Earlier this summer, Chipotle’s new chief marketing officer outlined a lofty vision for the burrito-and-taco chain and the feelings it could one day evoke in consumers.
“Our ultimate marketing mission is to make Chipotle not just a food brand but a purpose-driven lifestyle brand,” the executive, Christopher Brandt, said on an earnings call. By that, he added, he meant that “Chipotle will become a brand that people want to know about, want to be a part of and want to wear as a badge.”
The same month, a release from Godiva noted the company’s desire “to be seen as a lifestyle brand by leveraging their culinary expertise to expand beyond chocolates.” Pizza Hut, Blue Apron and IHOP have also described themselves as lifestyle brands.
What does that even mean?
Brands have long tried to persuade people that they represent something larger than the mere goods they sell. If you wanted “to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” as the 1971 jingle put it, you bought a Coke. More recently, the term “lifestyle brand” has attached itself to celebrity lines — like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop — and retailers like Ralph Lauren, which maintain a certain aesthetic across a range of products.
Now, all kinds of companies are trying the strategy of using emotion and “shared values” to build relationships with consumers — and to sell them more stuff.
“When you walk down the street with a Starbucks cup, it can be a badge for people, it says something about you,” Mr. Brandt said in an interview. “That’s when a brand transcends being a utility and becomes a more special, integral part of a consumer’s life.”
The ideal relationship between customer and brand, in this view, is almost personal.
“You kind of make an evolution from having fans of your brand to people being friends with the brand and inviting the brand in, wanting to see the brand do different things and talking to the brand in a different light,” Mr. Brandt said. “Not just — ‘I went to Chipotle.’”
That said, trying to equate a fondness for burritos with something greater may cause more than a few eye rolls.
“When I hear people talk about ‘lifestyle brands’ or ‘societal brands’ or ‘purpose-driven brands’ or what have you, it’s all marketing spin to me,” said David B. Srere, chief strategy officer at Siegel+Gale, a brand consultancy. “Any good brand should do all of those things.”
Still, there is a value to the “mumbo jumbo,” Mr. Srere said, adding, “If calling it a lifestyle brand begins to move them and get the company to think differently about the brand and move to a more meaningful role, then that’s fine.”
Blue Apron, the meal-kit company, is seeking a “deeper connection with consumers,” said its chief executive, Brad Dickerson. During a recent earnings call, he said that the company saw itself as “a strong consumer lifestyle brand that reinforces our identity — to not simply be a transactional e-commerce business, but play a more meaningful role in our customers’ lives.”
Blue Apron’s marketing efforts have lately included pop-up events with cooking classes, movie screenings and chef panels in cities like Austin, New York and Seattle.
“Food, for a lot of people, is much more emotional now than it was maybe decades ago,” Mr. Dickerson said in an interview. “A lot of people are defining themselves to some degree on how they eat — ‘I’m vegan, I’m vegetarian, I only eat organic.’ It’s so much more personal and emotional than it has been.”
The rise of “lifestyle” marketing ploys are largely the result of companies worrying about their brands fading into the background or losing customers in a crowded marketplace.
“Just being a functional brand is not enough anymore — it’s very tough to differentiate yourself as a brand in the clutter we have out there,” said Tulin Erdem, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Godiva, the Belgian chocolatier founded in 1926, has also been trying to form a tighter bond with consumers.
“When we think about being a lifestyle brand, it really means meaningful connections with our customers through shared values,” said Annie Young-Scrivner, Godiva’s chief executive. “And how do we become a more intricate part of their lives? We want them to invite us in.”
Ms. Young-Scrivner believes that Godiva could have “a role in people’s lives on a daily basis, if not more frequently.” For example, the company would like people to stop in at one of its shops for coffee in the morning and a snack in the afternoon. And, ideally, that customer would see more in Godiva than just chocolate or caffeine.
Ms. Young-Scrivner described this customer as “someone who cares about quality ingredients and quality craftsmanship and preserving the heritage,” a person who believes “the company they’re buying from has tremendous values that are linked to themselves, and that we’re doing the right thing.”
Brands are playing the long game as they aim for hearts and minds.
“It’s not an overnight thing to be a lifestyle brand,” said Mr. Brandt, the Chipotle executive. “You have to be consistent and find the messages that resonate with people and you have to do it over a period of time.” He pointed to Chipotle’s recent initiatives to run ads on shows that generate chatter like “Real Housewives” and a sponsorship tied to Fortnite players.
“The journey’s begun, but there’s no finish line,” he said. “We’ll keep telling our message and championing what we think makes us special.”