Specifically, that means brands give up on any functional attributes and focus their marketing on lifestyle choices. You might even consider it business marketing in reverse — marketers trying to make their products a badge identifier for certain lifestyles as opposed to developing products to meet the needs of an existing lifestyle.
Why is lifestyle branding becoming popular?
One of the most brilliant marketing strategists (even though by all accounts, including his own, he was a bastard) was Charles Revson, who started a nail polish company after the cosmetics company he worked for passed him over for promotion. Of course, his tenacity alone didn't take his tiny company, Revlon Cosmetics, to the top. It was his marketing.
In our factory, we make lipstick. In our advertising, we sell hope. — Charles Revson
But that isn't lifestyle branding, not really. Lifestyle branding is more akin to what came next. Lifestyle branding doesn't sell help as much as it creates the illusion that you, as a consumer, actually arrive at some destination. The Prius is a great example.
While there are a percentage of people who buy the Prius as eco-freindly consumers, the majority of Prius buyers today only want to buy the illusion that they are intelligent and practical enough to purchase the vehicle. In other words, it has less to do with the consumer's demographics and more to do with proving that they belong to those demographics, whether they do or not. As Rob Lyons once put it, it's part ego-trip.
The Prius isn't alone among brands that became adopted by posers. There have been dozens to win and lose in their attempts to make a statement. Before Coors became a national brewer, it represented an elite in-ness. So did Perrier water for a spell. And you can easily add Starbucks to the list. It has always sold the Seattle culturally-savvy image more than it sold coffee.
To be fair, not all lifestyle brands are intentional. Toyota didn't necessarily set out to create a lifestyle brand with the Prius as much as a second wave of consumers did. Perrier water, on the other hand, did. And until a benzene mishap, it once captured 80 percent of the bottled water industry in North America.
Creating a lifestyle brand is a marketing crapshoot.
The point to consider here is that there are two paths toward a lifestyle brand. One is less intentional because consumers create it on their own. That isn't a gamble as much as it is recognizing that the real strength of a brand lies in the relationship between the consumer and the product.
Intentionally attempting to create a lifestyle brand is much more of a gamble, like Puma is reportedly trying to do now. It's dumping the longstanding battle with Nike and Adidas and trying to embrace the "after hours" athlete crowd market. And Alex Chernev, who wrote the article mentioned above, did a fine job pointing out that Nike and Adidas will be the real winners.
Where Puma might win, according to Chernev, is if they can appeal to the consumers' need for self-expression and convince them that this brand is representative of their arrival. However, short of Puma redesigning their shoes (which they are), the whole thing is nothing more than a brand attempting to out-pose the posers.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. One of my favorite case studies revolves around the ad campaign launched by Miller to cut into the coolness market of microbreweries. Nobody who identified with the microbewery scene believed the campaign. But to make matters worse for Miller, the blue-collar customer did believe it, didn't identify with it, and swapped out Miller for Bud.
In a sense, creating a lifestyle brand out of a marketing campaign is nothing more than a sleight-of-hand trick. The best a brand can hope for is that posers "think" it represents the lifestyle they want to mimic (authentic consumers are almost never fooled).
Minimizing the gamble for a lifestyle brand.
The only way to minimize the gamble is to recognize that the consumer has an equal stake in product positioning (unless you're a start-up developing a product for a specific group). The point being that if you are lucky enough to get a core group of consumers who identify with a specific lifestyle for a certain reason, you can adjust your marketing to reinforce it.
This approach was one of the ways we helped a car dealer become a regional leader despite facing off against a 20-year established incumbent competitor. While the incumbent attempted to bring in a broad "sales" driven consumer into their dealership, we developed a campaign around the market segment that already identified with the national brand. There was more to it than that, but that is a simplified explanation for the success.
On the other hand, if I was a marketing director for Puma, for example, I might even be a bit concerned with the new campaign because it's attempting to target a non-existent lifestyle by combining too many lifestyles that don't identify with each other. Of course, Puma might already feel confident in attracting a certain segment and their campaign just doesn't prove it. Time will tell.
What is especially interesting to me is the allure of lifestyle brands anyway. They seem most suited to the poser crowd, which tend to be the same ones who embrace personal branding. The general concept for personal branding is that, somehow, how you present yourself is what you are (or, more specifically, what you buy). Many people believe it too.
But doesn't that really make the entire exercise feel like some brands are starting to pretend to be something they are not, in the hopes that consumers buy it so they can pretend they are something they're not? Huh. Maybe they're made for each other.