Brand damage by association.
For about a decade, Toyota has had an interesting but unfortunate brand association: the company’s best-selling pick-up trucks and four-wheel drives have long been pictured in news footage of warlords in such places as Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. When images of the Taliban and al-Qaeda were widely distributed in 2001, the company pointed out that it did not export to Afghanistan.
In a statement to the New York Times, Toyota added: “It is not our proudest piece of product placement. But it shows the Taliban are looking for the same qualities as any other truck buyer: quality and durability.” Ever since, Toyotas, especially the easy-to-fix and modify Hilux pick-up, have been a frequent sight in coverage of guerrilla wars the world over.
The Toyota case is unusual but it poses an interesting dilemma for many brands that is less so: what do you do when your company’s product is adopted by a demographic and customer you might not choose and what are the implications for your brand?
It is a challenge faced, in particular, by luxury goods brands that try to cultivate a specific type of customer. One of the best-known recent examples is Burberry, the clothing label. In the mid-2000s, the company’s products enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity among “chavs”. Such a shift is often called 'proletarian drift', in which upscale styles, brands or products become more popular among a less desirable clientele or the wrong type of celebrity. During that period – the company has managed to turn its image round since then – the signature Burberry check print went from being a sign of discreet wealth to one of vulgar ostentation.
Cristal champagne is another brand to have struggled with the dilemma of becoming popular with an unintended demographic: rappers. The owners of the brand, the House of Roederer, are decidedly ambivalent about it.
In 2006, when Frédéric Rouzaud, the company’s managing director, was asked by The Economist about Cristal’s associations, he replied: “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” The result was a very public boycott of the champagne by the rapper Jay-Z.
Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School, says that for many upmarket brands consumer decisions are often associated with the image of a brand’s typical consumer. “Value exists in the mind of the consumer and part of the association is who the users are,” he says.
So what can a company do? If only a small percentage of the wrong type of customer buys its product, a pragmatic approach is to ignore the problem.
If you do need to address it, Mr Bean says, look for a positive spin. “Toyota’s reaction to its warlords was pretty good,” he says. “So perhaps the first thing to do is to look for a kind of positive that the undesirables represent.”
That said, Toyota was probably also on rather firmer ground than Burberry or Cristal as people do not buy its vehicles because they are exclusive. “It’s difficult to imagine people saying, ‘I won’t buy a Toyota because the Taliban use it’,” says Prof Barwise.
Consumers often develop novel uses of a product that can be inadvertently beneficial for the brand. The challenge for the companies is to engage with the alternative uses.
Among the better known examples, Preparation H, the haemorrhoid cream, can also be used to reduce puffiness under eyes and Dawn dishwashing soap is used to clean birds which have been the victim of oil spills.
Coke can remove rust, cat litter can deodorise and provide traction on slippery pavements or driveways and Hellman’s mayonnaise can stand in for hair conditioner.
For obvious reasons, medical brands such as Preparation H choose not to engage with alternative uses. But other companies are more willing to engage, especially as social media now makes it so easy for users to share information about alternative uses.
As Prof Barwise says: “Marketing is often a process of discovery.”