8 min read

Connect your brand to culture

How do you do, fellow kids?

“Punk was defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.” – David Byrne

So I’m doing a series of articles in which I try to unravel the success factors for building a brand in the age of 2-second ads. And since I didn’t write the entire series in advance, please bare with me. It might get messy…

In my last article I explained the decreasing attention people have for media and advertising. So an obvious solution would be to make very short 2-second ads using distinctive brand assets. I know Byron Sharp would approve. People remember the brand name and many would even buy the product if they need it. So if you ask me if it’s a bad thing, if an ad for a lender mentions the brand name 3 times in the first 6 seconds? I have to say, probably not. I don’t know the actual results, but if they want to let people looking for a cheap loan, know they exist, it might worked just fine. But it’s also f*cking annoying! And it won’t help their brand if they want to connect to people as a partner for financial support and advice. Maybe that’s not their goal, but looking at the current trends I think people will soon be completely tuning out these type of ads and develop a blind spot for it. So we need to find other ways to make sure our marketing works at a glance, but also holds people’s attention after the first 2 seconds.

We know it’s important to build a brand through the right associations that distinguish it from others. Move beyond rational persuasion, and make use of the fact that people use their intuition, made up of mental associations to guide behaviour. We also know it works best if we make use of existing memory structures and build new associations to your brand from there. There are a many options to build these associations, such as promising a reward or appeal to goals. Things that worked great in advertising in the past. Who wouldn’t like to feel happy when drinking a Coke? But in a world full of content and ads, you need to take it a step further to develop a winning idea: Connect your brand to culture.

How do you do, fellow kids?

Not something new of course. The AdAge Encyclopedia of Advertising already mentioned the following on pop-culture in 2003:

“Persuasive messages are most effective if they are compatible with their targets’ current beliefs, values and world views. As a result, creators of advertising often use contemporary culture as cues for developing successful ad messages.”

So why am I writing an article on this 15 years later? One reason is because culture has shifted. My generation and that of my parents and grandparents had fixed cultures or groups we belonged to. I was a skater although I couldn’t skate. But that was everyone listening to 90s punk music “belonged” to. Culture was determined by a “cultural elite” and was very fixed and many times regional. Mine was mainly determined by MTV, through music videos and shows like Jackass and Viva La Bam. With the rise of the internet, we got a real democratisation of culture. New cultures are born on the internet and are more likely to be neo-tribes. People live in tribal society, as opposed to mass society, and will form social networks constituting new “tribes”. These tribes are more fluid, attract people with the same passions and emotions, and people mostly “belong” to more than one tribe. We are already talking about a subculture-less generation.

Instead we are are living in a connected culture. People aren’t bound by their nationality, gender or income, but are connected through ideas, passions, taste, and opinions. And these many new subcultures (or neo-tribes) connect people globally to form powerful and passionate audiences. Empowered by social media. Especially platforms such as Reddit, where everyday new sub-cultures are evolving and growing. And marketeers have a hard time understanding how this works. It took the industry more than a month to respond to Man’s Not Hot: one of 2017’s biggest cultural moments. Because we, as a profession, aren’t paying attention where it matters.

So we need to look at cultures surrounding our brand and integrate in these connected cultures to connect to people on mentality.

To do this you could look at the creative briefing format of Crispin Porter + Bogusky for example. The key difference with other agency briefing formats is that it focuses on ‘tensions in culture’. Looking for the most relevant and differentiating idea that will surprise consumers or challenge their current thinking of the brand. Look for the psychological, social or cultural tension associated with this idea that makes the target tense about it. And think of what about the brand could help start a dialogue between the brand and consumers, among the target and/or within pop culture.

A next step is to look at the job to be done of content, instead of what the content is about. Buzzfeed developed a method, called Cultural Cartography, that categorises content in an effort to better serve viewers. They categorised their content based on what the audience might be gaining, or feeling, by watching that content. These jobs include making you laugh, discover/recognise yourself, connect to others, help you learn or do something, or give you a certain feeling (curious, happy, sad, etc.). And viewers are more likely to be attracted to, and share content that serves one of these jobs. Who are you? How did you get there? Where are you going? What do you care about? What can you teach us? That’s cultural cartography.

The method proved the hypotheses that people get excited when they are participating in the shared anticipation of something that is about to happen. They are part of a community, just for an instant, and it makes them happy.

So this connection through content is very important and can be found in connected cultures. Through music, art, lifestyle, sports, heritage, or a shared passion. Through this you can really offer the content people want to see, instead of interrupting the content they want to see.

If course it’s easier said than done, so here are a few ground rules with examples of brands who did it right:

1. Fit the brand DNA

If you want to claim an existing culture make sure it is in the DNA of your brand. Don’t claim something that is too far from your brand proposition. Like we at Blossom did for Dutch drugstore/ beauty shop Kruidvat on Instagram. Targeted at the young beauty lovers tribe, giving them what they really want and talk about, instead of the loud promotion driven ads they were used to from the brand.

2. Dive into it

Having a Twitter account doesn’t mean you understand the culture of your audience. Infiltrate Reddit, talk to your audience, invite them to think of an idea with you. Or partner with someone who’s already inside of the culture. Like Snickers did this year when they organised an 11vs11 Fifa match in a real soccer stadium together with soccer club PSV and two well-known esporters.

3. Be authentic

When you do something within that culture, do something unique and authentic and fits your brand. Don’t just sponsor a celebrity or YouTube channel. Take Guinness for example. Telling the story of the Compton Cowboys: a group of men who have rejected gang life in favour of running an urban ranch. A three-minute film showed them riding on horseback through the streets of South Central Los Angeles – an area known for its hip-hop culture and gang violence. Not only did they make this 3 minute video, they also made a smart social campaign with vertical videos and Instant Experiences to dive deeper into the stories of people featured in the ad. The Canvas experience combines videos, photographs and short form content, and links to a YouTube playlist containing the full ad and a series of mini documentaries.

4. Claim it and hold on

Don’t do a one-off, but let all your communications revolve around the theme for a longer period of time. Red Bull claiming extreme sports is a great example of a brand who did it right. And maybe, just maybe, if you have a great idea, hold on long enough, and are willing to take a risk, you might even impact culture instead of only following it. Just like Nike did with their Dream Crazy campaign with Colin Kaepernick this year: