How do popular brands achieve cult status, such that popular culture does their word-of-mouth marketing for them?
Here’s a picture with the hashtag #whitegirls, and it has a Starbucks drink in it. According to this image, the stereotypical white girl is practically defined by her Starbucks habit.
Is this realistic, valid, ethical? Probably not, but it definitely resonates with people. That’s branding for you. If you’re a white girl and you’ve never had a Starbucks drink before, you’d probably give it a shot just to make sure you’re not missing out.
I describe it as experience first and product second, because no one is going to pick up your product and try it if they don’t want to buy into the experience. This experience comes through the advertising, the retail environment, and the online experience–every single brand touchpoint. There is a very intentional effort to inspire people to get caught up in that experience and say, “I want to try that”–whatever that thing happens to be.” – Stanley Hainsworth
How did Starbucks get so much of Hollywood to fall in love with them?
Do a Google search for “celebrity starbucks” or “hollywood starbucks” and you’ll find hundreds of pictures of celebrities clutching Starbucks frappucinos.
Here’s my theory: The Starbucks experience becomes something to aspire towards, a sort of comforting indulgence. You drink coffee, but you treat yourself to a Starbucks. Celebrities drink Starbucks because it’s a status symbol.
“For Starbucks, it was creating a community, a “third place.” It was a very conscious attribute of the brand all along and impacted every decision about the experience: who the furniture was chosen for, what artwork would be on the walls, what music was going to be played, and how it would be played.” – Stanley Hainsworth
1: Starbucks is positioned as a status symbol.
Consider Posh24.com – What 10 stars order at starbucks. Whether favorable or not, the truth of reality is as follows: Ordinary people care about what celebrities do. If celebrities drink Starbucks, then ordinary folks will aspire to drink Starbucks too.
That’s the power of appealing to high-status clients and customers, in any industry.
2: Status symbols become cultural phenomenon.
Consider the following blogpost by SheKnows.com – What your Starbucks drink says about you. Did Starbucks pay SheKnows.com to write this blogpost? I doubt it. Rather, the writer noticed that Starbucks was a broad cultural phenomenon worth commenting about, and so she did. She was motivated by the idea of having a ready and eager audience. Free advertising for Starbucks, and curious readers for the site.
If you make stuff that’s compelling enough, people will advertise your product for you. Win-win.
3: Communities form around cultural phenomena.
A man spent $47 dollars on his Starbucks drink just because he wanted to buy the most expensive Starbucks drink possible. There are many communities online and around the world where Starbucks fans express their love for the brand, comparing recipes (there are secret drinks!) and sharing stories.
Why would anybody want to buy the most expensive Starbucks drink possible? Because they know other people would be interested in hearing about it. That’s the power of community.
This has to be the pinnacle of branding: when your product becomes synonymous with the (admittedly oversimplistic) identity of a vast mainstream group. It becomes a phenomenon, a movement, or even a philosophy or a way of life altogether. This is the threshold where brands become verbs and adjectives.
What’s a retailer to learn from all this?
You’re surely selling a product or service, but beyond that you’re also selling a story, an idea, an experience.
Make it count. When you’re starting out, it’s just you, your product, your story and your users/customers. Figure these things out carefully.
- What are you selling? Are you selling coffee or a lifestyle?
- Who are you selling it to? What are they like?
- What do they want? How can your product or service help them get what they want?
The better you answer these questions, the likelier it is that you’ll make a significant dent in the marketplace.
I’m sure that there are some marketing executives at Starbucks who are very pleased that there are pictures of Starbucks drinks being circulated on Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. (I wouldn’t be surprised if they “planted” some of them! That’s great marketing.)
How do you get your target demographic to rave about your brand?
The truth is… that you can never completely predict or control this stuff. There’s no magic formula. And if there was one, I wouldn’t be telling you about it, I’d be starting the next Starbucks instead.
Instead, what we usually see are founders and CEOs who feel very passionately about a problem they’re solving.
“I once asked Howard (Schultz, Starbucks CEO) how it felt to have thousands of people here in our offices, and thousands of people in thousands of stores all over the world working for the brand. He just looked at me and shook his head and said, “I had no idea that it could become this.” – Stanley Hainsworth
So all you can really do is:
- Do your best to deliberately make something that you really care about. If you love it, chances are that someone else out there will, too.
- Pay careful attention to your first customers. What do they like about what you’re doing? Would they recommend your product to their friends? Would they Instagram it?
- Hope that you’ll catch the wave. The honest truth that is often buried is that timing counts.
Even if you never achieve international cult status, you can still take the trouble to delight your users or customers to a degree that they become your raving fans.
That’s a very empowering place to be.
Here’s a great read about branding, where all the quotes are from: FastCompany.com – How Starbucks transformed coffee from a commodity to a $4 splurge
Read Next: A Review of Starbucks’ Referral Program