Beer, Brands, and Identity

Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans nearly everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history and people have enjoyed raising a pint with friends since well before, well, pints were a thing. By 4000 BC the Sumerians were fermenting a form of bread to make a fermented pulp which had a “divine drink” By 3000 BC the Babylonians had up to 20 different types of beer. Beer is the foundation of civilization. But how do we go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in bottles, cans, or some other vessel?

While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction most likely goes to wine or mead), beer is considered to be a staple of many a diet. Over the course of human history the choices were largely dictated by the means of production – you drank the local brew because of availability, or, once mass production had nearly crush the independent brewery you drank what you were told to drink between episodes of Gun Smoke and the ball game. But today people have an incredibly wide range of choices available to them. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” Within the U.S., the craft beer industry has grown considerably over the last decade, accounting for over 24% of all beers sales in 2017. So what’s the driving our choices and how can we apply those same principles to other food products?

Physicality

A central element in driving beer choice is “sensorial’, meaning it has qualities, whether the product itself or its packaging, that provokes our tastes and catches our eye. In other words, it stands out from the rest of the pack because it tantalizes our senses. Craft beer does this, in part, with considerably higher quality ingredients being used in the brewing process. Recipes are more elaborate and produce distinct flavors. Craft drinkers know they’re looking for something identifiable rather than something that appeals to the masses. Domestic beers is “watered down”, “flavorless”, “bland”. Craft beer, on the other hand, engages more of the senses. Enter the label, the bottle, the website. They serve to establish a particular flavor, lifestyle, to situate the product within a given community context. The packaging and display of the beer enhance the sensory experience, giving it a life of its own, a sense of identity. So beer is more than the taste, it’s the presentation, as well.

Making It MeanIngful

Food has symbolic meanings based on association with other meaningful experiences. An example of the symbolic meanings including food references can be found in many of our common expressions. Bread is a good example of the symbolism found in foods. When people sit together with friends at a meal they are said to break bread with one another. This expression symbolizes a setting where friends come together in a warm, inviting and jovial manner to eat. Bread has been called the staff of life – and as I alluded to before, bread is, in one sense, liquid bread. As much as taste and design impact the decisions we make about our beer, creating a sense of meaning is perhaps just as powerful. Food and drink, but especially beer, provide you with more than a taste experience. They are endowed with mystery, nostalgia, a sense of purpose. They provide the drinker with a sense of purpose.

Brand identity (and personal identity to a large degree) can be formed by the beers a brewery chooses to produce in relation to their definition of craftwork. Anchor Steam puts its history and dedication to the craft front and center in their identity through the connection to San Francisco and the tradition of “steam brewing”, as well as intentionally remaining relatively small. Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City encourages their brewers in creative freedom, while Green Brewery creates all their beer while only using organic ingredientsAnd then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

And then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

But beyond the logo, the messaging, etc., many, if not most, of these breweries act. They have deep connections with their communities and facilitate a sense of betterment. Blue Brewery, for example, works closely with local charity organizations by giving them the proceeds from their monthly art shows. Free State helps support local organic farmers. Sun King sponsors events throughout the Indianapolis area, donating time and money to the efforts. They are all visible and engaged, helping establish themselves as anchors in the process of place-making.

Beyond Beer

So can it be done beyond beer? Do these same qualities apply to beef? Or milk? These are typically consumed away from the larger community, either alone, with family, or friends. They still fit into the complex symbolic exchange of sharing food, but they aren’t necessarily the types of food or drink you consume at a party, for instance. I would be inclined to say yes.
Personal and cultural connection to a place has a tremendous impact on the decisions we make about what we buy. Unless, of course, we’re talking about commodities. Whether that connection is to a direct cultural experience or to imagined community (e.g. a point in time, say, the late 1800s), the more connection you have to the product, the more likely you are to embrace it, to share it with likeminded individuals. If you’re from Maine, maple syrup has meaning. But if you’re from Maine, beef has meaning, too – it’s just that said beef may mean something representative of a bygone era to you. Regardless, the notion of craft factors in by establishing a strong set of feelings.

