We Are What We Drink

Just as beer cases have become filled with colorful labels and wine cellars have started to fill with more regional variety than we could ever have imagined, craft spirits are becoming alternatives to the traditional big liquor names. The number of craft distilleries jumped 16% in 2018 and 26% in 2017. In terms of what that represents to the workforce, 19,529 people now work full-time at craft spirits companies.

By far, the greatest number of craft distillers, 32.7 %, are in western states, with the South coming in second at 29.3. Third is the Midwest with 19.1% and the Northeast right behind at 18.9%. Among individual states, the leader by far is California, which has 148 craft distilleries, or nearly 10% of the total. New York State is next, with 123 craft distilleries. Washington State has 106, Texas has 86, and Colorado has 80.

Craft distilleries still represent a fraction of the overall booze market, but they’re steadily picking up sales and volume. In 2016, craft distilleries held 3% of sales. By 2017, that rose to 3.8%. On the surface that seems small, but gaining nearly a percentage point in such a massive industry point to a broader shift, just as it did with beer. Looking at the volume, that becomes abundantly clear. In actual cases, the craft industry has risen from 2.5 million cases sold in 2012, to 5.8 million cases in 2017. Interestingly, more than half of the sales for craft distillers come from customers in their home state. So craft distilling is on the rise, but why? And what does it say about marketing?

Food and drink can have something that the distilling world has long dismissed: a sense of place, drawn from the soil and climate where the grains grow – drawn from the history and cultural patterns that create a sense of meaning. This is tied to a growing international movement by distillers, plant breeders and academic researchers to return distilling to what they see as its locally grounded. Spirits with a sense of place can be made by cultivating regionally specific varieties, along with farming and distilling techniques that emphasize a spirit’s local flavor. But this idea goes well beyond flavor.

Something craft distilleries have done, whether intentional or not, is to tap into or create a sense of history and, in some cases, a sense of mystery. Lifestyle and connectedness have a great impact on consumer behavior and brand preferences. Very often, we choose brands that are considered “appropriate” for our self-image, that fit within a specific context/mood, or are representational of an idea. As a result, we use brands as a relevant means of self-expression and drama. They are “beacons”. Identifying the contexts in which a brand finds life and meaning establishes a sense of connectedness. Tying it to a sense of place and time creates a story that we can immerse ourselves in. For any brand, that crafting of the story can have a huge impact on its longevity and relevance.

We identify and find purpose through the symbols we adorn ourselves with. Those symbols take on the shape of brands, which is probably why a wider variety of cultural expressions among brands can close the gap between the individual self and the commercial self.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

Love, Rot, and Cheese: Culture and Marketing Artisanal Foods

Let’s talk about cheese. Cheese is at its most basic level carefully rotted milk. Beyond the milk itself, it is, like beer, an ancient domestication of microbial activities for human consumption. We work in concert with communities of bacteria, molds, and fungi, eating the sugars, proteins, and fats in the milk to produce the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses. It is symbiotic, sustained funk. It isn’t sexy, but it is the biological reality.

But cheese is more than biology. It is poetry and passion. It is the embodiment local identity as well as a testament to the power of mass production. That said, after an evening of exploring locally-produced charcuterie with my daughters, my thoughts drift to artisanal cheeses, not the stuff produced in sterile factories. Making and marketing artisanal cheese is a dance in how we as humans blur the lines between nature and culture, urban and rural, production and consumption. It is the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by cows, sheep, and goats (and no doubt other milk-producing creatures I’m simply unaware of).

Cheesemakers are increasingly interested in the microbial inhabitants of local environments and the unique communities that shape a place and its cheeses. Microbial terroir emphasizes the importance of the unique geography of a place, using the qualities of specific, local microbes to craft an identity for a brand of cheese. While the microbial similarities of cheeses from different regions are often more striking than their differences, identifying cheeses through the flavors produced by their bacteria allows consumers to get to know the microbes in our lives, and through those microbes, establish a sense of connectedness and regional pride.

Beyond the unique flavors produced by virtue of location, the lifestyle is part of the appeal to consumers of artisanal cheese. The ethics and politics of locally produced foods of American farmstead or imported raw-milk cheeses are all symbols of a privileged kind of eating, but with their own challenges and their own complex cultural contexts – like all things, cheese is political. For producers, the single most relevant issue is how to create a product that is economically viable while staying true to their beliefs. There’s a very small profit margin in cheese or most other “craft” foods. No one goes into these professions to get rich. But that is, for many consumers, the draw.  Its production is about passion and commitment to the local community. In essence, all foods have social lives. But with an increased sense of local or regional identity, the antithesis of post-war industrial sameness, artisanal cheeses are becoming less an expression of privilege and wealth, and more an expression of community involvement. Uncovering the many complex practices and decisions of artisanal cheesemakers and cultivating a sense of place, shows that food is a means of building of cultural identity. And all of this matters because it extends beyond cheese to locally produced foods.

