The Paradox of Brands

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Paradoxes are both familiar and common to the human condition. They are brain teasers that reveal faults in our senses and errors in human logic. Authors and poets delight in paradoxes because they stop the reader in their tracks to ponder the apparent contradictions. Like the familiar phrase, “Less is more,” or when Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “I must be cruel to be kind,” we are forced to reflect on the paradox and what it means.

So, I was naturally drawn to a new study led by University of Illinois marketing professor Maria Rodas on paradox brands, published in the Journal of Consumer Research. I’d never heard the term or thought about branding in such terms. The researchers define paradox brands as those that “straddle contradictory meanings or possess opposing characteristics,” a premise that violates the traditional brand-building model.

A Contradiction in Terms

The study looked specifically at the impact of paradox brands on multicultural consumers, who by necessity live in two worlds and are challenged daily by contradictions between them. “Bicultural individuals constantly toggle back and forth from one culture to another, whether it’s switching languages or responding to different cultural stimuli,” Rodas explained.

Unlikely, paradoxical partnerships such as Louis Vuitton x Supreme, Gucci x Adidas and Disney, and Balenciaga x Crocs benefit both brands, becoming stronger and more relevant to a wider range of luxury customers.

“They have this cognitive flexibility that other consumers might not have in that they’re constantly comparing and contrasting things from their respective cultures, and that makes brands that are contradictory more appealing to them,” she continued. “The net effect is that bicultural consumers become more strongly engaged with the paradox brand, resulting in more favorable evaluations.”

The study found that brands that present more than one of five “personality dimensions” were more appealing to Hispanic consumers. The authors drew upon earlier work by Jennifer Aaker in her 1997 study, “Dimensions of Brand Personality,” called the brand personality scale (BPS):

  • Sincerity: Down-to-earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful
  • Competence: Reliable, intelligent, successful
  • Excitement: Daring, spirited, imaginative
  • Sophistication: Upper-, charming
  • Ruggedness: Outdoorsy, tough

Cognitive flexibility is not a characteristic solely of multicultural consumers. Since the holy grail of brand awareness is to make an indelible impression in the mind of consumers, presenting a paradoxical image to consumers results in greater mental engagement as they try to unravel the paradoxes in two or more brand images. Examples include the rugged-yet-sophisticated image of Land Rover and Burberry’s competent and “excitedly-trendy” style. But since most people do not want to overthink a brand, paradoxical brand images can be confusing – or worse, ineffective if not well executed.

However, there’s power in combining different personalities and values of a brand, call it the yin-yang of branding. For some consumers, paradoxes add complexity and spice to one-dimensional branding, making them more interesting and memorable.

Branding Challenges

Aaker’s BPS construct is among the most widely praised and paradoxically one of the most widely criticized theories throughout the academic community. There is widespread agreement that brands, like people, have certain personality traits: “Brand personality is defined formally here as ‘the set of human characteristics associated with a brand.’ The symbolic use of brands is possible because consumers often imbue brands with human personality traits,” Aaker wrote. But what those traits are, how they are communicated and ultimately interpreted by consumers are inconsistent.

Branding traditionalists would argue that designing a brand image requires uniformity and consistency, i.e., presenting a single message. Creating a brand image that encompasses multiple dimensions or paradoxes will confuse consumers. In the case of CPG brands, such as Crest toothpaste, Campbell’s soup, Hershey’s candy bars and Pepsi included in Aaker’s study, they may have a point that consistency works. The wild card is that consumers with completely different worldviews may buy the same product for totally different reasons. Which begs the question, how does branding matter?

One-Dimensional Branding

When you dig deeper into branding strategy, the theory gets complex. For example, for retailers – most brands in today’s omnichannel market are also retailers – one-dimensional branding can be limiting and as retail analyst Steven Dennis often says, “Boring retail is dead.” Look at sincere Hallmark and competent Walmart and MacDonald’s: they’re predictable and therefore can be a turnoff for a set of consumers seeking intrigue and novelty. Creating a compelling in-store retail experience is predicated on surprise and delight. Even for the most utilitarian retail brands, comfort, security and predictability can be combined with elements of surprise.