The feelings of both freedom and enslavement that mass production engenders appear to have been particularly invigorated in the wake of the economic crisis in the past several years. As opting out isn’t on the table for most, adapting within the system, personalization and localization, and efforts at self-sufficiency abound. That includes how we think about food. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement, the sharing economy and the associated decline in markets such as new car purchases, artisanal or slow-food cooking, and the success of marketplaces such Etsy, where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion economy and gain something one-of-a-kind; revealing tensions towards mass production’s global reach and grip. It also creates a connection to something tangible. So too is it with how we construct meaning around our food. The more we can create a sense of connection and humanity with our food and drink, the more likely we are to create devotees.

Culturally speaking, in essence, what one eats defines who one is and is not. Eating is a daily reaffirmation of one’s cultural identity. Many people affiliate the foods from their culture, their childhood with warm, good feelings and memories. The food is part of who we are and become. It ties us to our families and holds a special worth to a person. Foods from our culture, from our family often become the comfort foods we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. Be it beer, beef, or bread, tying what we consume to our personal identity and cultural context drives adoption.

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The Changing Meaning of the Family Meal

Unknown.jpegEating meals as a family is a daily event so routine, so ordinary that it is taken for granted. But it is also a central part of social relationships and cultural rituals, as well as a symbolic means of coming together. Across cultures and time, food sharing is an almost universal medium for expressing connectedness. From the dawn of humanity, the meal embodies values of solidarity, hospitality, gratitude, sacrifice, and fellowship. The shared meal is an opportunity to talk, to create and strengthen bonds of attachment, and to share the doings of the day. It is a to teach and learn. The family meal is celebrated as a supremely important component of family life. But what do we really mean when we talk about the family meal? The phrase seems simple enough, but the idea of the “family meal” is convenient shorthand for an idea that is more imagined than real.

An image that most readily comes to mind is a happy nuclear family of mom, dad, and a couple of kids sitting around the dinner table enjoying the beautifully displayed outputs of a largely invisible kitchen production process. This is an image perpetuated, if not created, by mid-20th-century advertising that persists even as the meal landscape has changed. It is the cultural ideal, something to be aspired to and emulated. The family gathered around the table, be it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, is the ultimate symbol of perfect family unity.

But a quick read of history clearly shows that this concept of the family meal is a fairly modern phenomenon. For example, in Victorian Britain, the children of wealthy families were more likely to eat in the nursery or kitchen, or to eat in communal dining rooms at boarding schools, than to sit at the family table. In low-income households, there might not even be a table to sit around. Indeed, the historical realities of the family meals align with a fairly brief period of time. And yet, it is as much a fixture in our shared cultural identity as anything we can imagine. And it isn’t surprising. With all the work involved, the provision of a family meal is a symbolic demonstration of the care of the meal provider. It may veer more toward love or toward duty, but it always shows commitment to the family group. By sharing meal-related tasks, from shopping to food preparation, table-laying and clearing-up, all family members participate in this exercise of responsible family solidarity.

There are, of course, many types of families and household relationships. What does this mean then for what can be considered a family meal? Does everyone in the family have to be present? Do they have to be eating the same foods? Do they have to be sitting around a table? Does the food have to be prepared in the home or simply plated there? How does the dynamic changed when relatives outside the nuclear family are present? Or friends?

Lack of time, work demands, busy social lives, scheduled activities, and increased opportunities for eating away from home are among the factors redefining the meaning of the family meal. Lunch has largely disappeared as a family meal, and breakfast may not be far behind. What does seem to hold true is that the majority of people still want and value family meals, however they define them. I a study conducted in the US and North America in 2016, three-quarters of people stated that they wanted to make more effort to sit down together for a family meal. At the same time, those same people stated they faced a multitude of barriers in putting this into practice. Families still eat together, though this is often at malls, in restaurants, or in cars on their way to the basketball practice. But to what extent do these constitute family meals? The common elements of food and family are still there, but what may be missing are some of the symbolic and culturally meaningful dimensions of the home-based family meal, some of the cultural learning opportunities, and the structure that family mealtimes can bring to the day.

