Lifestyle Brands: What are they, and why do we want them so badly?

The phraseidentity-crisis “lifestyle brand” is coming dangerously close to becoming the most overused and abused term in the English language. It is most commonly associated with apparel lines, but is used and sought after by many consumer-facing companies across the product spectrum. What exactly is it, and why is it so desirable?

A lifestyle brand is one that, through marketing, has been able to convince its target consumer that products bearing the hallmark of that particular brand, will reinforce and amplify the consumer’s ethos/culture/societal identity.

Why is this concept such a sought after goal? From a marketing perspective, a lifestyle brand means tenacious customer loyalty and an ability to sell a wide variety of wares, crossing over into normally separate product categories and markets. For example, if a brand can successfully become associated with a luxury lifestyle (like, Gucci, Fendi, Prada, etc..), then people will be drawn to making purchasing decisions on the basis of the item representing a piece of the high life, and ownership conferring a special status upon the purchaser. The merits or functionality of the item become secondary.

The target “lifestyle” need not be as broad as “luxury”. Any product line, service provider or even a person which leads the consumer to feel that he or she belongs to a group or culture can be considered a lifestyle brand. This lucrative status means the ability to expand offerings beyond shoes (Nike) or car racing (NASCAR) or a talk show (Oprah).

mcdonaldsAttaining this elusive status requires more than just a successful marketing campaign. There are many notable failed attempts. David Kiley, of Business Week, touched on this idea in his article “Not Every Brand is a Lifestyle Brand.” In reference to McDonalds’ efforts to expand their image beyond fast food, Kiley writes:

I know kids are into the toys. But do people by and large want to be identified with eating fast food day-to-day as a brand badge? Not in my neighborhood. McDonald’s is firing on all cylinders to give its brand an air of acceptability and even hipness. It wants McDonald’s to become a more “wearable” brand, hence its announcement last month that is expanding the McKids line of apparel and home furnishings.

One good example of a non-specific value being promoted by a lifestyle brand is that of Apple computers. Apple puts a lot of time and money into the aesthetic design of their products, to make sure that they comply with the “Mac” image. iPods are a perfect example of this. iPods are not necessarily luxurious, nor do they reinforce any particular social group. The iPod Shuffle can be purchased for well under $100 retail. Yet the Apple iPod is by far and away the market leader of Mp3 players. Those little white earbuds have somehow become synonymous with being “cool” from teenagers to middle-aged suits.

Apple earbudsUnlike Apple, most brands that are considered lifestyle brands are not universally popular. The appeal is that they give the target consumer a sense of being unique yet belonging to a desired subset of society.

One example of this is Volkswagen. To someone wearing a shirt or hat bearing the German automaker’s symbol, the article of clothing is not just for function but a statement about how that person identifies themselves, or how they would like to be perceived socially. In his article “Active Lifestyle Brands,” Robert F. Hogeboom, of BBP Marketing writes:

What sets active lifestyle brands apart from even the most successful brands is their ability to give customers an identity. This identity is delivered through the self-expressive benefits of the brand, which include the highly coveted identities and personality traits linked to the lifestyles of specific active sports (e.g., the young surfer who lives by his own rules, the daredevil skateboarder, and the athletic, confident, and empowered female snowboarder). Teens and young adults purchase active lifestyle brands in part to link the personality traits of the brand to their own identity.

Once established, the company can charge a premium to put its mark on a wider variety of merchandise that is deemed appropriate for the brand’s identity. Straying too far or spreading the trademark too thinly can cause brand burnout; see Pierre Cardin or Burberry in the 1980’s. Both were luxury houses that fell into disfavor when they allowed cheaper licensed goods to be mass marketed with their label.

Lifestyle brands are not limited to businesses that provide tangible consumer goods. Some service providers have been able to establish themselves as lifestyle brands. W Hotels has grown to become associated with a worldly, cosmopolitan lifestyle. In addition to overnight lodging, the company now offers a line of home furnishings, music collections, and even custom-designed condominiums.


G-Unit is another example. The hip hop group began with mixtapes, grew into a record label and eventually transitioned into an urban clothing and accessories line, bearing the G-Unit brand.

Even though the example of McDonalds’ failed attempt to become a lifestyle brand is mentioned above, there are other examples of restaurants that have arguably become lifestyle brands such as The Hard Rock Cafe, which includes in its portfolio hotels, casinos and music.

greenyankeesjerseyProfessional sports teams franchises are hugely successful lifestyle brands. The New York Yankees has come to stand for much more than a baseball cap to show team loyalty. It has become a global symbol that can be associated with nostalgia and US patriotism.

In the realm of urban and hip hop fashion, it is clear that there are scores of lifestyle brands which promote the hip hop and urban image, but it would hard to argue that there is one brand which has achieved the status of symbolizing hip hop, or urban style more than the others.

If you had to choose a brand to symbolize the urban/hip hop way of life, which would it be?

Leave a Comment