2014 Overview

Ready for Change: top brands push our evolution

US-2014-Top-Bot

INTRODUCTION

2014’s most culturally vibrant brands awe through contradictions. They consistently surprise – yet we’re not surprised they do. They transform the familiar to be more intuitive than ever. They enrich our lives now by focusing on tomorrow. They thrive on skepticism to defeat the impossible.

Some brands won us over with genuine, admirable comeback stories:

  • Tesla, scoffed for its loony ambitions, impresses like no other vehicle has – ever.
  • Ford, the only big U.S. auto manufacturer that dodged the government bailout, turns itself around, creating desirable cars that reflect efficient engineering and value.
  • Apple stays the course without Steve Jobs and in an increasingly evenly-matched tech landscape.
  • Microsoft makes itself over, ditching a staid identity to become flexible and user-centric, even one-upping Siri with the alluring Cortana.

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But what landed most of the brands at the top of the pack in 2014 – those standing tall as Visionary, Inspiring, Bold, and Exciting – was a mastery at sparking consumers to change. This is not the same as brands providing people with something new – which of course the top VIBE companies excel in, via products and services that are fantastically innovative, desirable, and infinitely useful. Rather, consumers in 2014 evaluated a brand’s vibrancy by considering how and to what extent they themselves caused change.

In other words, brand influence is felt as consumer influence. The relationship is symbiotic: brands provide consumers with springboards for change that we intuitively adopt so they become our own. Brands progress if we do.

To that end, in 2014 the Top 10 brands:

Drove us forward:

  • Tesla’s brilliantly-engineered, stylish, high performance Model S revolutionizes the car world and reframes “green”.
  • Etsy’s person-to-person craft entrepreneurism model empowers a new kind of economy.
  • Nike equips us personally with the best tools and the emotional inspiration to #justdoit – newly hash-tagged but long ingrained.
  • Amazon’s e-commerce platform lets us access everything we know of, and discover everything we don’t – all the while expanding its universe from e-readers into fine art, virtual payments, music and live sports streaming, and smartphones.

And, they used creativity and innovation to help us see things differently:

  • Coca-Cola continues to excite and fascinate us with tricks up its sleeve that foster the joy of sharing.
  • Google gives us a new eye on the world with Glass and a driver-free car.
  • Samsung bends screens, lets us write on them, and launches smart wristwear – though it’s possible that group selfies at The Oscars turned our heads as much.

Three dimensions of a brand’s proposition shaped the composition of the 2014 VIBE Top 10 list:

  • Brand Experience: brands opening paths to a more engaging, enriched life
  • Connectivity: Fostering closer connections to ourselves, others, and our world
  • Greater Purpose: brands facilitating ways to meaningfully impact oneself, others and the world beyond consumption

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More than ever, there’s an increasing relationship between these three dimensions. In fact, for brands with the highest VIBE in 2014, Brand Experience, Connectivity, and Greater Purpose are a holy trinity. Fueling one area necessitates fueling the others.

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The top brands delivered on the three dimensions in specific ways.

BRAND EXPERIENCE - Brands as Story Catalysts

Marketers realize that the best brands must be captivating storytellers. They use imagination and innovation to offer up new twists. The idea is not to give consumers happy endings. The idea is to start a story and leave the ending dangling. The best brands are story catalysts. It’s not about them, it’s about YOU.

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“What is your verse?” Apple asks. Using what we buy is no longer enough of an outcome – not nearly. What will our impact be from our purchases? What did we create? Where did we go? How did we demonstrate our newfound smarts? What feelings did we explore? How did we transform ourselves or impact someone else?

More than that: How did we change the world? It’s become a reasonable question to ponder and entertain. It’s an invitation not just from tech brands. A shoe company encourages us to “find your greatness” (Nike). A car company gets us to our destinations but suggests we can “go further” (Ford). A soda pop company sparks acts that prove how we “live positively” (Coke). The top VIBE brands, employing social media savvy, stay front and center as we impact the world – observing, listening – and glorifying us.

Consumers center their lives around the top ranking brands. The focus is not solely on consuming. Brands with high VIBE offer a much wider realm of possibilities. Within those brand universes – and ignited by them – we create and experience. Just as a child might script a world of adventures given a play chest of props, brands with high VIBE inspire us to reinvent our day-to-days by giving us diverse springboards.

