Perils of lifestyle brand positioning

Lifestyle and self-expression Have you noticed that more and more brands position themselves as lifestyle these days? You wander into a store thinking you’ll be checking out home decoration items, and instead, you end up browsing seemingly unrelated goods -- books, clothing, food -- at a lifestyle boutique, or lifestyle concept store. It reminds me of my my recent visit to Merci Merci, a concept store in Paris. There, you can even sit down and have a cup of coffee whilst looking at flowery aprons and dresses displayed in the shop. Another one, Cook and Book in Brussels, offers a possibility to express your artsy lifestyle by having lunch while surrounded by art and style books, which one can also buy.

 

Ways of expressing one’s lifestyle have become abundant. As far as selecting products goes, consumers are presented with endless flavors, designs and scents to choose from, mix and assemble into unique combinations which express their unique lifestyles. In fact, so many brands offer mass customization, that ways of self-expression have become all-pervasive. When so many brands are trying to tap into people’s needs for self-expression and strive for lifestyle positioning, maybe it’s time to find other ways to make your brand stand out from the crowd?

Lifestyle brands expose themselves to cross-category competition

A study published this month in Journal of Marketing (( Competing for Consumer Identity: Limits to Self-Expression and the Perils of Lifestyle Branding, Alexander Chernev, Ryan Hamilton, & David Gal, Journal of Marketing, May 2011)) concludes that by positioning their brands as lifestyle, companies “expose themselves to much broader, cross-category competition for a share of a consumer’s identity.” ((ibid.)) This goes against the widely accepted belief that lifestyle brand positioning is less likely to bring products and services into direct confrontation with competing brands.

 

At first sight, the logic of the latter seems clear. Let’s say, you are launching a soft drink in a very competitive market. How would you position it? Even if it has an amazing taste, the tendency nowadays is to avoid simply positioning it as a tasty drink. That’s just too plain vanilla. Instead, you might want to tap into the lifestyles of your consumers, trying to understand how your drink will allow them to express themselves. By positioning a drink not just as a tasty drink, but something else -- let’s say, a way to express one’s energy, creativity, sportiness, sense of achievement, etc. -- your company wants to signal that it has a great product to offer.  It also wants to avoid somebody else coming to the market with a tastier drink.

 

However, by positioning your drink as a lifestyle product, you enter into competition with other products as well -- branded and non-branded -- that compete with each other as means of facilitating consumers’ self-expression. In fact, your drink may very well be competing with a car, a mobile phone and a local trendy restaurant, all at once.

 

Competition across product categories

In the not-so-remote past, the common approach amongst marketers was to take for granted the fact that “consumers’ brand preferences are not likely to be affected by their actions in unrelated product categories and/or domains.” (( ibid. )) Drinks were positioned against competitor drinks, and cars were positioned in ways that made them differ from competing cars. In contrast to this approach, the study shows that this is no longer the case.

According to its authors, "Consumer brand preferences are a function of the activities they were involved in prior to evaluating a given brand—more specifically, the degree to which these prior activities afforded the opportunity to express their identities. ((Ibid., p 67))

In other words, consumer’s choice of a certain brand of mobile phone with lifestyle positioning can be influenced by his or her self-expression activities undertaken prior to making that choice. For instance, writing a blog article, creating a painting or sharing news with friends on Facebook could have already addressed your potential consumers’ needs for self-expression before your marketing message has reached them. In other words, self-expression is finite and can be satiated by very many different things, not only branded products.

 

What should brand managers do?

First of all, it’s simply helpful to be aware of the dynamics of self-expression among your consumers. By realizing that your consumers’ self-expression is finite, and that your brand competes with other brands, concepts and activities far from your product category, you will be well prepared to create smart brand strategies.

 

Second, rethink the lifestyle positioning of your product. Does it really make you stand out from the crowd and be truly funky? If everybody is doing it, maybe it’s time for another big thing. Like launching a really tasty soft drink.