What does this mean for marketing? In simplest terms, it means thinking about what happens through the entire meal cycle, not just what happens at the table. The changes in how we gather at the table suggests that while the motivational and diagnostic frames campaigns are likely to resonate with parents functionally, they do not align with parents’ experiences. Parents face more barriers to having the kinds of meals they want and have fewer ideas for overcoming them. As an example of one way to overcome the disconnect, promoting family meals should focus on innovative but relatable strategies for improving family meal frequency and quality.

Another is to focus on the idea of creation rather than consumption. Today, craft-based skills are namely the domains of skilled practitioners. What once had to be made for oneself is now available to purchase. What was once fixed or mended is now easily replaced with mass produced and inexpensive alternatives. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement in markets such as artisanal or slow-food cooking where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion cooking and gain something one-of-a-kind. So why not in the family kitchen? It creates a connection to something tangible. It reinforces the underlying emotional currents and social intent of shared mealtime. I provides memories that return the family meal to its somewhat mythological intent – a place to slow down, reflect, and build.

Eating together, whatever and wherever that may be, helps to build bonds between family members. Perhaps instead of mourning the demise of the family meal, we can look for ways to reinvigorate our relationship with food.

 

The Return of Tabletop RPGs: Musings from GenCon and the Branding of Inclusion

gen-con.jpgGrowing a Belief

Gaming is not going anywhere, but the business does need to grow. Even with the successes and growth of RPGs in recent years, there is always a need to secure old fans and new fans alike. As the industry matures, the established brand names wield the power to influence, build, and shape gaming culture as a whole. Brands like Paizo Publishing and Wizards of the Coast are among the foremost cultural creators, especially considering the recent mainstream popularity of properties like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D is, for the world, the bastion of play). Of course, gaming culture mimics culture as a whole, reflecting or even predicting waves of great social change as they happen. When calls for accessibility, inclusion, and diversity ripple through the country, they also sound in the gaming community. Brands recognize this. They also understand that their core audience is at risk should they pivot too quickly to answer. This creates a limiting cycle wherein a brand cannot evolve for the sake of preserving its core audience, and the core audience defends the brand to the point of excluding potential new fans. Likewise, society takes baby steps forward while simultaneously bolstering the status quo. But in looking ahead for both culture and gaming, these trends signal the strongest long-term return will come from investing in and standing with this inclusive, belief-based audience. And each of these challenges is a tremendous opportunity if brands focus on them correctly.

While belief-based messaging is not new, the trend within advertising and strategy is in a rekindling stage. This means researching, pinpointing, and applying the ideals shared by customer and brand alike, allowing brands to get themselves a piece of their audience’s cultural pie. And it’s more than penning some messaging that strikes a fleeting chord with a tenuous audience – it’s shaping a brand oeuvre that, while nimble, will stand with its target audiences and embody their beliefs throughout their lives. At the same time, value exploration lets a brand rediscover and project its own authentic personality and voice, meeting overlooked or untapped audiences halfway and effectively breaking out of the self-defeating cycle of audience preservation. It leverages the belief that a brand isn’t so much an object as it is a dialog. It’s a tactic that both strengthens a brand’s link with established customers and strategically hones branding to attract new fans. This belief-based approach has proven itself valuable and lasting, and we use it to bring the same enduring brand legacy to clients.

GenCon 2018 – The Year of Inclusion

Being headquartered in Indianapolis gives us a vantage point for attending and analyzing GenCon every year, which allows us to watch the evolution of the con’s internal culture and also its effect on the city and larger gaming world. This year we observed that diversity and inclusion featured as centerpiece topics for many panels and as major considerations in convention participant guidelines. While the con carried on with its usual electricity, these voices for inclusion stood out as louder and more numerous than they have been in years past. The national zeitgeist has been around movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and representation, accessibility, and gender nonconformity. Ever a microcosm of the larger cultural conversation, these audiences’ voices are finally, actively being heard at GenCon and in the gaming world, and they are waiting for a response. While they wait, it creates a reverberating cultural dissonance between rapidly evolving cultural demand and what influential brands slowly say and make.

