A Brand is Not a Way of Life

Recently, I met with a fashion technology startup. They are building an interesting secondhand marketplace whereby consumers can sell “lightly used” bespoke clothing. Perhaps you wore a Chanel dress once but have no call for it now or the Ralph Lauren tuxedo in the closet is gathering dust. You get the idea.

An additional service involves sending in your used expensive clothing and having it “re-imagined” by company designers. One example was a beautiful woman’s blue blouse that subsequently had one sleeve and the collar removed. These were replaced with a white lacey pattern. I must admit it looked stunning and was very unique. The company also accepts purses and bags that they will clean, restore and/or re-imagine. All in all, it is a cool concept.

Then came a very familiar probe from the founders. They told me they want to be a “lifestyle brand”. That means joining a very long list of brands with the same intent. In fact, I think every brand believes they are a lifestyle brand in some way.

Apple never claims to be anything. Ingeniously they let customers identify them in certain ways. Many suggest they are a lifestyle brand given their dominance in personal technologies. Plenty of apparel brands make the lifestyle claim especially those with a focused product set and defined market. Burton is for snowboarders, Quiksilver for surfers, Helly Hansen for sailors, Volcom for rebellious skateboarders, and Patagonia for environmentally friendly explorers.

So many brands think they are lifestyle brands.

Starwood operates hotels, resorts and residences through a host of brands including St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W, Westin, Le Méridien, Sheraton, Tribute Portfolio, Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft, and Element. Each format is said to be its own lifestyle brand catering to distinct but overlapping consumer sets. Recent articles have suggested that GoPro, MINI, McDonald’s and IKEA are lifestyle brands.

My all time favorite is Listerine.

Granted, great breath is a noble pursuit — but I am not sure if one single product within the oral hygiene category can claim to be a lifestyle brand.

I am equally doubtful that a traditional advertising campaign can substantiate the claim. Yet, that is what Johnson & Johnson, owner of Listerine, and its agency, J. Walter Thompson, set out to do earlier this year.

It was an 80 country campaign named “Bring Out the Bold”. The insight that drove it came from a 16-week deep dive into the brand’s core consumers, character, assets, and promises. Ben James of JWT took the results of 6,000 consumer interviews and discerned that Listerine users “have a little more edge than non-Listerine users.” Let me be clear, none of this makes Listerine a lifestyle brand.

It seems any brand can be a lifestyle brand. The definition is exceedingly generous and preposterously vague.

My local pub qualifies so does owning a Jeep Wrangler. The idea of a lifestyle brand came about when marketers spoke of brands as an experience and a community.
The American Marketing Association definition is as follows, “A lifestyle brand is a company that markets its products or services to embody the interests, attitudes, and opinions of a group or a culture. Lifestyle brands seek to inspire, guide, and motivate people, with the goal of their products contributing to the definition of the consumer’s way of life.”

I am not sure I know the difference between a brand and a lifestyle brand. In my experience, all brands attempt to differentiate on emotional benefits more so than functional. They focus on wants over needs. Their marketing is indirect. Instead they find creative ways that their brand can enhance their consumers’ way of life. Brands are now widely positioned as solutions that make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable.

A “cool” strategy is not necessarily a relevant strategy.

Lifestyle branding breaks down because it assumes a rational human would actually make a brand a way of life. That strikes me as quite sad. Then there are the brand owners. Most pursue the lifestyle brand strategy not to influence or connect with the consumer but rather because it seems like a really cool strategy.

Rich Duprey wrote a fun piece in The Motley Fool titled, Why Declaring Yourself a Lifestyle Brand Is a Bad Decision. He profiled Burger King’s desire to be a lifestyle brand. He believes that such a move proves “a company has nothing left to offer.” In the case of Burger King he called the move “delusional”.

Duprey also takes on Harley-Davidson. It is among the most heralded of lifestyle brands. He points out that Harley did not set out to have consumers tattoo its logo on their bodies. He believes it is the mystique of ownership that makes it interesting not the notions of rebellion or being a “biker”. He concludes that Harley-Davidson has lost its way and has become a caricature of its self. Now it puts “its logo on perfumes, grill accessories, and salad servers.’ He notes that it is, “Tough to imagine Marlon Brando brandishing a spatula in The Wild Ones.”

This does not give a dog food company permission to talk about backyard barbecues or a car company license to offer parenting advice. Starbucks found this out with their lambasted and cringeworthy #racetogether campaign. Lifestyle branding is making marketing too indirect. The purpose of marketing is to help make a sale. Brands appear afraid to sell but are shockingly comfortable with weighing in on significant social issues.

There is an additional risk. According to a study published in The Journal of Marketing, going from functional branding to lifestyle positioning sets companies up for broader, more fierce competition. The study found, “consumers’ need for self-expression is finite and ultimately can be satiated, such that the value consumers place on self-expressive brands tends to decrease as the number of alternative means of self-expression increases.” In other words, there is no differentiation to be found in lifestyle branding. In fact, it commoditizes and confuses a brand rapidly.

Clearly, not every brand is a lifestyle brand and the vast majority should not even try to become one. Duprey notes, “Forcing an ill-fitting lifestyle brand on a company can prove wasteful, one that may squander shareholder value. Whenever any company comes out and declares it is now going to be a lifestyle brand, it should send up warning flags for investors that worse times are ahead.”

Branding has always been about belonging to a club. They give the impression of exclusivity yet invite everyone to join. But consumers are not deluded. They are savvy and understand the “contract”. They expect brands to sell to them but they are not asking for them to define and run their lives. People know a brand is not a way of life.


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  1. […] must also be lauded for the attacks on WeWork and Peloton brand positioning. I wrote a blog, A Brand is Not a Way of Life, questioning why every brand wants to be a “lifestyle” brand. I cited the absurdity of […]

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