Advertising Creating Positive Social Change

Advertising often gets a bad rap. It promotes over consumption, It promotes negative stereotypes. It makes us dumber. And while there’s some truth in all of this, there’s an argument to be made that advertising, in all its many forms, has also worked for the betterment of humanity. Advertising over the last two decades has created an environment where inclusive portrayals of society have actually benefited our culture, not only a company’s bottom line. 

Early in the history of advertising, the message was almost exclusively on the product. Features, benefits, and promises defined the messaging – get whiter teeth, have a greener lawn in half the time, etc. Those messages are still there, but there’s been a shift. As the battle for consumer dollars and attention have intensified, advertising has become more focused on brand. Michael Phelps pushes us to be not just a better athlete but a better human being.  Google shows us how inspirational we are through our communal search. Features and benefits don’t even factor in, as the message hones in on what it means to be caught up in this mortal coil.

Companies have shifted from delivering monologues to engaging in conversations and this dynamic has made brands more human in the process. Take Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. Never referencing feminine hygiene, Always focuses purely on the issue of female empowerment, using the ad to begin “an epic battle” for young girls everywhere by “showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.” But Always goes beyond what a brand says about you; it’s about identifying shared goals and contributing to a higher purpose – for everyone. You care about empowering girls? Great! You can tweet the “amazing things you do” with #LikeAGirl, and “stand up for girls” confidence at Always.com. Now it’s a conversation, and that’s exactly what Always, and the other companies joining in this form of values-based advertising, are looking for. Very few people care about tampons, but equality and female empowerment? Now that’s topic people get excited about. And this isn’t just about the target audience. It’s about grandmothers, dads, everyone. It help drive a conversation that has resulted in helping break down gender-biases and shifting cultural perceptions.

Cheerios is another great example. The brand didn’t realize what it was getting itself into when it  first featured an interracial family to promote the heart-healthy cereal during the summer of 2013. A topic we take largely for granted now sparked a great deal of discussion then. The racist backlash to the ad was so intense that Cheerios disabled the comments section on their YouTube channel. And this offered the public a glimpse into the prejudice mixed race families have to contend with, sparking a national conversation. Cheerios also saw an outpouring of support from consumers applauding the commercial, and a passionate defense against the backlash with people standing up for interracial families everywhere. What began as a simple cereal commercial ended up leading to a national discussion on race relations.

When advertising focuses on empowering people and accepting groups that are less accepted, it doesn’t just reflect culture, it shapes it. When brands paint a different picture of society, they play a role in redefining what is considered mainstream. They play a role is redefining our collective worldview and thus reshape culture. This isn’t to over-inflate the role of advertising in cultural evolution. Advertising will never act as the central agent of change. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important part of the process. We consume massive amounts of advertising every day. When this content promotes an inclusive picture of society and positive cultural change, it can work as an accelerator for social progress. It’s value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.

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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.

Brands and Self-Creation

The old brand model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but I believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands reflect culture, not targets or widgets. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough.

Consumers will no longer buy the external brand image we create, but will take it upon themselves to define what a brand really stands for by probing for their own truth. Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. Particularly in such a media-rich, postmodern, global environment, a sense of culture has become increasingly complex. That 35-year-old, American woman, might identify more closely as a post-punk-artist-suburban-engineer. In other words, she isn’t defined so much by her demographic makeup or media habits as she is by the choices she makes in shaping our own worldview and sense of self. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape of self-creation? Brands become symbols and metaphors for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart. Indeed, meaning has become the most important product a brand creates.

Perhaps the most relevant is that “culture” is a transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols by which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward the world. We’ve all heard it. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. Wonderful, but how do you begin to determine where your brand fits into a cultural matrix? I believe it starts with eight simple questions:

  1. Does it have a higher purpose?
  2. Does it have norms?
  3. Does it have specific values?
  4. Does it have special language?
  5. Does it use specific metaphors and symbols?
  6. Does it have myths, legends, and storytelling?
  7. Does it have rituals?
  8. How broad is its social presence?

Why this particular approach? Because, when people make a purchase, whether it be a mobile phone, a bag of dog food, or a bottle of milk, 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 that everybody buys is not intrinsic to those goods and services. It’s our culture that determines this. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choices we make are actually very important to us, even if those choices seem rather functional. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to craft strategies and messages that reflect these cultural perspectives.

Dwelling on Yogurt

Happy accidents have defined much of the human experience. The wheel, the discovery of metallurgy, the idea of fermenting olives (essentially little, bitter stones until cracked and left to cure). The development of the culinary experience in particular is riddled with these accidents and moments of inspiration. Yogurt is one such  archetypal food. While some speculate that it, along with beer, originated in Mesopotamia, the birthplace of agricultural civilization, there is no definitive way to know where yogurt began. But whoever first uncovered this metamorphosis over 7,000 years ago could scarcely have conceived of its subsequent and lasting impact.

At its core, yogurt is an innovation that elegantly deals with the universal issue of preserving a highly perishable food. In addition to food preservation, it just so happens that the process of fermentation also releases and creates constituents that make milk more digestible, nutritive, health-supporting and, in my humble opinion, delicious. 

There are countless ways of making yogurt, each recipe being different from for every other. Every maker’s technique will differ, every region has its own unique microbes. What’s more, the diversity of roles that plays in the hearts of people across the planet and the ways in which it is integrated into regional cuisines is truly astonishing. Yogurt is more than fermented dairy, it is a window into peoples’ lives.

It is this that makes yogurt so much more than the sum of all its  culinary and health benefits. The most crucial facet of yogurt is that it prolongs and deepens the relationship we have with our food. It connects us to our ancestors and allows us to become conduits between them and our descendants. And that’s what ultimately matters to people most — how they connect with your product, your innovation, or your brand.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.