The rise of the rebel brand

Frpm Trump to Equinox, brands with polarizing positions are proving popular, writes the Brand Union strategist

What do Donald Trump, Equinox and Vice all have in common? While we may not associate any of these things with one another, these brands have a lot more similarities than we might assume. They all adopt definitive and somewhat polarizing positions, as their respective ideologies are reflective of a societal shift away from centrist viewpoints and towards more extreme manifestations of their respective essences. As a result, they have drawn in audiences.

I was at an event recently, and a colleague was speaking about brands defending themselves more — taking back some of the control from consumers. I sat on this idea for a while before agreeing that as brands are becoming more confident in being themselves, they don’t feel like they have to appeal to the masses. Why? Because there seems to be a broader, global phenomenon where we are becoming increasingly attracted to personalities and companies that have a definitive identity or experience, even if that identity might be somewhat polarizing or offensive.

Take a look at global politics, for example. Last year, Alexis Tsipras and the far-left Syriza party was elected in Greece; Jeremy Corbyn — a far-left MP — was elected leader of the center-left Labour party in the UK; and currently, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both far-left and far-right, respectively, are attracting and inspiring people in droves during the US presidential race.

As social and political thought becomes more divided, this has also had a ripple effect on brands. The drivers of this behavior are still up for debate, but it is often theorized to be a natural pattern within society. Just as seasons come and go, there are times in our history where we seek out individuals and groups that reflect more populist views, while other times we just crave a bit of spice in the mix. Now is one of those moments where consumers want more flavor and individuality from their brands, and several have taken up the challenge.

Equinox’s recent controversial campaign, "Commit to Something," featured striking imagery, including a photo of a woman breastfeeding two babies in a restaurant. Aside from referencing conversations around the rights of mothers in public, this campaign’s message boldly calls out those who buy gym memberships then stop going after a few months. Equinox’s attitude and personality comes through very clearly, resulting in a "go big or go home"-style approach.

This strong position is not for everyone, and Equinox knows that. The brand isn’t for everyone. And for those who do love Equinox, it’s because its history of strong, polarizing messaging has created brand affinity. That success has also led to brands that are similarly direct: SoulCycle, Pure Yoga, and Blink Fitness all sit under the Equinox umbrella yet maintain distinctive personalities while sharing consumer admiration. Barry’s Bootcamp and Gymbox are two other gyms with identities that can potentially put off some consumers, while massively attracting others.

In the world of journalism, Vice and Dazed Digital are two brands that have truly ushered in disruptive reporting and writing. They are edgy and compelling. Whether addressing hard-hitting topics or just crafting provocative titles, they capture a loyal readership by hitting the streets and reporting the realities of life with an unfiltered and straightforward style. No topic is off-limits and they are having huge success, particularly within the Millennial and Gen Z demographics.

As much as some might have a distaste for Chick-fil-A’s stance on same-sex marriage, they are selling three times more product than KFC. While others might be shocked at the sight of Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez kissing in United Colors of Benetton’s "Unhate" campaign, the family-owned company is nonetheless thriving. Patagonia famously declared, "Don’t buy this jacket" and only spurred more buying. All of these brands have been divisive but successful, and it’s only a rising tide. Mass branding is losing its appeal, with bland and emotionless positions increasingly unable to put a stake in the ground to send the message, "This is what we stand for, take us or leave us."

This is not to say that brands need to be shocking, but more so that giving themselves completely to the consumer is not entirely the answer anymore. Brands that stand up for themselves and know their identities are the ones being rewarded. Knowing your stance and living it through the brand experience not only increases your relevance to like-minded consumers, but shows a genuine authenticity to everyone else. I may not personally use Equinox gyms, but I know exactly what they’re about and what experience they are offering.

Now that’s what makes a strong brand.

Duncan Hall is a strategist with Brand Union.

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