Brand relevance is a discussion that has been on the rise, especially in the last few years, with brands like Lego doubling their profit during the pandemic due to the adaptability of their marketing and aesthetic, that has been in tune with the situation in the world.
Janine Hearn-Odell, global brand marketing manager at Dr. Martens, however, points out that in the past when she worked for Vans, relevancy was not a word that was mentioned often.
“In recent few years, relevancy has come up more and more,” she shares, “Relevancy is a confidence in your reason for being, that allows brands to reflect what is shaping society at the moment, but has to always be done with empathy and through active listening.”
Platform13’s founder Leila Fataar took it even further, and explained that brand relevance, and especially ground-up relevance, is critically important, because many brands today “hold a lot more power than possibly even governance.”
“There is a role for these brands to play not only to reflect and normalise things that may not be normalised in communities, but also they need to realise they have the weight and power to be able to do that authentically, while having a back and forth with the consumer about where they do well and where they fail,” said Leila.
When it comes to listening and having an open back-and-forth approach with consumers, Alex Hill gave an example of a recent TikTok trend that Dickies found themselves in the midst of, where people wearing their wide leg trousers decided to start turning the waistband over because it looks cooler. Something that was definitely not manufactured neither was it intentional, but gave the brand an incredible boost on social media.
“What is super interesting is seeing how your consumer takes your brand and appropriates it and adapts it as they want,” says Leila. “It actually has nothing to do with the brand!
There’s absolutely no way that the flicking over of the waistband trend was in anyone’s mind when that happened. And I think what is really important here is to be able to pick up on that and authentically celebrate how your consumers use your product - that is what adds brand relevance.”
In terms of where relevancy grows, Alex touched upon brand purpose, values and how important brand stance is, as well as how adaptable those stances that brands take should be. “An obvious example is Patagonia - we know who they are and what they stand for, but would I buy anything that they create because of what they stand for? Is this something that is essential for brands to be vocal about now, in terms of who they are?”
Janine pointed out that now, more than ever, being vocal about who the brand is is crucial. “It’s also appropriate for us as brand people to make those decisions that make you feel what the brand is. Doing the thing that feels connected to where you started and why this is what makes it so uniquely you, makes you really memorable and meaningful to consumers.
So purpose absolutely has to be part of it. Vans is all about driving creative self expression, where as Dr. Martens is all about breaking down barriers, and that’s what makes them so distinctive, as they sit side by side.”
Leila believes that beyond recognising those pillars of purpose, brands need to be prepared to take some of their profit and put it back into what their purpose means. “It’s really hard to do this in the corporate world. To realise that something is not a sales opportunity, but a brand building opportunity.”
Keeping core values in mind and being aware of what the brand stands for is just a start, but as established before, consumers tend to take things out of context a lot of the time.
Alex moved on to question how brands are meant to keep an eye out for new audiences that adopt their product, while still maintaining the core audience that it was set out for, especially from a fashion perspective.
“There isn’t culture and mainstream anymore - they sit side by side,” said Janine. The honest question that was looked at at Vans was how to protect skateboarding as the brand grew beyond it.
“We absolutely had to talk about skateboarding in a wider context. And it was about also acknowledging that people are on a different journey with your brand at different points in time. So if you picked up that product in a sports store, or at a skate store, you still have a right to be here and spoken to.
It comes back to the consistent change and reevaluation of how you communicate your brand.”
So far we understand that flexibility has to stand at the heart of brand relevance, as well as keeping in touch with how their own consumer circles adapt their products, and when new consumer circles emerge to reappropriate the product.
But how can legacy brands identify their core and stay true to it, while not becoming completely out of touch with what they are meant to be delivering to their contemporary audiences?
“It is harder, but at the same time, I think there’s a shift in people wanting to know the foundations of brands now. It wasn’t like that before and I think people are more caring about foundations now.
Business is not just about the product, it’s very much about being bold and making a meaningful contribution,” explained Janine. “I think that’s where the big legacy brands come in because they constantly do that and are reevaluated all the time.”
For Leila, the devil is in the details, because she truly believes that legacy brands are the ones that have the most richness in terms of relevance if they really look into their roots.
For example, when she was at Diageo and was going through their archives, she discovered that Guinness had been selling to the West Indies and Africa since as early as the 1820s.
“The brand has a huge, huge relationship with Caribbean culture in this country, so we recently did a campaign where we highlighted that newfound relevance. The community felt heard and it was fantastic to see their engagement - creative decisions need to be made around that,” she pointed out.
“It turns out it is such a huge part of this culture that some of my Jamaican friends didn’t even know it was Irish!”