The Two Simple Paths To Successful Brand-Building: Be Entertaining, Or Be Useful

What do Justin Bieber and Google have in common (beyond the YouTube love affair, naturally)? 

According to Forbes 100 most powerful celebrities, Bieber is the youngest on the list sitting solidly in the No. 3 position, in between Oprah and U2. He's got 33.9 million Facebook fans and 11.4 million Twitter followers, and his video "Baby" is the most-watched YouTube clip ever, with more than 561 million views. He isn’t merely a celebrity who was discovered on YouTube; he is the king of it. 

Meanwhile, Google is ranked 4th in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2011, and 2nd by the BrandZ Most Valuable Global Brands, keeping good company in the digital space along with Apple, IBM and Microsoft. In fact, the only brand listed in the top five that is not a technology company is Coca-Cola.

But the reason for calling out this social media couple goes beyond the stats and revenue streams. What each of them hold, for very different reasons, is immense cultural capital. Only they arrived at it in totally different ways—one through entertainment, and one through usefulness. 

Brands Are Built In Culture

Cultural capital is simply the value of an idea in culture and something that most brands overlook. While the focus of business is to drive sales, the brand’s job is to increase preference measured by its equity. But what drives brand preference?

For consumer brands, cultural capital is what drives preference, and the brands that understand this instinctively focus on how to play their role in popular culture first. Brands like Apple, Nike, Red Bull and Facebook are all examples of successful companies that have baked their cultural role into that of their brand—and even their product innovation.

In my own experience working on the recent Diet Pepsi campaign, we were able to generate broad cultural impact by bringing together Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara and David Beckham. The success of this odd pairing reached far beyond the storyboard of a TV spot. The real impact was the attention gained from the celebrity media coverage, building intrigue and anticipation around their roles far in advance of any commercial airing and increasing the engagement with the advertising. It acted to catapult the brand back into mainstream relevance with its core consumer base.

We need to think about marketing differently. A strong brand is really the prize for creating relevant cultural impact; it’s no longer a device to sell products to a waiting audience. In truth, there are no waiting audiences anymore; they’re on Facebook playing Farmville or Angry Birds on their iPad, editing out ad breaks with their DVR, or sharing clips from YouTube. Their interest is fleeting and centered on their passions and interests—their culture.

In business, over-crowded and diversifying categories are diluting the impact of an individual brand’s share of voice. Likewise, changing consumer behaviors driven by economic pressures and shifting attitudes toward consumption make it harder than ever for a brand to stay relevant.

Succeeding In Culture

There is a simple formula for brand success—be entertaining, or be useful.

Back to Bieber and Google. Justin Bieber is an expert in managing his cultural capital, both in terms of his role in culture and also the way in which his fame is managed. 

Bieber represents the very personification of today’s pop culture. He carries the torch for a new generation’s values—real, open authenticity, youthful positivity, and confident self-expression. These are values that represent the core cultural ideals of today’s young global community who are drawn to him as a symbol of how they wish to see themselves.

On the other hand, Google represents the ultimate in usefulness, or rather utility. Google is continually creating new ways for people to find the cultural content they want, or helping them connect with one another through their shared interests.

Bring the two together, and it’s no surprise that nine of the top 10 all-time most-watched YouTube clips are music videos, representing in excess of 2.8 billion views. Or that Apple is ranked in first place in the BrandZ survey given its dominance in providing the ultimate utilities to access and engage with conceivably every form of entertainment content. 

Increasing Your Brand’s Cultural Capital

Any brand can increase its cultural capital, and in turn, it’s business success. It just requires a process change in brand marketing and a fresh way of looking at how entertainment and utility connect within the complex media landscape.

Start by identifying the culturally relevant role for your brand in tune with the cultural ideals of your consumers. Then, consider how you will bring your brand’s role to life by entertaining consumers or by providing a utility function, which can deliver a value for their cultural interests. Finally, understand the forms of media that will best help consumers to connect with your entertainment, participate with your utility, and share their experience.

[Image: Flickr user Dana Gonzales]

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