While some segments of gaming culture have made strides to represent these values, the demand for outwardly inclusive products is not being met by the major players in the market. Any movement toward these values is usually driven by proactive community members rather than brands themselves. Of course, smaller brands have popped up with products and communities that serve these belief-based buyers. Blue Rose and even well-established games like Shadowrun are considered inclusive RPGs. Outside of RPGs, One Deck Dungeon and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn are well-received for their representation. Major brands may actually have comparable products that would serve this audience well. But overall, big brands seem tentative about directly catering to those outside their core – in all likelihood because they do not want to risk alienating segments of their cornerstone players. And if you looked at overall sales and brand awareness, these major brands would appear to be winning; D&D and Magic the Gathering remain the biggest names in the RPG and deck-building game markets. On the other hand, brands taking belief-based stands and fostering inclusion-focused communities are responding to this potent cultural calling and gaining long-term edge because of it. In the end, it is up to the bigger market leaders to recognize this shift and join in riding the wave now, rather than being left rudderless in the current. Being one of the biggest names in gaming, Wizards of the Coast is in a unique position to both capitalize on this demand and expand its keystone audience in the process, influencing much of the industry to do the same.

Recently, our research focus has been on roleplaying games. And Dungeons & Dragons is the grandfather of them all. Roleplaying games are, at their core, inclusive. In an ideal world, all audiences recognize that they provide a dynamic system of play and a fantastical world that anyone can adapt. The basic system is a sandbox for

people to build whatever adventure they want to play and be whoever they want to be. So, a brand might focus on this versatile content, touting its inclusiveness and their willingness to rewrite the source materials. Yet, for its myriad merits, D&D has become stereotyped and, effectively, owned by a niche audience. The universal appeal of the brand and the game itself is still there, but this core audience has culturally constructed walls impeding adoption. In other words, many of the core audience are perceived as gatekeepers. An RPG is only as good as those playing it – and D&D’s current core, targeted audience is loyal, but not perceived as inclusive. Wizards of the Coast is presented with a worthy challenge: both the product and the audience need to become more welcoming to diverse, new fans, but only the product seems directly controllable.

Focusing on shared values solves this disconnect among brand, product, and audience. And integrating the correct shared beliefs both into what a brand says and does publicly and the brand’s parent company itself will only further this connection, creating lasting brand love. Streamlining this integration and closing the gap between audience and brand ideals allows the brand to bottle cultural lightning for themselves. For a brand like Wizards of the Coast, inclusivity should be the value integrated first on the controllable side – the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the integration standing in the way of any knee-jerk claims of inauthenticity. A diligent transformation will spurn some fans but invigorate others to adopt and practice these values. It all starts with the brand itself, changing the product and the culture from within, and then without. To put it simply, a shared value approach amplifies the brand’s stand for inclusivity and diversity and transforms the core audience from gatekeepers into welcoming advocates, opening the floodgates for long-term returns.

Importantly, when it comes to inclusivity and diversity, a brand must show – not tell – its intended audiences their shared values. Continuing the example, Wizards of the Coast has spoken of inclusivity as a marquee value for a long time, but the meaning of the word loses effect on these potential audiences when it’s not fully ingrained in brand infrastructure. This means not focusing the conversation on small updates, but going above and beyond internally to get product elements right. This means not only relying on a trusted team, but bringing in diverse writers, creatives, and community leaders to work with them. This means not campaigning to point out the steps you’re taking, but behaving as usual while thoroughly melding these values with the brand’s day-to-day process. And those potential audience members who have been critical before will be the ones paying attention to this internal shift, adopting the game out of curiosity and appreciation for the brand’s evolution. It is a slow, deliberate, and thorough process that culturally galvanizes increasing long-term audience payoff. It is added value without taking away any offerings the core audience loves. The value-based audience pays close attention to authenticity when deciding which brands they share their values with, meaning in this case, the practicing is leagues more important than the preaching.

