brand aspiration

Why Harley-Davidson Risks Being Run Over as a Lifestyle Brand

Posted by Barry Silverstein on May 11, 2011 04:00 PM

In the branding world, becoming a "lifestyle brand" is seen as something akin to grabbing the golden ring. If a brand can represent a particular lifestyle, the theory goes, it can gain a huge competitive advantage over other products in its category, because the lifestyle brand connects with consumers on a very personal level.

Harley-Davidson, for example, may be a motorcycle brand, but it embodies a lifestyle that creates fanatics who live and breathe the brand and what it stands for. Case in point: "Harlistas," the moniker for Latin American Harley riders, as highlighted on Harley's website and above.

As much as it may seem desirable to have consumers identify their lifestyle with a favored brand, now, it seems, that very strength can actually be a liability.

That's the conclusion of a new study called "Competing for Consumer Identity: Limits to Self-Expression and the Perils of Lifestyle Branding" by three business professors, as published in the Journal of Marketing and also noted by MediaPost.

The researchers (two from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and one from Emory University's Goizueta Business School) conducted five experiments "to examine the impact of the availability of alternative means of self-expression on consumer brand preferences and investigate some of the key factors that moderate this effect."

The results of the experiments suggest that "consumers' need for self-expression is finite and can be satiated by a variety of means" that include brands from unrelated categories and other forms of self-expression beyond brands. The researchers conclude that "by switching from functional to lifestyle positioning, brands might be setting themselves up for a much broader, and often fiercer, competition for a share of consumer identity."

Nice theory, but what are the implications for brands? By moving outside its category, a lifestyle brand may actually be prone to cross-category competition. In addition, a lifestyle brand increasingly competes with anything else that represents that particular lifestyle. So, for example, when Gillette positions itself as a lifestyle brand, it not only competes in its category — it also competes with other lifestyle brands in non-related categories, like Ralph Lauren, Facebook, or Starbucks.

What's more, it may actually compete with seemingly unrelated activities, such as listening to one's favorite band or engaging in social networking. The authors of the study say this is because "the open vistas of lifestyle branding are an illusion" and "the scope of the competitive landscape for lifestyle brands extends far beyond specific categories and brands."

Which means a brand that wants to be a lifestyle brand should be careful: What it wishes for may turn out to be more than it bargained for.

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