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Cultural Disruption and Branding in the Age of Social Media

Most consumer firms have spent a decade failing to see good returns from their branded content; the answer is to craft campaigns that are ‘culturally disruptive'

    the lead story of Harvard Business Review‘s March issue, Doug Holt, author of “Cultural Strategy,” notes that just three corporate brands have cracked the YouTube top 500, despite spending millions more on content than the little-known entertainers who top the charts.

  Branded content is not fulfilling its promise of breaking through the noise. It’s a problem brands desperately need to address, as they face growing media costs (the price of ad space is up 40% on average in the US) and a rise in ad blockers.

     Brands haven’t kept pace with the new media landscape. Branded content hasn’t evolved since the mass era – it is still marketing content designed to compete with mass entertainment. But today the most popular digital content comes from sub-cultural communities – newly connected by the internet – not the mass entertainment industry. Most of the YouTube top 500 are entertainers you’ve never heard of (see point three in this post).

     To keep pace, Holt recommends that marketers use an approach he calls “cultural branding” to break through. This requires marketing teams to understand current norms in society and how those norms are shifting, and then to attach to the sub-cultures driving those shifts and articulate that sub-culture’s emerging ideology.

     The Power of Cultural Branding

     The data on 250+ recent marcomm initiatives underpins Holt’s analysis and shows just how important “Cultural Branding” is today. The best performing campaigns in CEB’s sample were not defined by the emotions they evoked, their entertainment value, or their media innovation.

    The single most critical differentiator was the extent to which the campaign’s message challenged a norm on a societal debate – or what Promethean Global Technologies (PGT) calls “cultural disruption.” Culturally disruptive campaigns were 32% more likely to be high-performing than any other kind of campaign – across a range of objectives, and they saw a median average increase of 13% in sales.

      But creating a culturally disruptive campaign is not easy. It requires marketers to understand the marketing conventions they have unconsciously perpetuated, to identify emerging movements on the cusp of the mainstream, and to create content that feels authentic enough for large numbers of people to share.

   How to Create Cultural Disruption.

    PGT has recently profiled new creative processes from brands like Clorox and Unilever that help enable cultural disruption. At the base of these and others’ approaches are three important steps.

    1. Explore cultural tensions: The first step towards disruption is to identify and explore cultural tensions surrounding the brand.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the possible cultural shifts to consider, so leading brands recommend a few starting points.

             Brand values.

        •Product use cases (e.g., consumer needs or goals, or certain consumer situations).

        •Target consumer’s attitudes, aspirations, and lifestyles.

   As an example of a brand-related cultural tension, a food brand that stands for “quality” might note that consumers increasingly consider anything natural and un-adulterated to denote quality rather than food that looks aesthetically perfect.  The tension here lies in the shift of importance between perfect and natural.

 To find these cultural tensions, brands should consider conventional marcomms in their category and signs of emerging shifts.  A review of historical ads can help spot changes, and make marketers more aware of current norms.  There are a few good sources of information for emerging cultural shifts: niche magazines, online user interest groups, summaries of article themes and trending themes, policy shifts, pop culture members, and social movements.

    2.Partner with “outlier consumers”: Once brands have identified cultural shifts, they need to articulate the niche community’s new viewpoint in language that they will identify with, but that will spread to the masses. Traditional approaches won’t work here either.  Most legacy brand and agency teams aren’t close enough to the new community to capture the essence of their views.

    Leading brands partner with important members of the outlier or niche community.  These creative individuals bring fresh ideas and challenge the brand to push further.  But a single “wild card” isn’t enough: top brands know they need roughly even numbers of their own creatives and outlier consumers.

  3.Accept – and embrace – an appropriate level of risk: The final hurdle is the company’s risk aversion. Brands need to get their edgy message out without testing, checking, and diluting it so much that it loses impact. Leading brands have actually cut back on the amount of consumer testing for this very reason.  Some brands also apply “boldness checks” on top of their usual safety checks to make sure the idea has teeth.

    When cultural disruption works, marketing teams take advantage of social media’s full potential.  Marketing can harness the energy around societal debates and emerging movements to propel social change and get its message heard.

    While it’s a high bar for success – it’s risky, difficult, and time consuming. The alternative though is that brands continue to publish safe, branded content which will only be ignored or actively blocked, and so not even worth the money it took to create.

     The only way to gain attention in a world of consumer control – is to create content so valuable that consumers actually seek it out.  Marketers will ignore this lesson at their peril.

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Jitendra Gautam



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