  • Etsy’s 40 million plus member marketplace is anything but a passive big-box showroom. Its curated wonderland of goods feels highly personal because at the heart is a community of makers who offer their stories along with their wares. In an e-commerce world, the brand manages to preserve and promote old-fashioned participation – whether training, connecting, and equipping entrepreneurs through its Craft Entrepreneurship program, or engaging buyers through constant surprises and immersive back stories.

  • Google’s ever-expanding toolbox has always equipped us to be explorers, from our armchairs with its search engine, to other realms with pioneering mobility inventions sprung from the mysterious Google X facility (e.g., Glass, delivery drones, and self-driving cars). Importantly, all of Google’s gadgets are a means to a greater end in our daily lives. Yes, technology unites, as the brand’s 2014 “Ok Google” TV ads for voice search illustrated. But the campaign’s device of characters uttering the simple expression “ok” to find their centers and go forward underscores a meatier thesis: individual progress as a human connector.

The ultimate genius of story catalyst brands is that they democratize empowerment.

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BRAND EXPERIENCE - Brands as Pioneers

Increasingly rapid technology introductions are normal, to the point that consumers expect “the next big thing” constantly. It’s an assumption that our everyday lives are improvable – we count on brands to streamline our time and routines, and to change them up entirely. We are confounded if there isn’t an app for that.

Consumer expectations for more and better has forced brand stretch and competition. It’s working, our tough love. To be sure, tech-related and automotive brands in particular abide by an “innovate or die” code. Their corporate cultures haughtily assume everything has a solution. Everything. The biggest puzzles and challenges become motivating proving grounds. Ongoing competitive tug-of-wars ensue: thinnest device, biggest screen, best fuel economy, first marketable unmanned shipping drones (Amazon vs. Google), most seamless and capable wearable tech (Samsung vs. Apple)… Problem-solvers win. Today’s “space races” involve competing for consumers’ share of wallet – a space that is itself in a race toward becoming virtual.

Remarkably, in an era when we expect it all, when lightning fast internet feels sluggish and we answer the universe’s questions ourselves with the click of a button, we continue to look to brands to restore our sense of wonder. Brands with high VIBE still manage to give us “wow”. They still surprise and delight our imaginations, no matter that other brands follow hot on their heels with a nuanced twist.

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Google spawned a clique of chic geeks navigating via Glass Explorer Edition, wearers instantly recognizable, intriguing, and controversial. Samsung’s curved screen fascinates even if its true benefit seems fuzzy. Microsoft freed the screen. Tesla shifted an industry.

We pay close attention to the figures behind and in front of the curtain where magic happens: the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Larry Page. Their brands may come off as eccentric, edgy, misunderstood, or maverick. And that’s partly what makes them brilliant.

CONNECTIVITY - Brands as Portals

The top VIBE brands foster a strong sense of membership and belonging. It’s not just that consumers feel loyal. They feel reliant on the tangible, highly engaging networks that become hard to live without because they’re so multi-faceted and intersect with the diverse touchpoints of our lives.

  • Google gives us “gotta have” exploratory platforms: GoogleMaps, YouTube, GooglePlay limitless music streaming, and of course Google search.

  • Ford Social turns cars into intuitive hubs. They house consumers’ personal photos, videos, ideas, stories, apps, social media. They enhance the drive via award badges, alert owners of nearby deals on stuff they’re into, use voice command music control. Next up: health sensors to monitor our vital signs and the environment.

  • Amazon’s and Etsy’s bulging e-catalogues cover every tangible aspect of our needs and wants.

  • Devices from Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft are indispensable and increasingly intimate, curating our moment-to-moment experiences. They are extensions of ourselves.

CONNECTIVITY - Brands as Equalizers

Technology’s omnipresence means we all participate. Across a spectrum of devices, built-ins, and the internet, tech unites and dominates the way TVs did in a bygone era, bridging generations and class.

Tesla is an interesting case because today it remains a luxury brand. However, it’s closing in on an early vision to become a people’s brand – one that’s “affordable”. By the end of the year, Tesla’s free high-speed supercharger stations will cover 80% of where the U.S. population is – and nearly 100% by 2015. Its ultimate goal to build a $30K Model S spinoff, combined with its investment in battery plant production, will help mainstream the brand.

But tech isn’t the only route to universal resonance.

The top brands effectively leverage the meaningful human abstractions that unite us. Love, family, compassion, awe, and heroism, for instance. Brands high in VIBE find a timeless truth that makes sense for their brand – something they can tap into, credibly, their unique way.

