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Users of MorningNewsBeat know that the subject of branding is extremely interesting to us. The ability to create a successful retail brand is, in our opinion, one of the central differences between stores that are able to forge a unique connection with the shopper and stores that merely take up space, offering the consumer no compelling reason to buy anything there.

It was for this reason that we found Harvey Hartman's newest book, Reflections On A Cultural Brand, to be so intriguing. The book suggests, in terms that we find to be persuasive, that brands need to be an integral part of the consumer's lifestyle…and that a "cultural brand" can play a transcendent role.

To explore this important subject, we engaged in an extensive and exclusive e-interview with Hartman, founder, chairman, and CEO of The Hartman Group, the first part of which appears below.

MNB: Define the basic difference between a cultural brand and a plain old run-of-the-mill brand.

Harvey Hartman: We have identified a distinctive set of components attaining an emotional appeal with the consumer. These five elements of a cultural brand – social context, experience, community, products and services, and infrastructure sensibility – work in tandem to build the brand. A plain old run-of-the-mill brand may be very strong on community building or may be a product of exceptional quality but loses out on the other essential components. Granted, it may be one or the other of these elements that might be the thing that entices a consumer to enter that brand world, but all five plays a role in making that consumer want to come back.

Beyond establishing these five elements, the real key in building a cultural brand is in identifying and truly understanding that people are changing. They’re changing the way they live, where and how they shop and what they buy. And knowing this, we have to understand that with this change consumers are resonating to products and brands that reflect the values they hold and the values they are developing. So, therefore, a cultural brand encompasses, represents these changing values; it represents this changing experience people are longing for and participating in; and it represents the community that’s a part of this shifting culture.

The notion of the cultural brand, like so many other innovations, is a product of synthesis that embraces both art and science.

MNB: It seems to us that creating a brand that qualifies as "cultural" takes a lot more than just clever positioning. It also takes uncommon insight, superior execution, and probably a lot of just plain luck. Agreed?

Harvey Hartman: I agree with all of this, including “just plain luck.” Because a lot of the brands that we have found that have gained “cultural” status really were “at the right place, at the right time.” But the uncommon insight is the understanding of the consumer and the recognition of these consumers’ complexities and dualities—that what they say they do, they don’t always necessarily do and that their behavior is not and will not change over night. We’re not looking for people that are just trying a new product or brand, we’re talking about people that become involved in the community, in the experience of a brand, people who become evangelists of that brand for the long haul.

In the book, we talk about The Grateful Dead as an example of a cultural brand. We are hard pressed to think of a better example of culture and community driving sales than this. The Grateful Dead sold out concerts year after year from coast to coast. This, despite the fact that the band was never known for their musical talents. But, if you’ve ever attended one of their concerts you cannot help but be struck by the feeling of cultural cohesiveness among fans, “Deadheads,” many of whom would travel great distances to attend shows and some of whom traveled around the country (and Europe) to do so. There was a unique discourse among Deadheads, a shared sense of difference from others, shared social rituals and a clear sense of moral responsibility tied to the counter-culture roots of this “scene.” The elements of community were crystal clear. And this is all part of building a cultural brand.

At first glance, however, the band would appear to have some of the worst brand consultants in history. Fans were permitted to sell t-shirts, stickers, and other trinkets with the band’s logo on them—many with unique variations of the logo—and some that were less than appealing. A brand manager’s nightmare. Lost revenue, brand management issues, and a counter-culture movement controlling your image would, for some, stand as serious problems or liabilities that should be addressed and resolved immediately. The band, however, understood that community and experience were key elements of their success…their financial success.

This is not to say you need to go to this extreme to become a cultural brand. But, management needs to be particularly attentive to innovations initiated by the customers themselves, and to do its best to nurture such organic initiatives where appropriate or just plain get out of the way.

MNB: In the food industry, what are the products/companies that you would identify as having achieved "cultural brand" status, and why?

Harvey Hartman: Certainly Whole Foods Market, I’d also say Stoneyfield Farm and even Kashi. What these companies have been able to do is combine the sense of this postmodern world, this sense of changing culture, that people don’t want to live in the past but they are taking elements of soul values from the past that they have incorporated into their lifestyle today. This is what we call “retrieval, which we talk about in the book. So, for example, Whole Foods has what people think of as an authentic experience. The products are real, natural, whole. The store is warm and comfortable. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and at the same time unique and individual. This experience represents what the neighborhood market should be—with stacks and baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, exotic products and gourmet treats. You trust them to provide you with the best food products to keep you healthy and whole. Consumers feel welcome here, they feel special, they feel soulful. This experience is something that’s important to them, and it has an effect on their wellness—emotionally, physically, mentally.

Kashi, on the other hand, has created a kind of community around storytelling—how consumers use the product, cook with the product, lose weight with the product. In essence, how they’ve incorporated Kashi into their lives. This storytelling helped build a network of loyal users, where the Kashi users, themselves, became evangelists for brand. From listening to these stories, Kashi was also smart enough to stand back and recognize how people used their product. People were eating it, cooking with it; so, Kashi designed a Meal Planner on their website. Kashi also had a big appeal for weight management; out of that recognition, they created Kashi Go Lean. They’ve been very good at moving with the consumer. No, Kashi is not a household name. By no means is it a mainstream brand. But for its group of extremely loyal users, Kashi has built a world, a community, where consumers can participate on their own level, at a level that they feel comfortable.

Stoneyfield has also created a unique kind of culture for some customers. Here people are not just buying Stoneyfield yogurt for the product attributes alone, they are also buying into the emotional appeal of the brand as well. Stoneyfield Farm is a company that represents integrity, quality, and even a sense of humor. And those are the values this simple yogurt represents, that Gary Hirshberg has created a brand that is representative of the shifting values that people feel good about. People wouldn’t buy the product if it didn’t taste good, but they will buy a lot more of it, be much more loyal to it because of the whole infrastructure sensibility of the brand as well.

One key factor to keep in mind here is that none of these brands would be considered cultural brands if they first did not offer a product or service of extremely high quality and strong performance. None of the things we say about the importance of cultural branding has relevance for brands that cannot compete on this basic level.

Tomorrow, we further dissect the qualities that make a "cultural brand" special…including an explanation for why the Yankees and Cubs fit the definition, and why the Mets and White Sox don't.

Join us Wednesday for Part 2 of this MorningNewsBeat exclusive.
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