Paper Source adds excitement to the typical assortment of plain-vanilla greeting cards found in drugstores with an alternative of surprising offerings mixing sophisticated Crane and Co. and Smythson stationery with commodity paper products. High-low merchandise makes a visit to Paper Source a discovery.

Target plays the high-low card to a whole new level by its recognition that even value customers want something more sophisticated. This is a mass-scale example of paradoxical branding that Target has owned for decades. And compared to highly competent MacDonalds, Chick Fil A is more than competent in the fast-food category. It is sincere in its personal service and Its multidimensional aspect makes it rank number-one in the fast food category with MacDonald’s at the bottom.

Multidimensional Branding

Luxury brands are breaking out of their sophisticated one-note branding personalities by adding excitement and extra dimensionality through collaborations. These unlikely, paradoxical partnerships include Louis Vuitton x Supreme, Gucci x Adidas and Disney, and Balenciaga x Crocs. In such collaborations, both brands benefit from the paradoxical combination becoming stronger and more relevant to a wider range of luxury customers.

Into the aspirational-based beauty business, sophisticated Glossier launched its skin-first,” minimalist no-makeup makeup brand image and Bare Minerals essentially ground up dirt to create a complexion correcting foundation that also contributes to healthy skin.

In grocery, Trader Joe’s offers a combination of excitement, sophistication and competence in a way that Whole Foods doesn’t. And in more traditional grocery, Wegman’s nails excitement and competence where many others can’t. Lululemon has broken out by combining sophistication and ruggedness leaving the highly competent Athleta way behind. And Boot Barn is amplifying its traditional rugged image with more sophistication.

Apple has succeeded in tech retail by combining competence with sophistication and excitement, while Microsoft and Gateway couldn’t reach that level. Tesla is doing the same thing in automotive while the major car companies can’t change their images to be innovators in the electric-powered vehicle arena.

Patagonia Is the Ultimate Paradoxical Retailer

Patagonia operates across multiple, paradoxical dimensions. It is at once a rugged outdoor brand but also sincere in its environmental stance and competent in its reputation for high-performance technologies.

It turned heads with its 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad in the New York Times. And it was one of the first retailers to launch a recycled imitative to resell its used clothing. It stated emphatically: “To lighten our environmental footprint, everyone needs to consume less. Businesses need to make fewer things but of higher quality. Customers need to think twice before they buy.” All the while, the gear Patagonia sells is a status symbol for many sophisticated customers.

Paradox as a Deal Breaker

Here’s when the paradox syndrome can become perplexing – even destructive. Next gens are inconsistent in their values and outlooks. They preach sustainability on the one hand yet continue to buy fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, which are major environmental offenders. Even another next gen brand IKEA, has contributed more to the 12 million tons of furniture waste ending up in landfills. The trendline of recycling and repurposing — even borrowing merchandise – is a paradoxical veneer masking the real problem of too much stuff using too many resources without solid ESG policies in place. Having just celebrated the 52nd anniversary of Earth Day, it seems to be too little, too late.

This then leads us to the ultimate paradoxical challenge facing business in our consumer culture. Businesses rely upon consumers to purchase and consume more and more of the things they produce. Consumers claim to be ardent environmentalists. The planet is the collateral damage from it all. Clearly pragmatism is winning in a paradoxical approach to consumerism.

There is no easy resolution to this mess since common sense tells the environmentally conscious consumer that to save the planet, they need to save themselves from overconsumption of the planet’s resources. That means less buying and spending and more saving and conserving, which means businesses that depend upon more consumption will die enabling the planet to thrive. Maybe. The paradox of consumption has no easy way out. Old habits are hard to change, unless reason prevails, and we have no choice but to reform and rebuild a more responsible path to the future.



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