The intangibles that make us human wield palpable power and help mute demographic barriers. In fact, the strongest brands realize the sense in embracing and embodying the new norm of a multicultural mainstream – naturally and seamlessly.

Examples might be visible in brand communications: Coke’s Superbowl ad featuring various American voices singing “America the Beautiful” – in multiple languages. Apple’s commercials, which tend to depict the delight, wonder, and empowerment we all seek. No brand always gets it right – since diversity can’t be addressed through a single formula. Yet the best brands quest total market fluency in their ongoing consumer conversations.

It might be achieved via a simple idea from a complex brand: Google created an ad for their app around the think-positive word “ok”, which all of us, from toddlers to adults, say to ourselves to get ready – or get steady – for what’s next.

Or, it might materialize from a complex idea for a simple product: Coca-Cola’s notion of opening happiness, in 2014 expressed via a “summer of sharing”. Coke swapped out its name from beverage labels, replacing it with ours – the most popular Millennial and teen names, and endearments such as “Wingman” and “Bestie”. With that campaign, the value of a Coke bottle, full or empty and often gifted, went up immeasurably.

Nike managed to find relevance even on the fringes – which weren’t so fringe after all. The brand was not an official sponsor of 2014 World Cup soccer, the most inclusive sport on the planet. And yet Nike was the most-viewed brand of the tournament, harnessing the online sphere with eight digital campaigns that drew over 240 million viewers. An equalizing theme magnified by tech.

GREATER PURPOSE - Conscientiousness as a Price of Entry

The top ranking VIBE brands know that corporate responsibility can’t be a gesture, but rather an embedded operational strategy for success. Consumers presume that big brands use their muscle to affect and lead big, important change. After all, it’s proof they care about their consumers’ long-term welfare.

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Consumers appreciate brands which embody that kind of respect. They also appreciate when brands provide ways to get in on making a difference – so that participation feels easy and doesn’t sacrifice enjoyment. Life feels better when everyday choices create win-wins.

Categories that pose intuitive threats to the greater good (e.g. transportation or consumables), garner increased scrutiny. But brands that maintain a conscientious stance have a fair chance to neutralize skepticism, ease worries, and even yield a net positive effect.

  • Tesla epitomizes this reversal with its electric supercar. Ford, meanwhile, has been reducing the regular gas consumption of its engines by reducing their size and squeezing out more power through engineering advances. It translates carbon consciousness to consumers as “MPG savvy”.

  • Put two mammoth brands together to magnify the good. Ford collaborated with Coca-Cola to put its PlantBottle Technology into the Fusion model’s interior plastics, made from recycled bottles; the seat fabrics use recycled denim.

  • Conscientiousness also relates to improving health (Nike’s FuelBand) and livelihoods (Etsy’s CraftEntrepreneurship training program for unemployed and under-employed artisans, to democratize opportunity).

GREATER PURPOSE - Conscientiousness as Cool

Being conscientious isn’t just noble.

  • With Tesla – it’s fast. High performance is as important as ultra eco efficiency in the glowingly reviewed S model’s design.

  • With Coca-Cola – it’s stylish. Ekocycle, a collaborative initiative with will.i.am, rallies “the brands you love” to create fashion and accessories partly made with recycled materials.

  • With Nike – it’s transforming. The FuelBand fueled an industry of wearable tech that reshapes, literally, how we breathe and move – and therefore boosts how we feel about ourselves. Though Nike discontinued the bands to focus on fitness software rather than hardware, it etched a space for tech brands such as Apple Watch to tackle directly.

Meanwhile, the brands lurking in the lower ranks of the 2014 Cultural Traction survey are not considered by consumers to be very Visionary, Inspiring, Bold, or Exciting. Interestingly, the list represents companies with solid equity, share, and endurance, drawn from diverse categories. Some of the brands have been thought leaders, innovators, and movers and shakers.

But in 2014 they are not sparking effective cultural conversations that resonate. In increasingly cluttered competitive waters, they seem clumsy in their strokes. How brands evolve with culture – whether they dawdle, track alongside it, or shape it – determines their VIBE rankings.

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THE BOTTOM 10 BRANDS

Airlines...

American Airlines and United Airlines crash-landed, ending up in the Bottom 10 for VIBE – with American Airlines last in the queue.

  • To be sure, the airline industry faces challenges in cozying up to consumers – flying is expensive, security screenings sour the experience well before we buckle in, and we’re aware our flights leave a mighty carbon footprint.

