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.

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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.

 

 

Post Pop: Identity as Brand

How Brands Shape Identity (And Why It Matters)

Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. This interest was driven to the forefront of my mind again recently when attending Indy Pop Con, an event dedicated to cosplay, anime, comics, and gaming. Because brands that have the most resonance and sustainability are focusing more and more on cultural groups as significant points of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in specific contexts. Whether it’s cosplay, choosing your next car, or even buying beer, there is a central question we need to ask ourselves: how do self-presentation strategies impact who people choose to be in a given context and how does that shape marketing?

Identities Change. Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and by extension, how we feel about a brand. Take gender, for instance. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. We build campaigns with women or men in mind. However, for many people, especially younger people, the notion of a binary gender construct is becoming a thing of the past. And in virtual environments, players to switch genders fairly freely. Whether we’re talking about cosplay, gender, or anything else, what this means is that how people perceive themselves is more fluid than it has been in much of the past. Companies that don’t take these notions of identity into account in their marketing and advertising efforts do more than miss an opportunity. They risk alienation through irrelevance. Now, here’s where shit gets nerdy – yeah, I’m putting that out there. For those who aren’t that excited by the nerdy, skip the next paragraph.

Importantly, we don’t simply adopt personas as a façade; it’s much deeper than that. Identity is constructed according to context. The theoretical model used in anthropology and sociolinguistics is rooted in the idea that we construct identity – that we create or adapt both inward and outward expressions of ourselves in accordance with the moment. Think of it as a form of high-stakes theater. In a social interaction, as in a theatrical performance, there is an onstage area where actors (individuals) appear before the audience; this is where positive self-concepts and desired impressions are offered. But there is, as well, a backstage – a hidden, private area where individuals can be themselves and drop their societal roles and identities. This backstage makes it no less “real” – it simply means different notions of identity apply.

As we communicate with people, we share different parts of ourselves, adopting slightly different personas, so to speak, to reflect the context. We display and act upon sides of our personalities we want to stress with one person but conceal with another. That doesn’t make us less “authentic.” Rather, authenticity is dependent on the situation. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Now, back to the less geeky stuff. What this means from a marketing and advertising perspective is that people gravitate toward brands that they can adapt to a given context. People (because we’re talking about human beings, not consumers) will choose brands that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each person on an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, those choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of contextual identity.  For example, a woman may choose to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the she considers herself a post-punk soccer mom, the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both her own and her tribe’s perception about her desired identity. As a result, people use brands both to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In other words, the brands we chose send a message about who we are in different contexts. The brands we chose are communication tools we use to express our different personas.

Putting It into Practice. So what is a brand to do when it comes to marketing and advertising? What do we do with this idea of the fluid, contextual self? Simply put, think differently:

  • Think in terms of building your share of culture. The stronger the associations people have between your brand and their cultural affinity, the more likely they are to see your brand as inseparable from their own identity. That builds more than loyalty, it builds an unbreakable link between your brand and how they see the world.
  • Contextualizing the brand. This doesn’t mean abandoning a consistent brand message. Rather, it means creating a brand, campaign, or messaging platform that can adapt according to the contexts in which it will be used. Know the cultural standards of your audiences and design a plan that fits their worldviews in a given context.
  • Build flexible strategies. Brand and campaign strategies should be thought of in terms of ecosystems, not pillars, where every channel plays a unique role in relation to the audiences. This allows your message to remain relevant as people shift from one contextual persona to another.
  • Don’t throw out the segmentation just yet. Segmentation schemes are still useful for speaking to macro-behaviors and broader cultural patterns. That means they represent a good starting point when developing a marketing plan. But they are a starting point. Don’t let them become the end all and bee all of your strategy.
  • Mediocrity breeds indifference. Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative – it’s better to be loved by many than to be liked by all. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that depending on the context, a brand is interpreted and used differently. This isn’t to say it’s a free for all, but it does mean that much of the conversation around the brand will occur in unexpected ways. Turn that to your advantage.
  • Finally, remember that people want a reason to embrace your brand and will find a way to do it if your brand helps them reaffirm their identity.

While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, fluid and unstructured mass where identity is more nebulous. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature. It provides a message for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes.  He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs. Knowing that gives you significantly greater power in the marketplace.

 

 

Making Tech Sexy: Share of Culture and Building Brands

The old advertising 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 we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which used to 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. And this is where brands are taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols 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.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. 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. People need to be part of a tribe. A

 How it relates to the creative process

We are not focusing on complex cultural concepts just for the sake of making people smarter. That’s completely useless if you can’t do anything with it. As such, we take the insights we uncover and integrate them into a creative strategy by asking questions such as: “What are the cultural forces and tensions that are acting on the consumer to influence how they perceive value?” or “What are the conventions or the categories that you may or may not want to disrupt?” The answers to these questions build a proposition to bridge between research findings and creativity that illuminates a new pathway to growth. Through that proposition, we are able to connect greater meaning to brands and grow share of culture. If you can understand the domain of culture, and actually use that understanding to build a strategy, you can increase relevance. Starting with a focus on cultural insights ultimately leads to looking at a problem from different perspectives.

Why do we take this particular approach? Because at a fundamental level we believe that when people make a purchase, whether it be a home, a new gaming system, a vacation package or whatever it is, 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 are not intrinsic to those goods and services, 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 or what have you. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choice they’re making is actually very important to them. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to do the right thing by those consumers, who are choosing a certain product in order to craft their identity. That means there are really no boundaries for clients and the emphasis becomes one of solving a problem rather than executing on a task. And quite simply, that sets up a brand for meaningful creative work.

