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One Big Idea: Lifestyle Brands 101

Lifestyle brand – an inescapable buzzword that it seems everyone from apparel brands to consumables are seeking to become – but what does it really mean? In this week’s episode, Bill examines the two critical components of what it takes to be a true lifestyle brand and looks at classic examples of lifestyle brands across categories. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. A little bit hoarse, a little bit nasal this week, but with a three and five-year-old in the household it is inevitable that there’s a little bit of illness when the seasons change, but anyway here we are.

Reflecting on our interview with Sarah Van Aken of Kathy Davis Studios last week and the conversation about the path they are taking from a leading social expression brand rooted in greeting cards into what we were talking of as a lifestyle brand. We realized with a bit of feedback, and some additional thought, that maybe we ought to define lifestyle brand a little bit more deeply for those of you who were wondering. Also I found that the phrase, at least in our industry is thrown around a bit loosely, so let’s try to build some guardrails through, what we’re calling, Lifestyle Brands 101 today.

What is a lifestyle brand and what is it not? Again, you hear the term a lot. Here’s the Gullan definition of lifestyle brand. The life style brand needs to fulfill both of the following criteria to be fairly described as such. First, it must have a broad enough product or service assortment to satisfy a consumer across various functional needs or desires. Many lifestyle brands that you hear about are brands that started in fashion or something that was aesthetically driven and then they expanded into a bunch of adjacent categories. It is fair to say that a lifestyle brand, or a brand that truly wishes to reach that level, does need to have some degree of categorical breadth just to be relevant across the different ways in which people live their lives, so that has to be there.

That alone is not enough. A true lifestyle brand also needs to fulfill the second criteria which is that it must embody in some way the ideals, aspirations, or aesthetic of a specific group or culture. There are many so-called lifestyle brands I think that certainly qualify when it comes to categorical breadth or product breadth, but may not quite reach the level of that second identifier.

Some brands who do, and examples of maybe some who do not; Patagonia is a quintessential lifestyle brand, because not only does it have an ever expanding approach to what it sells from a product perspective, it also has a core identifiable aesthetic, so it’s outdoorsy, but the environmental values that Patagonia embodies and really wears on their sleeve, pardon the pun, makes it a lifestyle brand in the way that others in its category, like Columbia, for example, or EMS, or The North Face are not. One can make the case that North Face is a lifestyle brand. You certainly see it in a lot of places. People do believe that it says a little something about them, at least stylistically, but Patagonia really defines not only a look, but a set of values across a bunch of different product categories.

When you become identified with a strong ideological or deeply felt subculture, that is a path to becoming a lifestyle brand.

Others who are lifestyle brands are identified with subcultures. You look at what brands like Burton and Vans have done in extreme sports categories. You look at what Hollister, and Pacsun, and others did in surf. These are brands that are waving flags to represent a subculture. That in some ways is a pretty central lifestyle brand method. When you really become identified with a strong ideological or deeply felt subculture, that is a path to becoming a lifestyle brand.

Other brands, though that didn’t start in apparel or footwear, a brand like IKEA certainly has all sorts of different products for your lifestyle. It does integrate into your home or in your office, so really across a lot of different things that you might want. IKEA has values above that; simplicity in design, and some do-it-yourself mentality, a clean sense of Scandinavian design, but also accompanied by a degree of a warmth, a little bit of whimsy. These are characteristics of the brand that for those who are devotees of the brand you feel like you might know a little bit about them and who they are and what they value.

Certainly Whole Foods is very values driven when it comes to not only the breadth of the product assortment, but the beliefs that are reflected by everything from what they choose to sell and the brands that make it there, but even beyond that into the internal culture and the way in which employees are screened and trained, so Whole Foods is another example.

In the fitness category; Equinox, very, very strongly, SoulCycle and others come to fit that description. Even if their product or service utility may be fairly narrow, you feel like if you know somebody that goes to Equinox or goes to SoulCycle that you might know a little bit about them and what they value and who they are.

