Anant Deboor
Mar 7, 2014

The rise of the democratisers

Brands that create access for the masses.

Anant Deboor
Anant Deboor

The former CEO of IKEA, Mikael Ohlsson, once spoke of the vision for IKEA as allowing people with limited means to furnish their houses like rich people.

Democratising brands do just this: They break down barriers that limit the access of brand and customer experiences to exclusive people, and make it available to the masses. They stand for a world that is the opposite of traditionally feudalist structures that promote exclusivity.

Volkswagen was the original democratiser, championing the middle classes with small, frugal cars at a time when the average car was the size of a small ship. These are brands that over the past few years since the global financial crisis have gained an acceptance and coolness that they may have struggled for in happier times.

The fundamental appeal of democratiser brands goes beyond just ‘lower prices’. For sure, they are strong value brands. But it isn’t just value (defined as acceptable performance at a low price) that marks their appeal. They are bigger than that. They are game-changers that borrow from the vocabulary of politics and human causes to create their own vocabulary and appeal. At the heart of democratiser brands lies a deep belief that they are the chosen ones to create a better world for the masses.

Take AirAsia for example. Tony Fernandes doesn’t just believe he runs a low-cost airline. He believes he is changing people’s lives by making travel accessible. He is a master of stage management and creating the power networks that make AirAsia a strong democratiser. Apart from cutting costs, Fernandes is obsessed with building the AirAsia brand as a champion of the mass traveller.

If your brand wants to be a democratiser, here are a few simple tips from the champions:

1. Look for barriers beyond price. These could be price barriers, distribution barriers, benefit barriers, lifestyle barriers...whatever. Every experience of your brand, from product to promotion, must suggest some barriers being lowered. H&M made fashion accessible by breaking down the barriers of Versace and Jimmy Choo.

2. Be populist and smart about your price. It isn’t something to be ashamed of. Project smartness. Lower prices must mean you are smarter, not simply cheaper. IKEA takes pains to point out how it saves money through smarter production and making you do all the assembly—but passes on the benefits to you. So lower cost doesn’t mean you’re a cheapskate; you’re just smart.

3. Use wit and candour to have a gentle go at bourgeoisie mindsets. A bit of humour reveals confidence and comfort in your own skin. Virgin and Richard Branson are past masters at getting you on their side with their edgy humour.

4. Adopt the moral high ground. Thrift, honesty, smartness, hard work, perseverance, achievement...whatever. You need to put something on your flag that the masses can identify with. Remember, you must make the proletariat feel superior. Ingevar Kamprad said: "People say I am stingy. I am proud of that reputation."

5. Promote freedom of expression through technology. Technology in any field is a force for democracy. Nothing has levelled the playing field better and opened up access like the internet. AirAsia, Jetstar and the other democratisers cut out the travel agent, went direct and have web and digital experiences that are generations ahead of their larger competitors like British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines.

6. Give people the freedom of choice and help them imagine it. Break down the barrier of ‘if you’re poor, you don’t have a choice’. Ikea does a brilliant job of creating mockups of how your 550-square-foot government-subsidised flat will look. Makes you want it all, doesn’t it?

7. Embrace a simple, iconic look. It makes your brand look less pretentious, more contemporary and more likely to appeal across different segments. If you have to use models, do it the H&M or Zara way—use the weapons of feudalism back against them. Go haute.

The 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert said, "The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois." Sounds good, but be smart about it. Remember they’re now citizens with a vote, not just consumers.

Anant Deboor is managing director at The Partners-Singapore


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