As curious new folks take an interest in the brand, the gatekeeper members of the core audience step into action. Some fans act as a welcoming committee, excited by the prospect of new players. While others become more entrenched, seeing themselves as righteous defenders of the purity of their game and brand. These feelings are not all bad, as the passion can be redirected in Wizards of the Coast’s favor. But, by standing for inclusivity, Wizards of the Coast takes back ownership of its brand. Core audience members, gatekeepers or otherwise, will tend toward reflecting the brand and practicing shared values. New people are interested in the game, which the brand shows them means better products and new adventures. A growing audience then acts as a catalyst, rather than a trap trigger. Beyond controlling the product, a brand with a firmly held belief can, via ripple effect, influence its current audience, bolstering the welcoming committee by converting others from territorial soldiers into fierce brand advocates.

So What

In the end, a brand taking a stand for something is a big idea. It’s a change, no matter how steady the adoption or smooth the transition. Yes, brands like Wizards of the Coast may lose some people from its core audience. But if a brand officially aligns itself with a value it, theoretically, always had, those fans were never core brand evangelists to begin with. Simply, those who don’t share brand beliefs will self-select out. And this is, in the long-term, ultimately a positive. This venting of wall-builders will allow new fans in, healing, diversifying, and growing the core audience. It is a long play brand strategy built on the brand’s values, broader audiences, and a growing foundation of fans. Standing with those who call for inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, and visibility is a brand investment in a burgeoning audience that will become part of its core audience in the future, allowing Wizards of the Coast and similar tabletop gaming brands to reclaim ownership of their principles and, potentially, lead the entire industry forward.

 

Culture and Marketing

Change in Media, Change in Targets

It’s time to update the idiom. There are three things certain in life: death, taxes, and…branding. People are exposed to thousands of commercials in various mediums every day, including radio, television, social media and print. This adds up and evolves, resulting in the average individual adult or child being exposed to countless varied ad instances every year. But quantity is not the only thing that is changing. In the past, advertising was largely a one-way communication. Now, customers are taking control of the products, services, and the way they interface with them. In other words, audiences can volley back and participate in the millions of advertising interactions they experience every day. “It is shared communication, not only between the firm and customers but between actors in the marketplace.”

This dynamic personalization has advanced the industry beyond just marketing to personas, segments, and averages. We can be more specific in our design – we have the technology – and that has upped the bar. Today’s marketer should be able to 1) recognize every customer as an individual, delivering 1-1 experiences that feel one-of-a-kind in the hearts and minds of consumers, 2) know the discrete intention of every engagement, and 3) own every moment. Thus, the future of marketing lies in the battle for these micro-moments, shared in the space between the brand itself and the consumer’s response. Creating trust in this space, between brand and audience, is then vital. And the internet is influencing this interaction.

It is easy to see, then, that the moving target that is impactful advertising is only moving more quickly as the nature of advertising continues to evolve. Mass marketing isn’t dying, but it is definitely going through some natural selection. This denotes a change in what has long defined the consumer marketplace as fragmentation and niche groups come to define cultural patterns and, as such, hyper-targeted audiences. Increasingly sophisticated technology has enabled consumers to skip over these mass-market models, allowing people to quickly and easily search out specific products that speak to them. And data shows that this new self-curated buyer journey leads to consumers committing their dollars to brands that, across digital channels, give them content they care about1. In other words, people are choosing brands that help them define their individual identities and build their tribes over brands lacking a certain cultural trust or significance.

In this cultural resonance we find a huge opportunity for brands: people don’t hate advertising as much as they may claim. Now more than ever, brands are part of culture and identity – i.e. things consumers want to cultivate. 83% of people agree with the statement “Not all ads are bad, but I want to filter out the really obnoxious ones.”3  Translation: consumers don’t hate ads so much as they hate irrelevant ads, meaning ads that don’t speak to them functionally or emotionally. To endure now, successful brands must adopt a process that gives consumers a more relevant experience wherever and however they shop4. The experience will need to continuously optimize based on cues from the market and the target audiences2. This strategy will improve conversion rates, foster communities, and drive advocacy. Ultimately, brands with staying power will create a steady reciprocal relationship with their consumers, turning them into powerful ambassadors and fanatics.

