My brand is invisible in culture
THE GAME HAS CHANGED.
Two powerful forces, inextricably linked. Feeding off each other. Influencing each other. Battling it out on a constant basis. It is a complicated relationship. One brands are constantly struggling to understand, partake in, leverage, and shape—and with good reason. Culture has the power to carry brands across platforms and into the behavioral patterns of consumers. And while culture remains as important as ever for advertisers, becoming a part of culture has become an increasingly difficult challenge. And helping to create it, a nearly impossible task.
The last three decades have brought tremendous challenges for brands seeking to engage with culture. The customary roads are riddled with hurdles. And many brands seem lost for an alternate route. They’re worried. And they’re right to worry. Because the game has changed.
01 CONSUMERS HAVE BECOME CYNICS – AND BRANDS HAVE BECOME THE TARGET.
Brand efforts to insert themselves into culture are being met with cynicism at best and ridicule and rejection at worst. Trust —whether in authority, government, or brands— has plummeted, with consumers no longer willing to give brands the benefit of the doubt. Skepticism now sits at the top of the funnel. And the brands deft enough to punch through that filter are allowed no room for disappointment.
Coke VS. Pepsi
Coke’s 1971 ad, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” set against a backdrop of the Vietnam War, is regarded as one of the most iconic, powerful and unifying ads of all time. Conversely, Pepsi’s 2017 commercial, featuring Kendall Jenner and set against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, is one of marketing’s greatest blunders. The irony is that the strategy around unification over a soft drink was arguably the same. So why was the reaction so different?
Inauthentic, tone-deaf delivery of the Jenner ad is undoubtedly a factor. But it doesn’t explain everything. Nor do the inherent creative differences. The answers lie with the differences in audience. Today’s consumer is wary of brands and distrusting of their messages. They simply didn’t buy the idea of people coming together around a product anymore, especially a soda. Granted, brands have always made mistakes. But today’s brand sins are louder, more memorable and harder to forgive. And consumers are keeping track.
02 CULTURE HAS BECOME PLURAL.
Culture is no longer homogenous. It is diverse, dynamic and complex. And it is becoming ever more so, shifting and fragmenting across geographic and demographic lines, and often splintering into micro cultures with hyper-specific rules and allegiances (e.g. Skate culture, LGBTQ culture, punk rock culture, indie culture, counter counter culture).
ALL IN THE FAMILY VS. GAME OF THRONES
According to Nielsen, roughly 5% of Americans watched a recent episode of the last season of ‘Game of Thrones.’ Compare that with 25% of all Americans tuning in to watch ‘All in the Family’ in the mid-1970s.
We see this splintering of culture across domains. In music, food, fashion, publishing, diets—even dating apps. In a very real sense, culture is multiplying.
- 420 Singles
- Horse & Country Lovers
- Farmers Only
In a world with a billion websites, countless TV channels, a variety of self-publishing tools and platforms and half a million Instagram influencers, culture has become more fragmented than ever. In their book Fast/Forward, Birkinshaw and Ridderstrale show how quickly the knowledge gap has grown between what one individual knows versus all the intelligence that exists in the world. Ordinary – and even extraordinary – people just can’t keep up with the explosion of information today. And culture is just as elusive.
"No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. A person can find an individual lens and language through which his or her world comes alive."
NYT Op-Ed columnist
TO PENETRATE CULTURE, ARTICULATE YOUR PURPOSE
This multidimensional cultural landscape makes it all the more imperative for brands to lead with purpose—providing they do it right. To that end, purpose must be inherent to the brand and articulated clearly and, even more importantly, authentically. It is through that authenticity that purpose becomes unimpeachable, where as a brand with a purpose built on false pretenses or appropriations is a brand with a purpose begging to be torn down.The evidence to the success of purpose-driven brands in a multidimensional culture is overwhelming. Brands with purpose have double the share, double the loyalty and double the affinity of those without.
Purposeful brands also have higher engagement—32 times more photos shared, 11 times more videos shared and quadruple the Twitter followers of purposeless brands (source: The Core 2014). They are also more likely to recruit talent, with a recent report by American Express finding that nearly 70% of millennials want to work for an organization with purpose. Even more fascinating, the University of California Berkeley found that people who feel a sense of purpose in what they do are higher performers than people who feel a sense of passion in what they do.
