Mark Ritson talks about the rare but dramatic event that occurs when the market rather than the marketer takes control.
It’s a marketer’s worst nightmare. They spend months, perhaps years, researching consumers and eventually decide on a very specific target segment to go after. They design product, price and promotion to cater to this very special group and are delighted with the initial sales growth.
But then the same research that formed the basis of the initial targeting plan is repeated and reveals, to everyone’s surprise, that the target consumers are not the actual source of the sales. Instead, way off the radar, another entirely different market segment is the one doing all the buying. And demand is growing.
Brandjacking is a rare but dramatic event that occurs when the market rather than the marketer takes control. It can affect any brand – but there is a strong tendency for high- image brands to be the most vulnerable. Its eventual impact can range from a disastrous hit on brand image to a new lease of life and even revitalisation for the brand in question.
Perhaps the most famous recent case of brandjacking was Burberry’s exposure to Chavs in the UK. There really is no direct equivalent globally to a Chav (thankfully) but imagine a disaffected, working-class teenager with an attitude problem. The sudden re-emergence of the iconic Burberry check in the Noughties attracted the Chav to the brand at exactly the wrong time for the luxury brand because despite increased sales there was a genuine risk that the Chavs would turn off more aspirational clients of the brand. Even worse, Chavs were also adept at the odd bit of counterfeiting to add further options to their Burberry habit. Frisbees, jeans, nails, ponchos – even the odd car – were “Chavved Up” in Burberry check.
Fortunately, one of the many talents of Rose-Marie Bravo’s team in charge of Burberry at the time was patience. By making no public comment and barely acknowledging the Chav effect, Burberry demonstrated the virtue of not openly decrying even the most inappropriate consumer and adding fuel to the already rabid media coverage of the crisis. Instead the Burberry team ignored the issue and waited for the attraction to die off. In truth, such patience was possible because although it made headlines in the UK, the rest of the world, where Burberry makes most of its profits, remained completely unaware of Chavs or their temporary attraction to Britain’s biggest luxury brand.
Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, The Tipping Point, provides a notable illustration of the positive potential of brandjacking. Hush Puppies had been a staple shoe brand for middle-American consumers throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. By the start of the 1990s, however, sales had reached a minuscule 30,000 pairs and the company that owned the brand considered delisting it.
But the unusual styling of the shoe combined with its now niche positioning resulted in it being brandjacked by hip, Manhattan opinion leaders who created a trend for wearing the iconic shoes around town. Waves of new consumers were gradually attracted to the brand and in 1996, within two years of the hipsters breathing new life into the shoe, Hush Puppies sold a million shoes. The lesson for marketers is that not all successes come from a deliberate and conscious brand strategy. Occasionally, brandjacking can actually prove to be the salvation for a brand.
That was certainly the case for Harley-Davidson. The brand was sold as a mainstream American motorbike to casual cyclists during the first 50 years of its operations. But with the arrival of cheap, efficient Japanese bikes in the 1960s that traditional market deserted the brand. The only reason Harley survived was because its brand had been hijacked by disaffected gangs of youths who returned to America after World War II.
At first Harley, like Burberry, ignored this segment and hoped that it would eventually dissipate and move on. But those angry young men formed the prototype for the biker gangs typified by the Hells Angels and their love for Harleys proved very enduring. Once an embarrassing side market, these gangs stayed loyal to Harley long after the mainstream had crossed over to Honda and Toyota bikes. Indeed by the mid-seventies they were probably Harley Davidson’s biggest single market.
Eventually the team at Harley realised that by understanding why the biker gangs loved Harley they could not only retain this now-crucial market, but also use the insights to reposition the brand and recruit mainstream customers once again. What had begun as an unwelcome brandjacking by an unwanted subculture, became the long-term salvation and source for strategic repositioning of one of America’s greatest brands.
As these varied case studies of brandjacking hopefully demonstrate, the key strategic challenge for marketers is to remain flexible in the face of the initial threat. If your brand is in great shape with a clear image and strong sales the Burberry approach of not acknowledging the new segment that is buying your brand appears wise. Eventually the attraction to your brand will subside and normal business can be resumed.
Follow Mark: @markritson