So what do I mean by culture here? Culture is the sum total of shared values, ideas, beliefs, behaviors, and ideology of a group of people. You might say it is the glue that holds groups of people together and shapes their identity. Drawing on our extensive experience working in cultural influence, we tend to agree. When developing a campaign or marketing plan, other people tend to focus on benefits, features, and superficial aspects of the target audience. But, when we talk about a focus on “culture” we are talking about the deeper emotions, motivations, and associations people have with an activity, product, or service, many of which are subconscious. Culture is not a trend, though trends may impact it. Rather, culture is comprised of cognitive, social, and conceptual “frames” that people build upon. Think “pants”. Stylistically they change over time and if you make them, you better stay on top of the trends. But at a deeper cultural level we have an understanding of what pants are regardless of time. Understanding the deeper concept – what signals pants versus what makes bell-bottoms – and how it’s constructed gives you an incredible amount of power.

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Perhaps the most important piece to remember is that culture is a process. Culture is shared interactions, which means it is fluid. The reification of culture (regarding culture as a thing) leads to a notion that “it” is a thing that can act almost independently of human agency. But culture does not. Culture is subject to change and change can be controlled, or at least influenced, in any number of ways, including how we insert a brand into a person’s life. There are undercurrents and motifs that remain focal points through time, but they are always subject to restructuring. We are able to harness this cultural restructuring into a step-by-step analysis to approach, influence, and react to audiences.

First, cultural change is a selective process. Whenever cultures are presented with new ideas, they do not accept everything indiscriminately2. A marketing message or innovation is most likely to be diffused into a recipient culture if: (1) it is seen to be superior to what already exists; (2) it is consistent with existing cultural patterns; (3) it is easily understood in the context of their symbolic and functional constructs; (4) it is able to be tested on an experimental basis; and (5) its benefits are clearly visible.

Second, new ideas, objects, or techniques are usually reinterpreted and reworked so that they can be integrated more effectively into the total configuration of the recipient culture. In other words, people don’t simply consume marketing, they interpret and reinvent it.

Third, some cultural traits are more easily accepted than others. By and large, technological innovations are more likely to be borrowed than are social patterns or belief systems, largely because the usefulness of a particular technological trait can be recognized quickly. But technological advancement can only get you so far. For instance, by any reasonable measure, the US should have adopted the metric system by now. The thing preventing it is a lack of cultural connection. The same process holds true for brands.

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This cultural function means that the brand someone selects, that she is loyal to, is driven more by the deep emotional and cultural needs than by features and benefits. The sustainable brand, the brand that draws people to it again and again, reflects cultural truths. When you identify those deeper truths, you build a much deeper, more authentic connection both to that individual and to their “tribe”. From a strategic perspective, it provides you with more nuanced and adaptive creative, the ability to identify the right channels and platforms in which to market, and a long-term roadmap to evolve your communication as the brand grows. At a practical level, it means sustainable ROI and target audience ownership.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting a brand – one that sees return on innovation and investment – must operate like a member of culture alongside its consumers. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves.

 So, we know we must tap into a brand’s cultural depth with its audience. We need to build and recognize trust and grab a piece of it. And that’s how you get a share of culture. If we were to define it for a textbook, we’d say Share of Culture is the positive feelings, attitudes and beliefs shared between a brand and its audience. We believe the key to creating marketing campaigns that resonate today is to leverage your audience’s culture, seeing the bigger picture and building a reciprocal space. And, in the end, placing your audience’s culture at the center of marketing strategies creates sustainable ROI because culture has the power to nurture stronger, longer lasting and more engaged relationships with your audiences.

To be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture – an equal participant. At the same time, it must own a piece of it. To rephrase, a company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. And because people want to belong to something bigger than themselves9., when they make a purchase – whether it be a home, a new gaming system, or vacation package – they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. The meaning that has been created in the goods and services is not intrinsic to those goods and services. The meaning is created as the brand interacts with culture. It’s actually our culture that says a diamond has more value than a ruby, and gold has more value than silver, an Apple mobile device has more value than a Nokia, etc. If you come to marketing from the vantage point of added meaning, it suggests that choices consumers make have great symbolic connotations, both within their life and without. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to do the right thing by those consumers – the brand’s peers within their share of culture – who are choosing a certain product in order to craft their identity. The trust and respect between brand and buyer has been established. The result of building this sort of reciprocal bond is that you move customers from being loyalists to being advocates by establishing a very strong sense of brand affinity through meaning.

