For the last few generations, the relationship between brand and consumer was pretty straightforward. Consumers looked to brands to define themselves. Consumers aspired to create a mirror image of what the brand presented to them.
Brands defined a popular brand meme, and consumers adopted a brand’s attributes as their own—a brand was a guide to consumer’s understanding of what it meant to be popular, and desired in society. Consumers would emulate a brand personality. If you drove a Cadillac, you had “arrived,” if you smoked Virginia Slims you could appear to be a sporty, popular woman.
Brands were a consumer’s guide to how they defined themselves.
The 1991 brand campaign “Be Like Mike” for Gatorade featuring sports legend Michael Jordan is one of the more obvious examples of an aspirational brand campaign.
Then, about 10 years ago, a seismic shift in this aspirational brand contract happened. Instead of “I want to be like Mike,” consumers began to look for those brands “Who are most like me.”
Consumers began to evaluate brands at a far deeper level than through flashy, vacuous advertising, and looked at issues of social corporate responsibility, reliability, consumer service and brand voice.
It is a much more self-aware, consumer-in-control attitude that threw many brands off their game. Like pulling a rug out from under their fundamental marketing strategy, brands needed to begin to understand their consumers on a far deeper level, and to present themselves in a more transparent fashion. They needed to present a truthful, human level, and hope that consumers would be drawn to them.
If you think about it, it is a much more honest exchange of core values, rather than a shiny, thinly-veiled presentation of brand.
So what created such a fundamental shift? There are two factors—one involving technological innovation, the other a generational behavior shift.
Widespread adoption of the Internet has created a platform for a consumer voice like never before. The ability to blog, post and tweet impressions of a brand empowered users, and has forced brands to loose control of whatever singular message they wish to project.
The number of consumers who were born after 1980 is massive. Previously, the Baby Boomer generation ruled how brands marketed. But now a new generation is in control of marketing dollars, and has the attention of most smart marketers. Gen Y is defined by a number of behavioral attributes, including a level of independent thinking, self-confidence, and self-determination unlike any generation before it. Rather than “fitting in,” this generation looks to “how to stand out,” and most importantly for brands, looks to brands who fit their ideas of themselves, rather than looking to brands to define who they are.
Clearly, brands need to “Be Like Mike”—consumers like Mike Smith, Mike Jones, and Mike Johnson, rather than try to force consumers to want to be like Michael Jordan.