A lifestyle brand from a surprising place, and I’m not sure the degree in which they think of themselves, is NPR. Certainly many, many different streams of content, but there’s a certain NPR-ness about everything they do, and I think about the people who value them very deeply and strongly, you could certainly draw some conclusions in terms of ideology when it comes to politics. You can certainly draw some conclusions about maybe the car they drive, or where they live, or the things that are important to them.

Those are some examples of brands that, probably largely intentionally or perhaps inadvertently, have reached this level, this lifestyle brand. Again, they have to have these two things; they have to offer a lot from a product or service perspective, but simultaneously they have to embody and express something about the people rally to them.

As brands begin to wear their values on their sleeve the act of choosing them, or not choosing them says something about the consumer.

Why does this ultimately matter, and I think in some ways why does it matter even more today than it did historically beyond the financial opportunity of being this deeply felt? The old adage that I think comes from the 60s era feminism, which was ‘the personal is political,’ is true like never before. I would make substitute in the case of commerce the word ‘political’ and say something along the lines of ‘the personal is expressive.’ So any choices that we are making today have, and are construed by others as being so determinative of the kind of person we are, the kind of values that we express. Certainly as brands begin to wear their values on their sleeve the choice, or the act of choosing them, or not choosing them says something about the consumer.

The personal is political; the choices we make define us. If that is increasingly the case, and I think it is, lifestyle brands have a really important role to play in, again, being definitional. Consumers, especially millennials, are expecting a window into the value systems of the brands that they trust and choose again and again and seek to sort of represent them in terms of it also fulfilling whatever needs they may have functionally.

Lifestyle brands bear the accountability for really needing to know their customer very deeply.

A couple of things to think about if you are working on, or aspiring to work on, or aspiring to build a brand in the direction of being a fully expressive, fully articulated lifestyle brand, three things to remember or to think about as you embark or proceed further down that path. One is that lifestyle brands bear the accountability for really needing to know their customer very deeply. Not only what they need in terms of product, whitespace, price point, or features and functionality, but how they think and what they value. I would go even further to say that where possible the best lifestyle brands come from and are from the cultures that they seek to represent and express.

A great example from our client roster is ThinkGeek. We talked on this podcast about ThinkGeek and a bit about their re-branding story that culminated in such a tremendous financial event, in terms of being acquired by GameStop. ThinkGeek was not going to be taken seriously by their core customer unless there was an authentic, that’s another the key word to this, representation of Geek culture in the way that they communicated the products they chose, the products they developed, etc. and really at every touch point.

In this case, given how many strongly held beliefs are held within individual fandoms of Geek culture, you almost needed to be a geek, however one wants to define it, to understand how geeks live, what they value, what they want. ThinkGeek and their team consisted of folks who were of, by, and for the culture that they were seeking to sell and represent. That helped a lot, but that can’t always be the case.

We worked a lot with World Wrestling Entertainment, for example. There’s a distinctive culture among their fans. There’s buzzwords, there’s customs, there’s rituals, there’s traditions, there’s self-referential qualities to closely held, deeply felt fandoms like that where it helps to get it. You have to. It’s not a precondition to be effective in those environments, but it certainly helps if you have a ton of respect for the subject matter so it comes naturally within one’s own life. That’s the first; really a deep understanding, respect for, and getting the value system of the customer base.

Lifestyle brands need to be in touch with the cultural moment, whether it is to represent it or in some ways to push against it.

The second is to really be in touch with the cultural moment. Lifestyle brands are, if they’re not of the moment, then they may seek to aspire, again, to that levels of lifestyle relevance and expression, but they’d rather have the ability to build a level of follower-ship that helps them break through if that which they are representing is not distinctly of the moment.

