In my brand strategy class, a concept that has generated a lot of discussion among my MBA students this semester is that of the “hostile brand.” According to Harvard prof, Youngme Moon, hostile brands are “brands that play hard to get.” The antithesis of “feel good brands,” hostile brands defiantly demand a decision – love me or leave me.
Success through Alienation
It sounds risky, yet the number of successful brands that practice at least elements of hostile marketing is astonishing.
- Consider Harley Davidson and its not for everyone noisome bikes and in-your-face attitudes.
- Red Bull is unapologetic about its bad boy ingredients and underground marketing emphasizing extreme sports.
According to Moon, these brands, as well as MINI-Cooper, Marmite, Hollister, Benetton, and many others resemble the Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” in that you are invited to go someplace else if you don’t like the way you’re treated. Since awaking to this concept, my class has identified many other examples.
- Lululemon is quirky and not afraid to show it. The firm deliberately plans for popular items to run short to ensure customers will buy at full prices. It also encourages store personel to eavesdrop on customers.
- Domino’s Pizza just announced via an ad campaign it will say “No!” to customers who want to add or remove toppings from items in its artisan pizza line.
These brands are unashamed of their product shortcomings, often evasive with their distribution and likely to shun welcoming promotions in favor of “messages that are likely to repulse as much as they attract.” In the words of Moon:
“No matter the stratagem, hostile brands erect barriers to consumption, barriers that could in many ways be considered tests of our affiliation.”
Why Anti-Marketing Works
There are at least three different theories for why hostile marketing works.
1. Hostile brands offer a “cult-like” appeal.
According to Douglas Atkin, author of one of my favorite books, The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, brands with devoted customer followings that advocate for the brand and self-identify with its values, exhibit many of the dynamics of a cult. Members of a cult derive satisfaction from knowing they are different, that not everyone can or wants to belong. Brands that are not for everyone help users feel separate and different from everyone else. In fact, if a brand appeals to everyone, we may question whether it is a brand at all.
In a post on the company blog in 2009, Lululemon founder, former surfer Dennis “Chip” Wilson, cited the self-help tome The Secret, saying: “The law of attraction is the fundamental law that Lululemon was built on from its 1998 inception.” This prompted Douglas Atkin to comment, “It’s the first time I’ve heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business.”
2. Hostile brands understand that less is often more.
The trajectory of branding is to offer more, more, more, with the ludicrous result of feature loaded products that offer benefits we don’t want or need nor are we willing to pay for. Hostile brands remove features. At IKEA, delivery is never free and expensive to print assembly instructions are only available online. Yet for those with the ability to haul their own furniture away and print their own instructions, the simplicity of IKEA’s pared down approach has created an army of furniture assembling “believers.”
Another of my favorite business books is Blue Ocean Strategy. The authors argue that many breakthrough businesses succeed by shifting the typical value curve of high price + high level of offering. This is accomplished by identifying what customers are glad and willing to give up in favor of simplicity and low price and over delivering in other areas. Jet Blue is in some regards a hostile brand, taking away many standard amenities but offering unexpected luxury touches, all at a discounted price. In many regards, the new Windows Phone brand strategy is likely to be a hostile one. In a category dominated by Google and Apple, Windows Phone is in the unusual position of being an underdog. To get trial, it will have to portray the big boys as overloaded with features that appeal to the masses and position itself as the edgy upstart with just what smarter, hipper users want in a smartphone.
3. Hostile brands feel more authentic.
Much has been written about the importance of authenticity in the era of social media, especially when marketing to the exquisitely “BS” sensitive Millennial generation. Consumers feel more passionate about brands that do something just because it’s who they are, not because it is good for business. Last week on Earth Day, Whole Foods announced that starting next month, it would only offer sustainable seafood and eliminate “red rated” species known to suffer from overfishing or catching methods that harm other marine life or habitats. While Whole Foods is not really a hostile brand, this could be interpreted as a hostile move by some customers who will be inconvenienced. The move is also controversial with suppliers. Yet the move reinforces the brand’s credibility, as it suggests Whole Foods is unwilling to compromise its principles.
Is Hostile Marketing for You?
Hostile marketing is one way to differentiate, and, as we’ve seen, it can do wonders for creating passion. Yet it’s not a strategy for the faint of brand. Telling customers to take a hike just might result in them taking their business elsewhere. Even Moon admits some ambivalence advising brands to “summon resistance” as a way to cultivate friends.
As these brands demonstrate, polarization can be effective when undertaken with a solid understanding of customers, a clear understanding of your brand’s DNA and its defining “edges,” and a tough resolve to remain indifferent to those who may find your brand distasteful.
After all, as the adage goes, it’s better to mean something to somebody than everything to nobody.