  • That said, Virgin America manages to soar into the VIBE Top 20, illustrating there’s more to the story.

  • American and United, which each recently merged to become bigger-than-ever entities, took an inward focus on convenience and customer service e.g. quick Twitter response rates, self bag-tagging (American), bonus miles promotions, luggage delivery service (American), passenger-generated employee bonuses (United). None of it really adds up to a better flying experience.

  • By way of contrast, Virgin realized that some aspects of flying would remain hassles, no matter the perks. As counterbalance, it imbued personal touches and a little fun – e.g. an entertaining safety video that went viral, on-demand snack and beverage service, in-air text flirting, and in-flight social networking and bingo. These novelties not only serve flyers, but they spark intrigue from jaded frequent flyers of other airlines.

  • Both American and United are taking steps to move brand relevance in the right direction: up. They’ve put more attention toward social media efforts that foster consumer engagement, and United added on-demand programming for personal devices.

Telecom...

Sprint and T-Mobile, vying for ownership of #3 slot in wireless, dropped into the Bottom 3 for VIBE.

  • Both companies have been employing aggressive marketing tactics framed around plan packages and deals. They lack emotional resonance, despite efforts by Sprint to connect with modern “Framilies” and by T-Mobile to address Millennials. Their cultural expressions don’t feel genuinely attuned to consumers who might actually wish for an alternative provider.

Beverages...

Three mainstream beer brands fell flat, partly due to the effervescent popularity of craft beers.

  • Budweiser, Heineken, and Corona haven’t been effectively tapping emergent cultural values placed around sensory experiences, conscientious choices, and new ways to foster connections.

  • All three brands have shown signs that their hangovers could be fading, clearly attempting to regain a foothold with consumers. For instance, Corona’s release of limited edition Golden Boy boxing bottles to create a personalized hook; Budweiser’s Project 12 Brewmaster competition that crowdsourced votes for the winner; Bud’s south-of-the-border brew hybrids and Heineken’s Latin Grammy’s affiliation to address multicultural tastes.

Red Bull hit the wall in 2014, catapulting freestyle into the canyon of VIBE’s bottom 10 brands.

  • To be sure, the brand takes direct aim at Millennials who value spontaneity, non-stop action, and bold challenge. Red Bull TV provides massive amounts of mind-blowing content linked with extreme sports, and the bull logo marks the same sorts of live events and competitions.

  • Interestingly, the brand’s “gives you wings” tag suggests the potential to be a story catalyst for consumers, similar to Top 10 brands nailing VIBE. However, within the context of extreme, only a select few can really fly.

  • Recently, Red Bull has been spotlighting #givesyouwings in a more aspirational and real life context, showcasing the personal stories of athletes and artists. It’s less about their stunts, and more about their up-and-down paths to success and philosophies.

Social Media...

Twitter has also flown south, into the Bottom 10 for VIBE.

  • The platform has never been based on a premise of solid connection with users. When real news breaks, it’s priceless. In between, Tweets are used to broadcast soundbites and random thoughts, often to fickle strangers. By design, most content is fleeting, and therefore forgettable, making it tough to build value.

  • The brand’s recent ventures in the video arena, including Vine and efforts to woo video advertisers, seem aimed at deepening the user experience to shore up slow growth figures.

    Note that Facebook, while not in the lowest ranks, has been sagging year on year since 2011 and actually has the highest percentage drop in VIBE in 2014.

  • Facebook hasn’t been able to figure out how to balance the daily utility of its platform with a refreshed Brand Experience. And increasingly, despite facilitating user creation, it’s become notoriously manipulative of content.

Automotive...

KIA rides the edge of the Bottom 10 brands.

  • The car maker may still be pulling away from negative publicity from a couple of years ago i.e. a big model recall and a fuel economy claims lawsuit.

  • But judging from some of its recent activities, KIA seems poised to accelerate. It aired a buzzworthy Superbowl hamsters spot, the Soul has been winning design, eco, and popularity awards, and the brand had its highest-ever sales in the first half of 2014.

All together, the Bottom 10 brands for VIBE reveal an emphasis on the present. Not that there’s anything wrong with living in the moment. But…

  • What can they do to deliver a purposeful and compelling vision for positive change?
  • How can they establish truer, deeper, more lasting connections with consumers?
  • How can they enrich brand experience to be more innovative and open-ended?