Building a Brand into a Cultural Phenomenon – Part 1

Why do some brands become cultural phenomena? Brands like Apple and Harley Davidson have become a part of society, and they would be missed by a lot of people if they disappeared. Significant changes to either brand would likely draw an outcry from loyal customers and the broader consumer population. The promises that these brands make to consumers are as important as a promise made by one person to another. In short, some brands aren’t just icons, they’re a way of life. In my new series, Building a Brand into a Cultural Phenomenon, you’ll learn how it’s done.

brand icon

Before you can understand how brands develop into cultural phenomena, you need to understand the primary stages of brand growth. Not every brand is destined to be a cultural phenomena. While companies can take many steps along the way to position a brand for maximum success, the power is always in the hands of consumers. I’ll discuss that in more detail in Part 3 of this series. For now, take a look at the five stages of brand growth below, so you understand the path that successful brands travel along during their lifecycles.

5 Stages of Brand Growth

An intricate analysis of brand growth would reveal more specific stages, but the five stages listed below give you a good introduction to the most critical stages that you need to know in order to understand how a brand becomes a phenomenon.

Stage 1: Common Brands

After a brand is launched and begins to generate awareness, recognition, recall, and purchases, it could quickly fail. However, if the brand lives up to its advertised promise, it moves to the first stage of brand growth and becomes a Common Brand.

Common brands are a dime-a-dozen. Most brands are common brands. They’re easily replaceable and consumers are more influenced by price and convenience when they choose a product or service within the market the brand operates than they are by brand names and promises.

Certain categories lend themselves to common brands more than others. For example, consumers are typically not sensitive to branding when they purchase milk. If one brand is on sale, that’s likely the brand most consumers will buy. In other words, price elastic categories are filled with common brands.

Stage 2: Brand Communities

As brands consistently and persistently communicate their promise and consumers begin to believe that promise, a growing audience of repeat and loyal customers will develop. When consumers have a place where they can discuss and experience the brand together, communities of the brand’s customers will develop.

For example, a brand’s Facebook Page is becoming a first-stop for brand communities to grow. For technical companies, online user support forums have become the place where brand communities start. In other words, the tools of the social web have made it much easier for brand communities to develop. Smart companies and brands are leveraging them!

Stage 3: Cult Brand

When brand communities grow and get stronger in terms of their integration into loyal customers’ lives, they become cult brands. That means these brands become a part of our culture or at least the culture of a group of people. For cult brands, “cult” means group in a positive way.

Cult brands have succeeded not only in developing strong brand communities but also in building emotional connections between consumers and the brand. Without that underlying emotional connection, cult brands cannot develop.

Because of that emotional connection, consumers look for ways to experience the brand together. The brand often fills a void in their lives and helps satisfy a psychological need. Harley Davidson clubs are the perfect example of loyal members of the “cult” experiencing the brand together and deepening their emotional connection to it.

Stage 4: Relationship Brand

apple sticker

Relationship brands are extremely powerful. They’ve moved beyond the cult brand stage and have developed a large following of loyal customers and vocal brand advocates. Consumers are extremely emotionally connected to relationship brands, and they’ll defend them against naysayers in any situation.

Relationship brands offer a wide variety of branded experiences, so consumers can self-select how they want to engage with the brand. For example, Apple has surrounded consumers with branded products and experiences. The brand has become a vital part of consumers’ lives, so much so that they’re willing to tattoo their bodies with the Apple logo, display Apple logo bumper stickers on their cars, and more!

Stage 5: Brand Phenomenon

A brand becomes a phenomenon when it reaches a completely different stratosphere of popularity and emotional involvement than anyone could imagine. These brands are ingrained in consumers’ everyday lives. Whether you purchase products or services under the brand umbrella or not, you know what the brand promises. In many cases, a brand phenomenon makes its competitors irrelevant in consumers’ minds. There is simply no other option and no need to consider other brands.

Harry Potter is a great example of a brand phenomenon. This is a brand that was built at the hands of consumers and turned into a global phenomenon known by and experienced by people in all demographic segments. In Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Phenomenon, I wrote, “Even if you’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen a Harry Potter movie, the brand’s influence on the world cannot be ignored.” Therein lies the basis of a brand phenomenon — it cannot be ignored.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Building a Brand into a Cultural Phenomenon where you’ll learn about the primary ingredients of a brand phenomenon.

Image: Laura Leavell, David Cintron

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Gunelius
Susan Gunelius, MBA is a 25-year marketing and branding expert and President and CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She is the author of 10 books about marketing, branding and social media, and her marketing-related articles appear on top media websites such as Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com. She is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of WomenOnBusiness.com, an award-winning blog for business women.