What It Actually Means to Build A Lifestyle Brand

We’ve all heard the term “lifestyle brand” before. Clients, advertisers, and marketing professors speak glowingly of their ability to deliver “unique experiences” and “authentic storytelling.” I put those two phrases in quotes because many of the marketers who praise lifestyle brands share a common thread with the consumers who flock to them: They’re drawn to qualities of theirs that sound great in the abstract, but feel a bit lofty and ambiguous in practice.

As a consumer, I want brands to care about my lifestyle instead of just selling me products. As a planner, I love the idea of telling authentic stories and offering my audience something unique. But how do the shining stars like Red Bull, Nike, and Harley Davidson actually accomplish these feats?

Here are three hard and fast rules for transforming a “lifestyle brand” into a lifestyle brand:

Championing an Identity or Subculture Is the End-Goal, Not the Means

Regular brands use identity and subculture as temporary means to greater ends; they’ll create shorter-term campaigns that hone in on an audience’s interests/lifestyle to achieve broader goals, such as household penetration or market share growth.

For example, imagine that a deodorant brand runs a TV spot and a few YouTube ads to drive summer sales with skateboarding fans. This audience, a group who identifies with a tight-knit subculture, would likely see this short-term play as disingenuous, especially once the brand shifts its audience focus in the fall.

A lifestyle brand on the other hand, would make deeper, more long-term investments in its skateboarding audience; they’d run TV and YouTube spots like the deodorant brand, but also promote up-and-coming skaters, collaborate with local skateparks, tailor content to skateboarding magazine readers and more, all over the course of many years.

The difference here between regular brands and successful lifestyle brands (like Red Bull) is that lifestyle brands see identity and subculture as the greater ends. They go above and beyond traditional marketing so they can embed themselves in their audience’s lives in the long run, instead of co-opting a subculture for short-term gain.

The Lifestyle’s Activities Build the Salience, Not the Product

While emotional storytelling has grown more common in advertising today, regular brands tend to feature their product or service at the forefront of their communications, even if they’re telling a deeper story.

Take Coca Cola’s “Taste the Feeling” campaign, for example. They clearly position their product at the center of emotional narratives, but more for the purpose of tying it to universal moments than a particular lifestyle or activity.

A lifestyle brand, on the other hand, will feature its audience’s activities more prominently than its product (whether in content or experiential work), so they can create a stronger association with the lifestyle. They take a more subtle approach to building salience, instead featuring branding cues such as coloring and logos in the background of an ad or event.

Bacardi has used this action-first, brand-second strategy to tap into the lifestyles of young creatives and partygoers. For example, their “Unveiling the Artist Beyond the Stage” event with Run the Jewels centered around Killer Mike’s passions for cutting hair and rapping, and their “Instant DJ” innovation highlighted DJing on Instagram, all while carefully building salience with background branding.

A brand’s focus (or lack thereof) on its audience’s activities, as well as the degree to which it features its product and branding will determine its ability to authentically align with certain lifestyles. The more product-focused and brand-obvious it is, the more its communications will feel transactional than genuine.

Fostering Interaction Between Audience Members Drives Meaningful Brand Associations

As consumers, we rarely associate a sense of community with other buyers of a non-lifestyle brand. Looking back at the aforementioned Coca Cola example, does a distinct community of Coke drinkers come to mind? Probably not. The brand takes a more traditional approach of advertising to broader audiences, and in turn, mostly communicates with Coke drinkers when they’re selling them soda.

Some of the biggest lifestyle brands, on the other hand, facilitate interaction between their audience members (often via the activities that their lifestyles champion), and drive salience in situations adjacent to product sales.

When you think of Harley Davidson, a more distinctive community of motorcycle riders should come to mind. They’ve cemented their iconic lifestyle brand status by uniting Harley riders; the brand famously hosts meet-ups for bikers around the nation, creating brand associations with friendships, rather than just motorcycles.

Nike has also embedded itself in the fitness world with its Nike+ community, which allows users to upload workout stats online and compare them with other members. This interaction creates an association with motivating oneself to exercise, rather than just wearing Nike athletic wear.

Whether you go above and beyond to champion a subculture like Red Bull, keep your product and branding secondary to a lifestyle like Bacardi, or foster a community like Harley Davidson, your efforts will speak volumes to your audience. Consumers today know when they’re being sold to, and thus expect more than the transactional marketing they’ve seen for decades. That’s not to say that building a lifestyle brand is the only path to marketing success today…But if you’ve chosen that path, keep these rules in mind to avoid the fate of these marketers: