Cultural Meanings and Breakfast

It is a frigid, snowy morning. I have a loaf of bread baking in the oven, a jar of blackberry preserves at the ready, and several slices of ham waiting to go into a pan. The dog is curled up at my feet while my wife and daughters are still in bed, though I’m certain the smell of baking bread will rouse them soon enough and this weekend ritual will begin anew. This is a radical departure from what happens most days. Most days it’s a matter of grabbing what you can.

Human beings have, of course, been eating something for a morning meal forever, but it hasn’t always been so defined by the foods we associate with breakfast. Indeed, it was often whatever was left over from the night before or could be prepared with a minimal degree of effort. Historian Ian Mortimer suggests the Tudors invented modern breakfasts in the 16th century. As people increasingly came to work for an employer, rather than working for themselves on their own land, they lost control of their time, and had to work long, uninterrupted days without sustenance. A hearty breakfast allowed them to work longer days. The Industrial Revolution and the move from farms to factories formalized the idea of breakfast further. But there is more to breakfast than its function. It is wrapped up in symbolism and cultural change.

There are foods that have probably always been connected to breakfast. Oatmeal and other porridges are present early in the prehistoric record, and their invention may have changed the course of human history. Analysis of stone age tools indicate pancakes have been in the mix for eons. In fact, Otzi, the world’s oldest naturally preserved human mummy, is thought to have eaten a wheat pancake as one of his last meals.

For many, if not most Americans, the combination of bacon and eggs forms the basis for the archetypal hot breakfast. Eggs have long been a popular breakfast food, perhaps because fresh eggs were often available early in the day, but their partnership with bacon is a 20th century invention. In the 1920s, Americans typically ate fairly light breakfasts, so public relations pioneer Edward Bernays persuaded doctors to promote bacon and eggs as a healthy breakfast in order to promote sales of bacon on behalf of Beech-Nut. And so it was that the iconic breakfast combination was born. The American breakfast landscape was again altered in the latter half of the 1800s. In 1863 Dr. James Caleb Jackson invented granola. In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg accidentally created a flaked cereal when a pot of cooked wheat went stale. Kellogg tried to save the wheat by putting it through a roller. It dried in flakes and corn flakes was born. That little mistake changed our breakfast traditions forever. Cereal was  convenient. It didn’t need to be cooked and it had a relatively long shelf life. Packaging made it simple to transport and to store. It saved time and effort. It fit in with a modernizing world. The larger breakfast of bacon and eggs didn’t disappear, but it was largely relegated to the weekend when time was less of a pressing factor.

And it is this shift to the weekend that is important because breakfast has become less of a way the family starts the day, and more an ideal, a representation of a life most people haven’t the luxury to take on.  Quite simply no one has time to sit down to the table and eat, let alone to cook breakfast. There are buses to catch, cars to get started, errands to run before work. There is the early-morning trip to the gym, the walking of the dog, the flight to catch. Breakfast  has become either a necessity we deal with or, and this is to my mind the interesting part, a celebration. It might be a celebration of “slow living” or bringing the family together on the weekend, but the deeper underlying element is that the meaning of breakfast changes. It is something to be savored at specific points in time.

Breakfast is now a liminal space between the chaotic pace of the weekday and the equally chaotic pace of the weekend. And that has a huge impact on the food we prepare and how we prepare them. The Saturday or Sunday breakfast is a clear space, a point of calm. The morning roles we perform throughout the week (parent, teenager, etc.) are dropped and replaced with something more egalitarian, in many cases. Rather than breakfast symbolizing the start to a busy day where actions and behaviors are strictly kept in order to get specific things done, everyone is involved in the “performance” of breakfast and the duties are less strict. Alternatively, the celebratory breakfast sees us take on roles specific to the moment – dad the baker, mom the storyteller, boyfriends become expressions of romantic fiction made real as they prepare the perfect avocado toast, etc. The point is that breakfast provides a time for us to explore alternative identities that are fleeting and therefore precious. The act of making becomes as important as the food itself.

The rethinking of what breakfast means in this particular context ultimately has an impact on the ingredients we choose to cook with. As we allow ourselves to slow down and drift into moment largely outside of time, our ingredients can become more indulgent, more refined, or more experimental. We buy organic bacon from the local farm and break out the Irish butter that sells for $8 a pound. We crack open a box of Fruity Pebbles (an unhealthy product we might refrain from during the week) and add them to our waffle mix simple because it’s fun. We make huevos con chorizo to go with the bread our Swedish friend taught us to make. There is a purity to this, a sense of personal transformation, even it’s only for an hour out of the week. From a marketing perspective, this opens up a world of creative opportunities.

But is there a level of relevance beyond breakfast? Of course there is. Culture isn’t static, it is subject to change. That means your product and your brand are reflections of that cultural and symbolic give and take. In marketing and advertising, reaching the deeper elements of meaning play a key role in determining the success or failure of any campaign, strategy, or innovation. Through proper, thoughtful deployment of verbal, visual, and performative elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers by expressing the deeper elements of what a product, an action, an activity mean. The catch is recognizing there’s another layer of meaning just below the surface. What people tell you they believe isn’t necessarily a reflection of the “truth”, but rather a series of “truths” that are shaped by context and time. Regardless of whether you’re brand makes organic oats or auto parts, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there synergy between what you’re trying to convey and the underlying system of signs,  symbols, and actions that govern interpretation by the consumer?
  • What elements of culture influence the way different combination of images and words are perceived?
  • Are there stories and archetypes that can be directly associated with your product of brand?
  • Are the different symbols and signs used in your communications coherent?
  • Have you considered how deep metaphors could influence the way your idea is perceived and acted upon?
  • Do you foresee any clashes in meaning between what you seek to project and what your audience may perceive?
  • Can customers associate your visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli with your product or service?

Sending the wrong signals can be destructive to your brand. It negates whatever intent you may have. But getting those signals right gives you a leg up over your competition. It drives innovation, creativity, and more effective strategies.

And with all of that, it’s time to pull the bread out of the oven, rouse the family, and celebrate the day.

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Yellowstone’s Wolves and Reintroducing a Brand

Two decades ago, Yellowstone National Park was suffering. It was the victim of defoliation, erosion, and an unbalanced ecosystem. But in 1995, everything changed. That was the year wolves were reintroduced to the park.

Prior to the return of wolves, deer, elk, and bison populations had increased substantially, resulting in overgrazing, particularly of willows and other vegetation important to soil and riverbank structure. This left the landscape vulnerable to erosion. Without wolves, the entire ecosystem of the park suffered.

When wolves were brought back to the park, they changed their prey’s behavior patterns. The herbivores started to avoid areas like valleys and gorges where they could be easily hunted by predators. And those areas began to regenerate. Species such as birds, beavers, mice, and bears returned. Plant life once again thrived along the riverbanks and erosion decreased significantly. Perhaps most remarkable, the stabilization of the riverbanks actually made the rivers and streams change course. The entire landscape of the park transformed.

Brands aren’t that dissimilar. They exist as part of a broader ecosystem and when they are removed, that ecosystem changes. Now, to be fair, “ecosystem” is admittedly an industry buzz word that’s been around for years, including the branding world. Most focus on the integration of social media, digital marketing, and consumer data. And they usually employ traditional means of brand communication. Every brand is part of a larger, interconnected cultural system. Not just the culture of the people inside the company, but its partners, customers, non-customers, and even competitors. It has history, mythology, functions, and forms. Every action results in a reaction.  

So, when a brand is reintroduced or reinvented, it does so in the context of a deeply interconnected set of variables. When ta brand is reintroduced or reinvented, it change the system. The burden of a brand revivalist, then, is to rewrite and reshape not only the brand itself, but the ecosystem in which it operates. No matter what the reason is for your brand relaunch, this means it needs to be specific and backed up by a concrete plan. The first step in the process is understanding where it fits in the ecosystem, what role it plays, and then deciding which aspects of the brand need to be retooled.  This, of course, requires a thorough evaluation of the core brand identity across all of its various components.

The second and perhaps more important step is to fully understand how the brand shapes the broader cultural patterns that impact its consumers/customer/users. Most situations involving a brand relaunch are going to be long-term affairs, and the planning stages need to be informed not only so the reintroduction itself will have maximum impact, but also so that it positively effects the system of which it is part, both sort and long-term.

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.

 

 

Alcohol Advertising and Symbolism

A familiar phrase is, “art imitates life.” It defines life as essential to art, but can we say the reverse? Could life imitate art? The phrase suggests that art reinforces cultural and social beliefs. Art is more than a product of reflection, it is a method by which we shape the world. Advertising is a good example to use with this theory for two reasons: first, media art caters to a broad diverse audience; and second, it is easily accessible and we see it everywhere: on television, in magazines, posters, and on billboards. Art both reinforces and constructs social and cultural categories, directing people to respond to it in predictable ways. So what does that look like?

