Brand Ueber-Targets and How We Want To Be Like Them

[Prefer listening over reading? Watch the video interview on the subject below.]
When it comes to defining our lifestyle or declaring our values, we need other people for orientation, as benchmarks or to listen to us and care – or it will not be a satisfying exercise.  We usually have some ideal state of self or person(s) we aspire to on the one side.  On the other side, there might be some people, their thinking, choices or actions we reject and which make us feel good about ‘not being like them’.  The cultural cohort commonly referred to as ‘Bobos,’ for example, can lean on Cher or Jean Birkin, Etsy and the farmers market, among other things to provide the aspiration, attitude and accessories to become Bourgeois Bohemians while preppy conservatives wearing their Vineyard Vines ties like a badge might provide a foil in look and spirit.

We call the ‘aspirational’ people and worlds that Ueber-Brands create to seduce us ‘Ueber-Targets’. An Ueber-Target might be real or imagined but they function as taste makers and trend setters for the rest of your potential brand buyers to become fans and loyal followers. There are two ways in which strong Ueber-Targets typically emerge.

The first is through creator-founders who realize their own, ideal self in their brand. Many famous examples are found in fashion, beauty or ‘lifestyle’, for instance Tory Burch, who catapulted herself into the starry firmament of lifestyle leader in little time. She entered the Forbes list of fashion billionaires in 2013, only a decade after launching her eponymous brand, which mixes the luxurious elegance of the upper crust with the relaxed attitude and style of the hippies who roamed the world in the ‘70s. Nobody represents this lifestyle better than Burch herself, as followers of her prolific blog posts or the incessant media coverage will attest. Every interview or ‘selfie’ posted cements the guiding DNA of the brand. Fans feed on glimpses of Tory’s meticulously curated mansion or gracious fêtes for celebrity friends.

If you are a guy and aspire to be part of that dapper intellectual elite with insights and opinions on the most esoteric subjects (does the Masuichi Kyakuden in Obuse serve the best breakfast?), then Tyler Brûlé – described by the New York Times as ‘Mr Zeitgeist, […] a globe-trotting connoisseur’– might be your idol. Brûlé first founded Wallpaper* magazine, which became the bible of the urban creative class, in 1996, and then moved on to create the highly influential Monocle media empire in 2007. He spreads his cosmo-cool musings via his magazine, a column in the Financial Times or his internet radio channel, and true to his idiosyncratic style, shuns social media like Facebook or Twitter. Those who ‘subscribe’ to Monocle (in every sense of the word) will not only pay US $150 per year but will likely also buy into the Brûlé look by acquiring some of the retro-modern items in Brûlé’s hand-picked Monocle X collection. To experience this one-man Ueber-Target, visit Monocle’s zen-infused editorial offices-cum-shops-cum coffee bars in London, New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo. We even got invited to one of the get-togethers with the man himself.  A good sign that you have arrived in being a cult figure and Ueber-Target to some?  Websites dedicated to making fun of you like BeingTylerBrûlé.com done by the ‘non-believers’.

Elon Musk and his Tesla brand is another case of Ueber-Founder … Target.  By now, no Hollywood Oscar party is complete without Elon – yet he is … the CEO of a car company.  Yes, but Tesla – because of him – is so much more than a car brand.  Read more about Elon, Tesla and their missionary vision to save the world in our book.

The other route to developing an Ueber-Target requires being closely in touch with cultural undercurrents and tensions that motivate influential groups and create desires in broader segments of the population. Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) is a great case to study for what can drive immense success but also risks to cause failure when it comes to harnessing an Ueber-Target . The brand has had two lives as a desirable lifestyle brand to date. The original A&F was founded in 1892 and catered to the ‘genteel explorer’, or those who aspired to A&F’s celebrity customers like Teddy Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart and John Steinbeck. After the demise of these Ueber-Heroes and the decline of the brand, The Limited Inc (now known as L Brands Inc) bought it in 1988. Mike Jeffries was appointed CEO and went about transforming the brand behind the ultimate teenage Ueber-Target:

Abercrombie Fierce Fragrance 4 tall“We go after the cool kids… with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny… You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either (Denizet-Lewis, 2006)”.

