Cultural Branding - start it now!

Cultural Branding is a term coined by Douglas Holt (2004). He promotes brands as icons connecting with cultural myths. Here, culture does not mean “high-culture”. Instead, depending on your customers, culture can refer to national culture, but even more often, to the shared sub-culture of a smaller group. Such as the Harajuku girls in Japan, the Harley Davidson devotees wanting to connect with their young rebellion inside, or the moms who want to dress their baby-girls with pink Hello Kitty products from head to toe.

Who owns the brand meaning?

In my view, cultural branding is about understanding the cultural background and myths of both the brand and its many users, and co-creating the brand together with the users so that it fits into their everyday life. This is where cultural branding differs from traditional branding, where the “brand owner” claims some superior position in defining the brand. Nowadays, brands like McDonald's and Starbucks can and do have different meanings for their Western users than for their Chinese consumers, for example. Localizing these service brands has meant that the Chinese have been given the opportunity to decide for themselves how they want to incorporate these brands into their lives. Therefore, McDonald's is a place for a young Chinese couple to go on a date in a country where public dating has not been typical. And Starbucks provides a small trip abroad, without forcing coffee down the Chinese throats, but instead providing a choice of tea or beverage more fitting to the local taste. Unfortunately, Finnish takeaway pizza brand Kotipizza, instead, has not fully taken on the free advice provided by users in online discussion groups, to create more appetizing and familiar tastes for their Suzhou customers for this non-Chinese format for food. Luckily, the cold smoke salmon pizza, which also won the bronze medal at the America’s Plate International Pizza Competition 2010, interests Chinese consumers, too.

Are you green with envy or reaching the flying altitude?

The Internet has provided a platform for totally new cultures to emerge. These might no longer have any national connections, but are based on some other common set of shared values. Examples include indie-travellers who share their experiences online, or those who build their lives around ecological values. The gaming industry has shown that the Internet provides other opportunities, as well, since the entertainment brand Angry Birds has been adapted into promoting education expertise with as much enthusiasm and success as it is being used for selling candy (by Fazer), soft drinks (by Olvi), or children’s wear (by Reima). It is also enlightening to see that while many Finns are mocking the Angry Birds and expecting it to flop, the above and many other big brands rather see the value it provides for them. Fazer, Olvi, and Reima, among others, are taking advantage of the success of the brand and the media reach it provides, and have joined in on the flight to new markets. Angry Birds has done a great job in co-creating their brand with local users for example by making local versions of the game Seasons to engage Chinese, Japanese and other Asian consumers. This is paying off for the other Finns connecting their own products with the brand, too.

Taken by the storm or getting lost in the Super Bowl?

Another interesting example is Supercell with their games the Clash of the Clans and Hayday. Personally, I am a bit worried about the recent developments ever since the majority of the company was sold to Japanese investors. Don’t get me wrong; I am applauding the business transaction, itself. But two issues are disturbing me. First, while I think it is marvelous that the founders are giving back to the community by ways of several charities, I wonder if this takes too much time off the true focus of the company. But second, and more importantly, I agonize over the fact that the company totally missed the mark for their biggest marketing investment yet, the Super Bowl 2014. I have no idea who designed their campaign, but apparently they had even less of an idea what the Super Bowl and advertising on the big screen and TV is about for the Americans (see for example this post by David Sable from Y&R advertising https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140205012759-234814-super-gmoot-bowl). At best, the commercials in the connection of the Super Bowl are something that creates a big part of the event, and the best ones are positively recalled decades later. Therefore, one thing has become of essence in designing commercials for the Super Bowl: the element of surprise, often with a humorous connection. Unfortunately, Supercell saw the arena just as a demo platform of their product, and even pre-released (!!!) their ads. For the Americans, this meant killing the suspense factor for one key part of their Super Bowl experience. Rather, Supercell should have thought about how their potential users watch the Super Bowl, and how they could connect and engage within that situation. Hopefully, the brand was not harmed failing to do this, but even in the best case, it was a lot of potential engagement down the drain.

So what can you do, right now? 1) Define the cultural values of your brand as of now. 2) Learn about the values of your brand users, and how and why they engage with the brand. 3) Make local adjustments in both the product or service and the communication so that your brand becomes their brand. 4) Start again from point one. 

Because, if it is not their brand, there is no brand. Simple as that.


New Creative Strategy for Marimekko?

Marimekko is at the final stages of recruiting a new Creative Director. Over the past few years that has been a windy position. I hope that this time the company lands a visionary and strong candidate, who will also step into the limelight of international media.

Personally, I have followed Marimekko from an international business perspective since 1990, when I had the privilege of serving the company while working as a PR specialist at the Finnish Foreign Trade Association (now Finpro). More recently, I have studied Marimekko from the cultural branding perspective since 2005 as part of my (hopefully to be published...) PhD research.

This post is my passionate outsider’s perspective on some of the ways in which the creative strategy of Marimekko might be developed and implemented over the next five to ten years. For me, the creative strategy is part of the cultural branding strategy of Marimekko, which means that each design move should have positive and measurable implications on the brand and its public visibility, as well.