Absolut Vodka’s long-running campaign is an example of how a broader message can be adapted to speak to specific cultural groupings. At its most fundamental level, it caters to an extensive audience and is very accessible. The standard image of the Absolut bottle is recognizable by most people, and has purposely been reproduced in every ad establishing it as a social symbol in America. Each advertisement includes a culturally significant person, place, object, or idea alongside the standard bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reveal mixed messages about culture to their various audiences masked on the surface by a culturally significant artifact.

The individual, tailored ads are separated into genres. When looking at a series of ads, we have a better idea of the collective cultural significance attached to the images. The text exists in relation to others. The image of the Absolut bottle has become a cultural icon, and the advertising aim is to make it recognizable as a distinct symbol of class to everyone who sees it. In order to make sense of the ad, the reader must identify the vodka bottle within the text. This expectation relies on the network of ads that have preceded it and the bottle-as-symbolic emblem of the brand. Instant identification of the symbol makes the reader of an Absolut ad a member of an exclusive club. The Absolut Vodka ad campaign aims to enroll everyone as a member of this club by stating that their “art” form, the vodka bottle, carries significant cultural reflections of society associated with the upper class that are relevant to all members regardless of their real class status.

The different genres of Absolut ads carry distinct cultural messages, and contain a universal class claim that is associated with the image of the vodka bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reinforce the cultural myth that American culture is defined in terms of class structure. However, it offers a mixed message about class that is defined and liquid: class can be bought. The Absolut campaign contains the idea that American culture is defined in terms of class by way of the object, setting, audience, and camera angle in the advertisement. The promotion challenges this idea by publicizing in a variety of magazines that reach people in all class structures. In effect, they are bridging a cultural class gap, by allowing such a diverse audience membership into an exclusive ad campaign. Not only is the advertisement selling the reader vodka, it is also selling the illusion of an earned societal position associated with the upper class.

The symbolic theme of class is exemplified in Absolut’s 2001 “Absolut Voted Off” campaign”. This ad was published in Entertainment magazine the week of October 19, 2001. The ad is very basic and shows four bottles of flavored Absolut Vodka grouped together on the left side of the page. The bottles are characterized by bright, warm colors such as yellow, orange, and purple. On the far right side of the page, not facing the audience, is the original Absolut Vodka bottle that is only revealing half of its cold, blue label. The text, “Absolut Voted-Off” appears at the bottom of the page. What does this ad reveal on the surface? At first glance it seems to be selling the new flavored vodkas, representing them as important and associated with a distinguished category. However, this advertisement is characteristic of the mixed messages portrayed by the Absolut advertising campaign.

When looking deeper we must ask ourselves as readers, relating to the theory art imitates life and life imitates art, what is the advertisement imitating here? The advertisement is imitating the American act of voting. This cultural activity is political at best. The objects, setting, audience, and camera angle of the ad all reinforce the belief that American culture is defined in terms of class structure, and that class can be bought. In this case, the four flavored vodkas are in a distinct class that the “Voted-Off” original vodka is not a part of. However, the original vodka is related to the others: it shares the same bottle, the same vodka, and the same text. The advertisement suggests that the original Absolut vodka bottle could gain acceptance into the distinct class by becoming flavored.

The setting of the advertisement builds on the cultural belief that America is class defined, but that movement within class structure is possible. The spotlight in the middle of the page is not highlighting either group specifically, but leaves a void that needs to be filled. But filled by whom? The ad suggests that the original vodka bottle can have a place next to the rest by leaving a space that is the appropriate size for such a transaction. However, the gap in the middle of the page can also hold a spot for the reader to fill. This involves audience participation by buying the product.

The audience of the advertisement plays a specific role in the ad, and supports a mixed message of class definition and mobility. The reader of the ad associates himself/herself as a member of the Absolut “club” by recognizing the image of the bottle within the ad. In the case of “Absolut Voted-Off,” the reader must choose which party to support, the flavored group or the lone original bottle. If the reader fills the gap in the ad he/she will be joining the class specific group that is associated with wealth: bright colors, strength in numbers, and security. The reader will also become a part of the majority that has voted off the minority. The ad is revealing a message about how culture is defined, in part, by class and is suggesting that as voters and consumers we have a direct say in which class we want to be associated with. In other words, Absolut isn’t just selling a taste, it’s selling a deeper cultural construct.

The theory art imitates life and life imitates art reveals important connections between symbolic structures and cultural beliefs. Media is mirroring important parts of American life and selling the images back with a product attached. However, the cultural and social myths that are being promoted are not always evident on the surface. And it’s at that point, at the symbolic interpretation, that meaning is made and brands are born.