With Populism's Rise, Prada's Fall

Smart Brands Will Again Resolve Tensions Brought on by Social Disruption

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Thomas C. O'Guinn
Thomas C. O'Guinn

From David Letterman to Jon Stewart to Mike Barnacle to the guy in the cube next to you, more Americans are sporting a simmering anger some have termed "vengeful populism." Consumers are angry with bankers, Wall Street and any other cultural elite that has stolen from them lately. Because our pain is not felt equally, class conflict is a near certainty.

While populism comes in many flavors, it is, at its core, anti-elitist, and there are plenty of elites to dislike. Income distribution in the U.S. is approaching an L-curve, with a vanishing (and angry) middle class. Because social standing is in so many ways marked through consumption, brands that are "on the wrong side of history" had better watch out. On the other hand, just as in the Great Depression, smart brands will have an opportunity for greatness.

Uneven pain
For three decades or so we have gotten used to, even embraced, a hyper-consumer culture. As long as credit was easy and times were relatively good, class conflict was, for most Americans, an anachronism. Now, with a deepening recession spreading pain unevenly throughout the country, the need to rethink some brands' positioning and communication couldn't be stronger. To proponents of cultural marketing, the truly great, iconic brands have become so by resolving tensions brought on by social disruption: Marlboro reassured real manhood for a formerly woman's cigarette with a then unmanly filter in the rigid, gendered 1950s; Pepsi claimed the youth revolution of the 1960s as its own; and Apple introduced the "computer for the rest of us" by rejecting the Orwellian IBM work world in 1984. Perhaps this is another tectonic societal shift.

How will luxury brands deal with the clearly unequal distribution of pain in the economy?
How will luxury brands deal with the clearly unequal distribution of pain in the economy? Credit: Prada
What of luxury brands? Because so much advertising and brand communication is wrapped in and flavored with promises of social aspiration, how will luxury brands deal with the clearly unequal distribution of pain in the economy? How will the branded markers of the economic elite fare?

Wealth is OK with Americans, but arrogant insensitivity is not. When unemployment reaches the homes of one in 10 Americans, will it be OK to carry the $2,500 clutch? Will those trudging off to work and diminished futures -- or, worse yet, those on the streets looking for work -- find it charming to see the wealthy lined up to have tea with their daughters' $100 dolls?

Distinction for less
A handful of smart brands such as Target have for some time understood the new social order and offered design for the masses, distinction for less. The smart management of American Girl probably knows that in the 1930s some cities actually had toy libraries where children could check out a toy for a few weeks then return it so another child could enjoy it. Hopefully, we will never reach that point, but we may reach the point where class envy strikes such categories.

While some brand managers are just catching on, some just don't seem to have a clue. Appearing in my mailbox recently was a magazine with an ad for prestige watchmaker Patek Philippe. The copy justifying the $75,000 watch said: "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation." Amazing. Don't you just love being reminded of the power of inherited wealth at a time like this?

In my own research, I have started to pick up the sour notes of this angry populism. One of my research subjects is the spouse of a doctor. She now "gets grief" from her co-workers when she "wears anything new." They say, "Is that new? Must be nice." She adds: "Now I just don't wear them. I told my husband to quit buying stuff like that. I can't wear that stuff to work or even out sometimes."

Thomas C. O'Guinn is professor of marketing and executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Business. He is co-author of "Advertising and Integrated Brand Promotion."

'Democracy of affliction'
So what's a luxury, big-discretionary-bucks brand to do? In the Great Depression, the smart brands were very clever in the way they used Americans' ambivalence toward wealth. As the late historian Roland Marchand noted, smart advertisers pointed out that "even rich people have the same problems as you." He called this the "democracy of affliction." The smart Great Depression advertisers humanized the wealthy; they made them sympathetic characters with problems to which anyone could relate. They made even expensive brands about something, anything, other than wealth. They made their brands about commonly shared goals, problems, frustrations, values and community, not an I-have-mine-sorry-about-you arrogance. Remember, Americans love rags-to-riches stories. Other advertisers of the 1930s used this popular narrative to create brand stories about "breaking into fine society," making their brand part of your hope to fit in with the social strata above you and actually making it. The idea was inclusion, never exclusion. So, nuanced aspiration appeals are fine, but the sensitivity and humanity has to be there. The sweet spot seems to be sensitive value through things we share.

For every social upheaval there are winners and losers. This angry populism presents a big lever for the right brands. Just like Thomas Frank argued in "The Conquest of Cool," with respect to the 1960s Cultural Revolution, smart advertising and branding could now create middle-class-hero brands. Brands that get it could become the next VW, Pepsi or Apple. Remember: All "revolutions" and significant social moments need staging and costumes. At a deeper level, great brands resolve tension. This angry-populist sentiment is real -- it will most surely be with us for a while -- and you can actually feel its tension. That energy, that urge to strike blows of equality against those who have wronged us -- or show that even though we are much more fortunate than most, we are among the socially sensitive -- can be made part of brand meaning. Brands that facilitate some degree of resolution, expressed through branded consumption, will find power.

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