent into sales.
A large part of this equation is learning how to embed your brand into the social experience and culture of your target audience.
For a deeper dive on the foundations of these concepts and how to incorporate them into your brand exercise, download our latest whitepaper, How to Increase Brand Equity and Resonance with Today’s Consumer, here.
1 Grant McCracken, Plenitude, Volume 1: Culture by Commotion, Toronto: Periph Fluide, 1997.
2Quoted in .Muniz, Albert M. and Thomas C. O’Guinn (2001), “Brand Community,” Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (March), 412-432, p. 412.