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“Marketing must be much more mythical.” – Wolfgang Schaefer and JP Kuehlwein

What purpose do brands serve? On the surface, a brand is merely a distinguishing mark that is supposed to set one product apart from another. At this level, brands function to signal quality and, by extension, price. 

Certain brands, however, go beyond this. When we purchase them or use them in public, we are saying something about ourselves. These brands express something beyond what Marx called “use value.” Instead, they express ideals, aspirations, and, of course, social status.

The brands that play this role–Porsche, Mercedes, Hermès, Gucci, etc.,–have traditionally been called “prestige brands.”

From Prestige to “Ueber”

What makes prestige brands different? More specifically, how do they come to convey “this person is special” as well as “this product is special”?

To answer those questions, Wolfgang Schaefer  and JP Kuehlwein wrote a book entitled, Rethinking Prestige Brands: Secrets of the Ueber-Brands. [Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy. – Matt]

What sets this book apart from other marketing and business books is its philosophical bent. Yes, it does provide frameworks and guidelines meant to help marketers and entrepreneurs rethink their approach to branding. But beneath all that is a discussion of contemporary culture and the role that brands, for good or ill, are called upon to play in it.

Consider the scope of this passage, for example (emphasis in the original):

In an age of change, instability and little truths, we are yearning to discover what’s beyond the obvious, what’s behind it all and what’s at the core, holding everything together. In other words, we are trying to reconnect our physical worlds with their metaphysical counterparts. And this is where myths, and more specifically brand myths come into play. Brands have become something akin to heroes in our contemporary culture . . . They are models in a lot of ways–supra-models so to speak–potentially linking us to higher powers and truths while very much being concerned with our earthly delights.

When you read something like that, you know that you are in for more than pro tips on how marketing can drive revenue growth!

Beyond Prestige and Luxury

Following Dr. Clotaire Rapaille (author of The Culture Code), and as the above passage suggests, Schaefer and Kuehlwein believe that “becoming a part of a society’s culture is key for a brand to achieve a superior market position and eminence.”

For this reason, they do not focus exclusively on what one would traditionally consider prestige brands. Instead, they also focus on brands like Red Bull, a brand that not only invented an entire category (energy drinks) but that also became a fixture in pop culture (“I hate the taste of alcohol. When I’m drinking, I’m drinking Red Bull.” – Paris Hilton).

The bulk of the book is concerned with describing how a brand like Red Bull or Ben and Jerry’s or Nespresso (not to mention, Chanel and others) pulls that off. To that end, they lay out seven principles that make these brands “ueber” (in the Nietzschean sense of “Uebermensch” or “super-human”).

These principles cover some fairly familiar territory–the brand must have a mission; that mission needs to be supported throughout the entire organization–but put an interesting spin on it.

For example, like many today, Schaefer and Kuehlwein stress the importance of storytelling. They ratchet things up, however, by insisting that ueber-brands go beyond storytelling to engage in myth-making:

By ‘mythologizing’ the brand story you will take the idea of writing a compelling narrative to the ultimate level. If you do it well, you craft a story around your brand, which lifts it to ‘supernatural’ iconic status while at the same time giving it depth and meaning, providing a script for all followers to believe in and for the rest of us something to admire or aspire to.

As the word ‘supernatural’ here suggests, the goal of the ueber-brand is to transport the consumer, to address them not at the level of material need in this world, but to draw them into another, better world of fantasy and dreams. Indeed, the authors write that this is “what every modern prestige or Ueber-Brand has to do: create a parallel world, a bubble that expresses their dream in the most perfect way.”

Should You Read This Book?

There are several reasons that I think it might be worth your time to read this book.

First, it is chock full of detailed stories about interesting brands and the people who created or recreated them. If you only read those sections, you would learn a lot.

Second, the schema that Schaefer and Kuehlwein propose will give you a practical lens through which to reconsider your own brand and branding strategy. Not every brand is destined to be “ueber,” but if you believe that branding matters at all in your vertical or industry, then this book contains a host of ideas that can help you improve yours.

Third, it is written by two experienced and literate marketers (they refer to Sartre, Barthes, Novalis, and others) who do not shy away from recasting questions about branding as questions about how meaning and personal identity function in modern, post-industrial societies (and beyond). In other words, if you want to understand the broader cultural context in which brands are situated today, this book will give you plenty to think about.

Finally, as an added bonus, there are surprising moments of poetry scattered throughout the book. Where else can you read sentences such as, “Apple stores are almost the absence of a world”?

Image Source (Creative Commons): Alejandro Mallea.

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