And excite they certainly do – or did, as we will see. While some outdoor and heritage references persist, the emotional pull emanates mostly from a pure but powerful pan-eroticism that excites the young strategic target and meets them at all touch-points with the brand. From the shirtless youngsters who greet you at the door to the heavy cologne ‘Fierce’ that fills the air and the ‘racy’ photography on the walls by Bruce Weber, the company’s famously provocative photographer. The fact that the American Decency Association or equal employment activists were upset at one point, tells the kids that Abercrombie is definitely cool and worth the US $100 for an otherwise run-of-the-mill sweater. Jeffries left the brand at the end of 2014 and so have quite a number of his Ueber-Target kids –  especially in the US.

The brand failed to evolve its understanding of what makes a kid ‘cool’ among its peers.  Worse, it tried to ‘pivot’ and become the brand of the ‘nice kid’ in its desperation to appeal to a broad audience of kids .. and their parents. We wonder if ‘switching on the lights’ – quite literally in their formally disco-dark stores – is too disruptive a move. Too much of a betrayal of the brand’s DNA. In a world ruled by skeptical youth that have social media tools at their disposal to research brands and shame them publicly, a re-positioning that jettisons the recent past might not be as easy as it use to in the good old world of one-way brand communication. And why abandon rather than evolve with the Ueber-Target? Brands like Joe & The Juice, have proven that a modern version of the hot dude can be just as desirable an Ueber Target as ever.  You just need to go with the flow…  (Read more about how we see the future of A&F here and Joe & The Juice here).

For a company-groomed design target that’s the opposite of a popular playboy, look no further than Harley Davidson. The quintessential Harley rider is a rocker, a rugged libertarian who plays with the boundaries of society and the law to a breaking point. Harley Davidson recognizes the fascination of men with groups like the Hells Angels as modern manifestations of the rebelliously independent and domineering American ‘gunfighter’. Just watch their brand anthem video ‘Live By it‘ we describe in our book.

Harley Davidson ad: 'May wind be the only product in your hair'

Harley Davidson ad: ‘May wind be the only product in your hair’

As Douglas Holt shows in his (‘How Brands Become Icons,’ Holt, 2004), Harley skilfully made the outlaw myth its own and harnessed its most dedicated followers by penetrating Harley Owner Groups (HOGs), the modern day (and ‘legalized’) version of a cowboy posse. Their strategic target? Suburban ‘weekend warriors’ whose careers, family and comfort might keep them from living the outlaw dream every day, but who earn the money to buy a US $25,000-plus bike and ‘feel’ it on occasion.  Laying this Ueber-Target / Immitator relationship bare can be (kind of) funny, as the film ‘Wild Hogs’ showed us.

As you will have seen by now, modern Ueber-Brands create ‘Ueber-Targets’ in the form of real or imaginary people who represent the brands and make us want to be with them… and not others. This might be jet-setting Tory or Tyler as opposed to the ‘suburbans’. Or it might be the Harley rider proudly roaring out of his middle-class comforts, showing his finger to all of them – at least on the weekend when he joins his HOG buddies.

Sources and Further Reading:
If you want to find out more about Ueber-Targets and the art of Brand Seduction, read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding“, which lays out the principles of Ueber-Branding and features plenty of case studies.


To learn more about Ueber-Targets and Ueber-Brands check out other case studies and interviews on our blog – cast and read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands”.

For a step-by-step guide to creating and Ueber-Brand, use our how-to guide ‘Brand Elevation – Lessons in Ueber-Branding’.

For those who prefer to listen rather than read, watch this interview with JP on the subject of Design-Targets or ‘Ueber-Targets’:

Read More about Bobo roots in the New York Times and about the peppiness of Vineyard Vines on Off The Cuff.  Of course, the Murray brothers, New York career drop-outs and founders of the brand are Ueber-Targets in their own right.

W-Magazine crowns Tory Burch ‘society’s golden girl’.

Tyler Brûlé is ‘Mr Zeitgeist‘ – not only to the New York Times.

Interview with Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch by Salon magazine including his singlular pespective on the A&F Design Target.  Not evolving the Target was a key factor leading to his demise as this Guardian article lays out.

Here is our take on the new A&F direction.

Douglas Holt’s ‘How Brands Become Icons‘ (2004) which features and in-depth analysis of Harley Davidson as a cultural icon and Ueber-Target.

Lead image is of Talitha Getty, muse for Yves Saint Laurent in the 1960’s in Marrakech, Morocco.  Right down today’s BoBo alley and iconic in their minds. (Pinterest posting)

Harley Davidson - 'Live By It' video

Harley Davidson – ‘Live By It’ video

About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here:
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