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Brand Talk: Brand relevance, change and a lifetime of manboobs


Brand Talk: Brand relevance, change and a lifetime of manboobs


Karl Treacher analyses five brands that create experiences so relevant and meaningful they tear open a whole new category. 


When I was a boy, every Saturday morning at 8am I would stand in a line with a handful of other children, practising tennis drills at the local courts. It was the late seventies. My tennis coach had a curly blonde mullet and a filthy moustache. I thought he was God. He also thought so. For hours we would practise technique. Forehands, backhands, volleys etc. Technique was everything. Tennis was a game of tactics and honed skill. I can remember our coach saying, “Technique first, power later.” He also said things like, “Chest equals chicks, arms equal respect and shoulders maketh the man.” This was a body-building reference, one that led me to a lifetime of man-boobs.

The seventies were a long time ago and what worked then doesn’t work now. The elite tennis juniors of today are taught to hit the ball hard while perfecting their technique… and bodybuilders these days are considered by most to have a mental illness.

Life has a way of hinting at the future. Everything is impermanent, and the brands that recognise the signs of change and leverage the experience of other evolved brands and industries end up ahead of the game. When the wind of change rises, some people build walls. Others build windmills (ancient Chinese proverb).

One of the biggest changes of the current age is brand strategy and brand relevance. Ten years ago, brand strategy development was planned against a competitive landscape and a timeline. Now, the best brands of our time don’t only compete on brand ‘preference’, but seek to create brand experiences that are so relevant and meaningful, they blow the existing category away and create a new one. Apple and Samsung are both terrific examples of this. Both create intensely meaningful experiences and at peak engagement moments of people’s lives. Delivering value at the most valuable times. This practice is the hallmark of brands of the future. Brand relevance is all about ‘making it count’ — being so useful, meaningful and memorable that any attempted replication is seen as an indictment on the copy-cat brand.

To demonstrate this further, let’s look at a few recent examples.



Let’s take the iPod. Launching in October 2001, Apple promised five gigabytes and ‘1000 songs in your pocket’, at a time when the competition (Intel’s Pocket Concert and the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound2) were boasting a mere 128 megabytes. The iPod and the accompanying experience was new, intuitive and incredibly convenient. It single handedly obliterated the the CD era. Within 18 months the market was flooded with MP3 players. iRIver and Creative led the chase, however, the race was won by the brand that created, and invested in developing the category, Apple. iPod means mobile music.

Apple struck a blow against the DVD category when it introduced AppleTV. Unlike Foxtel and other ‘wired’ entertainment solutions, AppleTV entered the market needing nothing more than a basic internet connection. An entire industry was bombed. Blockbuster and Civic Video saw the writing on the wall as the concept of driving to the video store and ‘browsing for videos‘ became unnecessary. Fuelling the fire of change was the existing category brand practices of these video chains. Exorbitant late fees and credit rating threat letters meant the public couldn’t wait for an alternative.


Jeep claimed the SUV market well before there was an SUV market. In 1941 Jeep was a wartime vehicle. Since that time, it has led and developed a category based on ‘go anywhere, do anything’, suggesting fun and freedom. The 1980s saw Jeep claim a subcategory when it launched the compact four-door XJ model. Quintessentially it was a Jeep in styling but designed for commuters as much as thrill-seekers. It was around this time that all SUVs were referred to as ‘Jeeps’.

Virgin Airlines

Can you remember the airline options before Virgin Blue entered the market in 2000? Qantas and Ansett. Clone brands. Both competing for the same customers in a similar way. Air travel was seen as something of a luxury, reserved for the elite. After the Ansett collapse in 2001, Virgin Blue spoke to all Australians, promoting itself as the ‘low-cost carrier’ and making air travel accessible for all. Virgin Blue created a new category, one that I refer to as ‘value, fun and flair in the air’.


Before Ikea came to Australia, we all bought single-piece furniture. Heavy, expensive and incredibly inconvenient furniture. We travelled widely to shop at a plethora of homeware stores because there was no single destination that covered all rooms of the house – furniture, fittings, artwork… Now, while some may argue that the quality of Ikea furniture is not as good as it could be, the fact remains Ikea is a pioneering force in sustainable approaches to mass consumer culture, a concept that its founder Ingvar Kamprad refers to as ‘democratic design’ – the combination of attractive form, inexpensive production, and high function. The intended result is flexible, adaptive home furnishings, scalable both to small apartments as well as large houses. The higher aim is freedom in all senses of the word. Ikea promises to ‘create a better everyday life for the many people’.


In a more overt brand relevance strategy, the British technology company that invented the first bag-less vacuum operates by its philosophy to ‘solve the everyday problems others seem to ignore, whatever it takes’. This philosophy has led Dyson to not only create a new category in vacuum cleaning, but also a new hand dryer subcategory. It is working hard now in washing machines, fans and heaters. Electrolux and Hoover have both suffered at the hands of brand relevance.

The Wrap

Change has no cruise control. It exists in an accelerating paradigm. More dramatic changes, more often. Brands of the future will lead change, not simply respond to it. These brands will have the courage to commit to finding new and better ways of doing things. They will see failure as one step closer to finding the solution, and will always base product development on one thing: the ever-evolving modern human condition.


Karl Treacher

Chief executive of The Brand Institute of Australia, a behavioural analyst with more than 15 years of brand consultancy experience and a pioneer of organisational branding and culture alignment. Tweet at him using @treacher.

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