Sunday, November 13, 2011

Douglas B Holt | L’Oreal Professor of Marketing, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

An Interview with Douglas B Holt
L’Oreal Professor of Marketing, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and Renowned Author on Cultural Branding

In this issue we feature Douglas Holt,the L’Oreal Professor of Marketing at the University of Oxford, and Co-Principal of The Cultural Strategy Group. Previously he was a Professor of Marketing at the Harvard Business School. He is a leading expert on brand strategy, having established cultural branding as an important new strategy tool in his best-selling book How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. He is also the author of Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands. He has developed cultural strategies for a wide range of brands, including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Ben & Jerry's, Sprite, Jack Daniel's, MINI, MasterCard, Fat Tire beer, Qdoba, Georgia Coffee, Planet Green, and Mike's Hard Lemonade, along with a number of non-profit organizations. He holds degrees from Stanford, the University of Chicago, and North western University, and is the editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture. He has been invited to give talks at universities and management

Q-1:How have global brands evolved in the last decade or so; in the context of the emerging economies becoming a massive consumer base?
It is hard to provide any overarching comments because there are a number of different types of global brands that succeed (or fail) based upon different brand mechanics. Generally western companies have viewed developing markets as their last great hope at double digit growth. But to expand their brands into such countries, they’ve had to learn the hard way that creating brand value requires a nuanced understanding of issues like national identity and global status. Western brands can bring potent cross-cultural value, representing western ideologies that are much valued in developing countries. But they can also act as a ball-and-chain, carrying symbolic baggage from the west—such as connotations of post-colonial domination—that consumers in developing countries resent. Branding in such situations requires considerable cultural nuance.

Q-2:You have emphasized on socio-cultural branding for the creation of an Iconic Brand. Can you share with us an example of a brand which has achieved it in a successful manner and how it has achieved it?
There are lots of brands which have achieved iconic status by using cultural branding which I have talked about in my two books. To explain how they achieved would take a long time. One example which comes to mind is that of Budweiser, when America’s high-wage industrial base was being scuttled with the first waves of outsourcing in the 1970s, Budweiser’s extolling of the virtues of the traditional artisan served up a shot of old-fashioned respect with every brew to embattled blue-collar men. Budweiser understood the socio cultural context and used their campaign to capitalize on it.

Q-3: Do you feel that in a country like India, cultural branding might be difficult, given that the culture is highly diverse across the nation (most of the state provinces speak different languages, have different customs) unlike the United States or United Kingdom?
First I disagree with your premise. If you’ve ever visited London, you would find that it is one of the ethnically diverse cities in the world. Likewise the United States is extremely heterogeneous despite that most people speak English.
Finally, cultural branding often thrives on political and cultural difference. For instance ben & jerry’s ice cream shot to success in the USA by opposing Reagan’s politics in the 1980s, and Apple and Starbucks have championed ideologies that the majority of Americans find condescending and elitist. The cultural diversity of the USA was helpful for these brands. So India’s diversity likely produces excellent conditions for cultural branding.

Q-4: What trends in consumer culture and behaviour do you see emerging in the next decade and the impact that they make on the way brands are created, marketed?
In cultural branding, we avoid looking at trends because they are usually characterized in an extremely generic manner. To do cultural strategy, you need to move beyond thinking about social change in terms of a handful of trends. Rather society is always changing in myriad ways and only a small fraction of these changes are important for a particular category and a segment therein. So the challenge is always to treat historical changes in a highly customized manner, studying the particular changes that are important to the business problem you are trying to solve rather than buying in to the generic trends hyped by the media.

Q-5: What, in your opinion, is one common error (if any) most of the brands commit which prevents them from becoming an iconic brand?
The managers of such brands follow the conventional marketing handbook. They believe that the value of the brand is derived from the distinctiveness of the brand’s rational and emotional benefits in the consumer’s mind and they hammer these benefits across all marketing efforts and consistently over time. Iconic brands are created because the brand is dynamic: it responds decisively to changes in society with new ideology. And rather than think of value in benefit terms, iconic brands dominate their categories by proposing new ideologies that consumers value so much that they are more than willing to ascribe rational benefits to the brand—it is the highest quality, tastes the best, is the most innovative etc simply because consumers identify with what the brand stands for.

Q-6: You’ve had an amazing career spanning from being a brand manager to teaching at Harvard Business School and now Saïd Business School at Oxford, could you share with us an incident/moment which you’d call a ‘great learning experience’?
I’m very interested in how branding can be used to improve the lot of the poor, especially commodity producers in the global south. At Oxford I worked with Oxfam to help Ethiopian coffee farmers make more money by branding their traditional coffee appellations (like yergecheffe), which are highly renowned in the West. This is a fresh branding idea, ripe with huge possibilities to push value chain rents down to the farmers in the south. However Starbucks was deeply opposed to this effort because they made lots of money by using these Ethiopian appellations for free. As a result, the leadership of the Saïd Business School stridently opposed my work, even stripping my essays from the faculty website, on the rationale that Starbucks might interview at the school someday and they might take offense to what i was doing. This is despite the fact that I testified before the British parliament, conducted interviews on the BBC, and so on. This incident shocked me. It taught me that even supposed liberal bastions like Oxford are very much captured by economic elites. It is a real challenge to work within business schools to advance the interests of common people.

Q-7:Any advice for young marketing graduates (our readers) stepping out from college and looking to make a career in the world of branding?
Get a liberal arts education along with the nuts-and-bolts analytic skills needed to do day-to-day brand management. Marketing as taught in most MBA programs strips from students the key humanistic expertise necessary to build brands. Studying history, anthropology, sociology, media, politics and such provides a much richer foundation for branding than what is taught in business education.

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