 

 

Here comes Krampus

When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus a number of years ago, before the legendary creature had captured the hearts of the world, I received an earful about the damaging nature of such a myth. I learned that Krampus was, it turned out, as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. The thing is, I already knew about Krampus. I’d grown up with Krampus (thank you to my grim, German ancestors). And while I’m sure there are people who would dispute it, I turned out reasonably undamaged by the tradition.

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For those unfamiliar with the legend, Krampus is a demonic creature recognized in many Alpine countries. Krampus, with his horns and great lolling tongue, accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner. Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter. He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met.

But is Krampus really so horrible? Will he really lead our children to lives of sin and an unrelenting fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. So too with traditions like Krampus.

On the surface Krampus doesn’t have much to do with marketing. When you take a step back, however, it means that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of marketing and s

ets the stage for building brand affinity from Halloween through Christmas. The lines between the holidays are increasingly blurred and simply assuming that one cultural norm fits neatly into a single campaign pillar is a lost opportunity. Holiday shoppers no longer wait until Black Friday or even the month of November to get started. To get ahead of this holiday season, smart businesses must consider their marketing kick-offs much earlier. This makes Halloween an excellent starting point for the holiday season in its entirety, tying the fall-to-winter holiday continuum together. Krampus and similar spooky figures associated with the holiday season are, arguably, a better fit for Halloween, so why not use them as a connecting thread?  Ultimately, this leads to a more cohesive experience.

And that’s what marketing is all about: providing an experience. Why do I put up with getting nauseous riding roller coasters? Because my kids love the experience.  Why do people, young and old, love to watch horror movies?  For the experience of being spooked. Halloween marketing is built around providing some type of experience, but it needn’t begin and end with Halloween. Why not build continuity and extend the brand’s story? A brand story is more than content and a narrative. If you don’t have a story you are just another commodity in a season inundated with messaging. A replaceable cog in the consumption machine. By tying everything together, you capture people’s attention for the entire season, not just fleeting moments.

Brand Affinity, Culture, and a Pickup Truck

Brand affinity is the most enduring and valuable level of customer relationship and is based on the mutual belief that the customer and the company share common values. It breeds unshakable trust in the relationship the brand and the consumer share. It is at its strongest level when a customer believes that your brand champions the values they both share. Consumers who demonstrate affinity for a brand buy more, buy more often, and complain less than all other types of consumers. And the surest way to build brand affinity is to tap into the deep, culture truths your consumers hold. As an example, let’s talk about that most iconic of American driving, the pickup truck.

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The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture. Trucks are the symbolic embodiment of the hard-working American spirit. Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, many, if not most, truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston or Denver and it becomes abundantly clear that the truck is as much a cultural statement as it is a tool. According to a study conducted by Hedges & Company, truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000 making alterations and refinements. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

Seems like a pretty straightforward discussion so far, but pause for a moment and try to picture the typical pickup owner. Visions of a guy in his 20s or 30s immediately come to mind. And while that’s clearly the target audience, it also represents a marketing plateau – there’s simply a cap on how many of these people exist. So where might other opportunities lie? What potential market is being overlooked. Well, let’s try women. When I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of the 30 participants owned a truck as a function of her occupation. Several used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Still more used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway. Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives. The point is that the truck became an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV. And interestingly, the brands they chose most often were Toyota and Ford. They were seen as either more accepting of diversity because they weren’t part of the traditional American pickup market (Toyota) or because they harkened back to a simpler time (Ford). Dodge, on the other hand, was seen as embodying masculinity to the point of misogyny and Chevy, as one consumer put it, was “a truck for boys”. Toyota and Ford pickups fit easily into their cultural identity, Dodge and Chevy did not. The result is that the women who own Toyota and Ford pickups express extreme loyalty to the brands and say they are significantly more inclined to advocate for them. Considering the economic power of women, that’s a great place to be in.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers. The truck is a fashion piece. It’s a toy. It is a way of stating you’re part of a tribe. And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc. Regardless of your product or service, understanding the cultural elements of a brand gives build stronger connection to your consumers.