Putting It Into Practice

So, what does all of this look like? Let’s take you through an example. BaM was asked by Microsoft to quickly come up with ideas for Windows Gaming’s VIP party for Gamescom in Cologne. Gamescom is the video game industry’s largest European event, with well over a quarter-million visitors and thousands of journalists, all looking to see advances in gaming technology. In other words, this is a very big, very visible event. And as with all such events, people are there to learn but also to have a good time, which of course means parties. But while Windows is a major platform for development and is home to a huge audience of PC gamers, it isn’t necessarily seen as the sexiest of brands. Windows needed two main things; 1) ideas to create buzz at the event and 2) a way to get VIPs to their party. Equally important, this was the event where Microsoft would premiere the auto racing game Asphalt 8, it’s newest release for Windows.

So, we began asking a very basic question. What makes a party meaningful? Through a series of interviews and recounting our own experiences with parties in a narrative-based brainstorm, we came to a very basic truth – a party is just another event, but a destination people want to actively be a part of. It creates a sense of excitement and suggests the promise of stories to come. For the attendee, a destination is something special, something tailored, something to live on after the drinking and dancing are done.

The next step was to gain a richer understanding of developer culture by thinking about them as a “culture of practice”. Culture of practice generally refers to the manifestation of a culture or subculture, especially in regard to the traditional and customary practices of a particular ethnic or other cultural group. In other words, what commonalities could we uncover in the developer tribe that we could speak to?  Two key insights bubbled to the surface. First, there are close links with driving culture in that machines are points of fascination. But the machine itself isn’t enough. They want to understand it, test it, experience what it can do. Design, how quickly it reacts, how it performs, etc. factor into a love of technology – it isn’t about the parts that make it up, it’s about the sum total of the experience. Second, developers have in the past been often overlooked at events like this. They are important and people listen to them, but once the technical discussions are over they have traditionally been relegated to the “geek” corner. Not anymore. Look at the two classic characteristics of geeks: social ineptitude and obsessive devotion to some pursuit. They’re neither social climbers nor rebels, because they are indifferent to how the world sees them. But those days are, in many ways, dead and buried. Cory Arcangel is a Damien Hirst­y hipster artist. Joss Whedon is not a geek but a talented hack writer in the tradition of Ben Hecht, capable of synthesizing junk culture in clever and knowing ways. The point being, developers are as much artists and rebels as anyone else. And they deserve recognition for it.

So, what if we paired the love of the machine with the cool factor of “geek culture”? Almost all of these developers are deeply familiar with the supercars in driving games like Asphalt 8, but how many have actually been in one? What if we created a taxi service involving high-end, high-performance cars? Even if our VIPs didn’t have a strong fascination with these amazing machines, they would jump at the opportunity to be in one. It spoke to the love of performance and technology, but also the sheer bad-assery of the design.

Knowing our venue was several miles from the event, it also provided an opportunity to do more than experience a pointless two-block ride – it let the passenger really feel the car. We found an incredible rental vendor and drivers to ferry our VIPs in Lamborghinis, Audi R8s, and Ferraris – the sort of things you might be familiar with if you were eagerly awaiting the next release of Asphalt.

The next step was to create awareness. Rather than sending an email or note that might never be seen, BaM created exclusive key cards, each featuring different 8-bit party icons for partygoers to present at the door. But for our select group of VIPs, we created cards featuring an illustration of an 8-bit car with handwritten phone number. Dialing that number landed them a ride to the club in our supercar taxi service. This did more than just get you to the event. It created a sense of exclusivity for the passenger and curiosity for the onlooker. It created buzz. Suddenly people were asking, what cool thing does Microsoft have going on and how do I get in?

Party Time

The cars and the buzz were great, but the party had to pay it all off. And this is where details matter most. BaM gave the club’s drink menu a redesign with retro-gaming themed names like Castle Key, Magic Elixir and Combo Move. The staff wore shirts featuring 8-bit artwork that corresponded to the drinks they were serving. And partygoers had the chance to play a sneak preview of Asphalt 8: Airborne on Surface tablets that were walked around by the staff.

Coolness is defined in many ways by the company you keep. In this case, the party did more than attract our guests. It produced both gatecrashers and a visit from the polizei – nothing says “successful party” like people from other organizations, like Google, trying to get in and the police showing up to manage the growing crowd outside the building.

Take Aways

Great story, yes, but why does it matter? At a practical level, we were able to demonstrate that Windows provides outstanding game quality. In other words, we were able to change perceptions about the brand (Windows is, it turns out, kind of cool) and the products. We did more than just make the case for the platform and the game, we generated increased interest and share of culture.

It also opened up new venues to sell games. By proving the products in a very public way, we could exploits Windows’ tremendous reach. We’re largely outside the App Store/Android battle. By demonstrating what Windows has to offer, it allows developers and designers to broaden their market, thus providing Microsoft with new partners, products, and prestige.

Finally, at a broader level we were able to start shifting perceptions of Microsoft and Windows. Added to the successes of the Surface Pro, the exclusive use of Windows products in DC universe programming, and an increasingly user-friendly operating system, this event helped the company capture a greater share of meaning in the broader culture. It helped move the conversation from moments of advertising and marketing, to part of a deeper, positive undercurrent. In other words, it helped capture a greater share of culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.