At a time when purpose is so vital, however, brands are letting it slip through their fingers. A Rokkan survey of marketers found that nearly 40% of respondents had worked on a brand whose purpose they themselves didn’t believe in (source: Rokkan - The Big Idea and Purpose). If brands can’t even win over their own employees with their purpose, how are they to win over the skeptical consumer behind the iPhone?
Purpose is a powerful driver of growth, but it needs to be real. It needs to be true. Here are four brand identity guidelines:
We’ve watched brands attach themselves to ideologies simply because they were trendy. If purpose A is hot today, do that. If purpose B is hot tomorrow, be that. But you can’t build a cohesive brand identity if you’re always changing faces. Brands need to stop chasing fads and start looking inward. They need to ask themselves: Who are we? What do we fear? What do we love? What do we stand for? And do our employees agree? Answering those questions is the key to unlocking a brand’s origin story, history, founding vision, current culture, existing consumers, and what makes them loved—all of which are key to unlocking purpose. When CVS decided they weren’t just a pharmacy, but a healthcare company, they also quit selling tobacco products to prove that they believe in their purpose. Which inspired consumers to believe in their purpose. It’s like Oscar Wilde says: be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
The belief that brand purpose is a profit-driven marketing tactic disguised as goodwill is the root of consumer cynicism. And if a brand is to overcome that cynicism, their purpose can’t just exist on a wall, in a deck or on a billboard in Times Square. Real purpose requires action. When brands act on their purpose and prove cynics wrong, they establish credibility. Take Nike’s endorsement of Colin Kaepernick. Nike knew full well that alliance could have compromised their bottom line. And still, Nike took a stand, showing the world that it practices what it preaches. The same can be said for REI’s choosing to close their doors on Black Friday so their employees could spend time with loved ones outdoors—a clear and powerful demonstration of the brand’s commitment to its purpose over its profit.
Birkinshaw and Ridderstrale point to the power of collective thought and collaboration in sparking breakthroughs across industries. Where individuals used to be responsible for momentous accomplishments—whether intellectual or creative—teams are now working together to gain recognition.
One example is the emergence of Nobel Prizes being awarded to groups of people instead of a single person. Another example is music: Beyonce’s iconic Lemonade album credited 70 writers. Even the number of names credited on Cannes Titanium Lions has increased over the years.
Most recently, we can point to Procter & Gamble’s partnerships across industries—from music, to filmmaking, to technology and journalism—to “reinvent advertising.” In making the announcement, P&G’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard said that by staying in its own silo, advertising has become less relevant to consumers, and that bringing together creative innovators from different fields and backgrounds was key to sparking more authentic advertising that has a positive impact on society.
As culture splinters and multiplies, so do its authors. As such, brands should start thinking about the teller of their story not as one person, but as a global chorus. In a culture as divergent as ours, unity is key.
And by “has changed” we mean “is dead.” Why? Because too many brands have ceased turning their big thinking into big action. A Rokkan study found 40% of marketers admit their brand idea exists only in an ad. In a second anthem, a print spread, a social post—and nowhere else. Which makes those big ideas small, and forgettable, and powerless to impact the bigger picture.
As a result, some brands have abandoned the notion of a big idea in favor of something that is both simple and complex: their own culture. Think of the 2018 Cannes Creative Marketer of the Year, for example: Google won, and with no big idea in the traditional sense. There was also no big idea behind KFC’s campaign, which won Cannes’ 2018 Campaign of the Year. And Burger King was named as Cannes’ 2017 Creative Marketer of the Year without a big idea in sight.
MARKETER OF THE YEAR
CAMPAIGN OF THE YEAR
MARKETER OF THE YEAR
These brands are flexible, agile and authentic when defining their voice within culture. They do not insert themselves into culture through the lens of an idea hatched in a conference room. They know who they are, they stay true to their purpose, and they succeed. For the brands of today and tomorrow, understanding and articulating culture is the big idea.