Interestingly, we find some examples of effective lifestyle brands that are almost counter-cultural. If commerce is downstream from culture, which we’ve said before on this podcast, meaning basically that what’s happening in the culture drives towards what happens in the commercial realm. What we mean by that, if that is the case, there is an opportunity to be sort of representative of the zeitgeist, so to speak culturally in a commercial realm and with brands. There’s also an opportunity to really represent and lead a backlash to something that may be culturally of the moment.

Examples of this; our culture in many ways is moving away from … We’re very conscious of wealth and equality. We’re, in some ways, dismissive of the kind of country club, 50’s establishment mode of dressing and acting, yet you see brands such as Vineyard Vines, who represents really tight strong way the Martha’s Vineyard, prep, resort, aesthetic. You see brands like Lilly Pulitzer, it’s Palm Beach direct with florals.

Of course, the fashion trends come and go. You see brands that in many ways are counter cultural. Maybe not really subversive in this case, Vineyard Vines, Lilly Pulitzer, J. Crew to a degree, but these brands have a lifestyle following, because of what they say about folks. Some of these folks have a degree of pride of not being a slave to trends and cultural momentum. Anyway, the second is to be in touch with the cultural moment and understand both the forward stroke, and I guess the backlash, and the backward stroke and to lay claim to something meaningful there.

The cost for a lifestyle brand that is very outward facing about values and beliefs of failing to live up to it is not just failure, it is betrayal.

The third thing, it may be obvious, but live up to it. We were talking in the office with a colleague earlier in preparation for this about the brands that she values. We were talking about some brands that have been strongly associated with ideologies and belief systems. She was talking about things she read on blogs, or elsewhere, in social media about how a certain brand that stands for something doesn’t really live up to it. They make their goods in sweatshops, etc. The cost for a lifestyle brand that is very outward facing about values and about beliefs, about ideology, etc., of failing to live up to it is not just failure, it is betrayal.

There are very few sins in our world; certainly this extends to our world at Finch, that are more unforgivable and notable than the sin of hypocrisy. You see this across the world. For brands that stake a really, really strong claim to a distinctive way of thinking, living, and representing beliefs, if they fail to live up to them in their own business practices, the consequences of that can be absolutely catastrophic.

When you fail, when you’re the source of that publicity, no matter what you’re doing, that can have a negative effect, but it rises to a level even higher, even more significant and more serious when it comes to lifestyle brands. We’ve seen some examples of that in terms of big criticism and focus on the policies and production processes of brands like Apple, Nike, and others. For brands that stake themselves out as being representative of a positive and progressive movement in the world, to be dogged by allegations along those lines it can be very, very difficult.

A brand that failed for a variety of reasons; American Apparel. I think one of the reasons was the soft underbelly that was revealed through media reports and other things of what was happening within a culture that seemed to capture the urban progressive perspective, yet had rampant sexual harassment within the company’s walls. What the company had always been proud of, which was the vertically integrated manufacturing in LA and providing jobs for immigrants as well as Americans, which is an important part of what American Apparel was. There were a lot of issues with documentation and eligibility within the workforce. All kinds of issues that came crashing down for that company. I would argue that it would be a part of why they fell away was all of the things that you learned about them that were contra to what we all thought that they stood for.

I’ll stop there. In summary, there’s two things you got to have to be a true lifestyle brand. One you’ve got be broad enough from a product perspective to be relevant in a number of different ways and venues, but also you must embody ideals, aspirations, aesthetics, values, belief systems of a specific group or culture to rise to this level.

Then three things to think about as you’re building and nurturing lifestyle brands. One, you need to know the customer very, very deeply. Not only what they need product wise, but how they think and what they value. You need to be in touch with the cultural moment, whether it is to represent it or in some ways to push against it. Either way commerce is downstream from culture again and again. We can’t say that enough here. Then, ultimately, living up to the promises that you make and delivering against the value system that you put front and center and in a way that drives your brand’s appeal.

That’s One Big Idea for this week. Signing off from The Cradle of Liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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