Shatto is a small family-owned and operated dairy farm located just north of the Kansas City. With approximately 350 dairy cows, they have established a strong regional following. As their website points outs, “Our family has been farming here for more than 100 years and began a dairy farm more than 80 years ago. In June 2003 our family began processing our own milk on the farm.” Two things stand out with Shatto. First, the milk has a consistent and specific taste because the herd is small and the food it eats reflects the local grasses and alfalfa. Second, Shatto is about the product, not just the profits. The messaging and the access consumers have to the dairy farm (including the small bottling plant) represent a strong sense of belonging to regional culture. The romance sells to be sure, stirring up pastoral images of a simple, rural life. It appeals to people because it is the rural counterpart to independent restaurant, locally distilled spirits, even regional start-ups. But the labor behind it sells it as well. It’s hard work, which appeals to the cultural underpinnings of the Midwestern work ethic. The things that have helped drive Shatto’s success hold true for makers of artisanal cheeses.

Handcrafted foods, whether cheese or Duroc pork, bring the practices of food production “back to the future,” reintroducing techniques that have been marginalized and largely eliminated during the modernization of industrial food production. Through artisanal cheese and other foods, producers and consumers challenge these industrial imperatives, leading to diverse and exuberant elements to our diet. For producers and the people who market their products, understanding the deeper personal and cultural connections we have with our food is central to success.

Eating Bugs and Marketing Challenges

The first time I cooked fish with the heads on, my daughters were not amused. Being landlocked, American children they were unaccustomed to coming face to face (quite literally) with their food. With a little nudging, they got over their revulsion fairly quickly and dug in. But when I recently suggested trying meal worms, the resistance was significantly more pronounced.

Two billion people around the world consume insects regularly, from Central America, to Africa, to Asia. But eating insects isn’t exactly mainstream in America. It’s on the culinary fringes. For several centuries in the Western gastronomic world, the notion of eating bugs was seen as something you keep toddlers from doing, as a dire last resort when faced with starvation, or as a form of dietary display (think lolly pops with a grasshopper inside). But consuming insects may be making its way into the dining habits of the US, slow as it may be. The shift owes its emergence to several different trends: the high-protein diets favored by bodybuilders and athletes, the popularity of things like the paleo diet, and the belief that American millennials are more adventurous in their approach to food. Even so, the growth of a bug-laden diet is slow in the making.

But why hasn’t insect-eating become a part of this culture sooner? For many, probably the majority, the idea of eating insects, grubs, etc. is a challenging notion.  I think visual context has a fair amount to do with it. Bugs have negative cultural associations in the West. They’re often associated with decay, evil, or a lack of cleanliness. They represent something outside the purview of culture, something primitive and uncivilized. And so we reject them at a glance. We’ve seen the same thing we offal and unusual cuts of meat over time, as the process of butchery becomes less obvious and less “desirable” cuts find their way out of the meat counter. Bugs, like kidneys and brains, are too foreign, too close visually to the realities of food production, and so we get squeamish.

But there is a shift underway as people reclaim dietary exploration and turning the exotic into the norm. Sweetbreads are returning to the menu (at least in upscale restaurants and gastropubs) and butcher shops are on the rise. Which is in large part why cricket flour, which is made by milling whole crickets into a coarse or fine powder, is serving as a gateway ingredient to full-fledged bug-eating. It is a transitional meat, carefully ushering us into a more open approach to bug consumption. But no matter how physically different cricket flour is to the actual insect, there is still a cultural bias against bug consumption preventing cricket flour from going mainstream. So what is to be done?

I think there are two central players in the bug business. The first, pivotal players in fighting the existing cultural bias are chefs since they have the capacity to further jumpstart the ingredient’s popularity and navigate how it is used. Over the last few decades they’ve transformed “trash fish” to favorites on the menu, turned BBQ into fine dining, and made garbage-to-plate foods approachable, if not loved. With the transformation of the celebrity chef into something of a cultural explorer, people are being introduced to foods in a friendly way – there’s simply less shock when we see it on a screen being eaten by someone we find entertaining and informed.

The second are cultural influencers in a broader sense. That seems obvious, but the point isn’t to focus on things like programmatic spends. Rather, it’s a matter of defining an array of people who are helping drive legitimate cultural shifts rather than trends. Most young people are much more accepting of the idea of unfamiliar ingredients than their parents. In fact, it’s become kind of a cool thing to do. And having a much broader range of information and entertainment sources, they also have a broader range of influencers and entry points to exposure.

There has already been a noticeable shift in how people are viewing insect-based products. Three years ago, if you wanted to cook with insects, you had to find a specialty store or go to a pet store to buy reptile feeder crickets. Today a whole industry has begun to evolve to meet the rising demand for sustainable insect protein. Indeed, the demand has been higher than anticipated over the past two years as the normalization of cricket-based products continues. The trick will be to normalize it rather than reverting to novelty status.

 

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.