Glocalizing and Updating Marimekko Design in a Relevant Way

Marimekko is about bold, colourful prints. The brand has an impressive and invaluable catalogue of existing patterns. This heritage needs to be made relevant time and again, on every key market. At the same time new Marimekko designs need to be created to complement the collection, on the one hand, and to drive the brand forward, on the other.

How to do this? 

In my view, by working in collaboration with renowned international designers and artists, as well as with design schools and their students. The collaboration partners need to be chosen to represent the key existing and new markets; the growth areas of the international economy. 

Three practicable examples:

Create new Marimekko print designs
Invite internationally renowned designers with acknowledged ability to use prints/patterns to create new designs to Marimekko
Finnish origin, e.g. Paola Suhonen, Klaus Haapaniemi, Sanna Annukka, Anne Kyyro Quinn, Janine Rewell, Lotta Nieminen.
International, e.g. Yin Yiqing (China), Satya Paul (India), Custo Dalmau (Catalonia Spain), Joseph Ribkoff (Canada), Yeni Kim (Korea), Becca Allen (UK).
To update the Marimekko pattern catalogue with contemporary and locally relevant designs, while drawing from the Finnish Marimekko brand heritage.
Inspiration from
Finnish heritage translatable to prints
Each year a theme would be chosen for the collaboration. Examples for themes: Poems from Kalevala, powerful Finnish women, Finnish artists (icons e.g. Helene Schjerfbeck, or in collaboration with contemporary artists such as Nanna Susi, Marita Liulia), Finnish designers (e.g. Rut Bryk), Finnish photographers (in collaboration, e.g. Sanna Majuri, Nanna Hänninen), Finnish nature.

Revamp and upcycle existing pattern designs
Invite internationally renowned designers to come up with new uses of the patterns in the Marimekko catalogue
International e.g. Tord Boontje, Matali Crasset, Monica Fin Calgaro, Betsey Johnson, Stella McCartney, Kate Spade, Joao Oliveira, Yves Behar, Philippe Starck, Ross Lovegrove, Pia Wallen.
To find new perspectives to the Marimekko classics, and to boost sales and publicity for the brand.
Define a decade, or a theme (e.g. floral/abstract/stripes) or a colour scale, and open up the Marimekko catalogue for invited designers to make their own versions. These can be new uses of the pattern, new scales, new colour combinations, etc.

Revamp and upcycle existing print designs
Organize competitions for design students in collaboration with major design schools in key and new markets.
Parsons (USA), RISD (USA), Kanazawa International Design Institute (Japan), Kuwasawa Design School (Japan), CAFA (China), Tongji University (China), Hong Kong Polytechnic (China), Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (South Korea), Aalto.
Make the brand interesting for younger audiences and new markets; increase understanding of where the world is going.
Choose five topical prints and have the students come up with new interpretations. Reward by publicity and an agreement for further development and option for production.
These and similar activities should be developed into an annually rotating global programme, which would optimize global reach, development of designs, and resource allocation.

Since I do not have the numbers of the most profitable product categories or the big sellers at my disposal, the above is, as said, based on an outsider’s view.

Final note on IPR: These issues need to be at the forefront of negotiating and creating new and upcycled designs. If there arise challenges with already existing designs (ref. Metsänväki), Marimekko should settle with the original designer and negotiate a mutually admissible compensation. This is, after all, what they demand of those breaching their own designs, right?


Europe: Continent of Gladiators Fighting to the Death

European brands are competing each other with blood spilling on all sides. They are making their suppliers and consultant (falsely called partners) feel it, by shopping around non-stop for short-term efficiency. 

The worst cases take the creative ideas, which they have been trusted with and run off to implement them as their own by someone else. They also sell past their trusted distributors via online channels and web stores, exploiting these long-time distributors as showrooms.

What will all this lead to?

In the short term, these brands should become more profitable. For some reason, there is no evidence of this. In the longer term, however, their quality is bound to decline; their consumers become unsatisfied, and ditch them for other choices as the European brands save themselves to death. At the same time, the suppliers and distributors are getting bankrupt.

So who will benefit?

International investors, because money goes to money. And yes, more and more often they are Chinese.

At the moment, you can buy excellent brands with incredible IPR value “for peanuts”, as described the new owner of one Italian luxury brand. Keeping the patent portfolio of this brand up-to-date costs 100 000 euro per year, and as the European economy is what it is; even this seems to be too much, not to mention the investments in keeping the brand relevant with its users. 

Because European brands are still looking at the world through their colonial lenses neglecting the growth, consumption, learning, and innovation taking place elsewhere, they are soon left on the battleground gasping for air.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Chinese investors bought out a record of 120 European companies, says Ernst & Young. Out of these businesses, 25 were German, 25 British, 15 French, 7 Italian and 7 Swedish. Largest amount of companies were in the field of real estate, but 21 were consumer goods companies. Automobile sector is one of the most interesting ones for the Chinese.

Money has no nationality. Will Europe soon be without?