The Changing Meaning of the Family Meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

 

Trump, Morality, and Business Taking the High Road

Who would have thought that taking a stand against neo-nazis would spark an outcry in 2017 America? But it did. After repeated refusal from Donald Trump to outright condemn the beliefs of the White Nationalists (aka Nazis) who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, numerous CEOs who belonged to Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum decided to disband the group.

In a statement from Jamie Dimon, Chase Chairman and CEO, he explained how Trump’s reaction to events do not fit with his values or the values of his company. As he stated, “There is no room for equivocation here: the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned and has no place in a country that draws strength from our diversity and humanity.”

As someone working for an organization that has worked closely with Chase for more than a decade, I say, “Hell yes.” But it begs the question, why did so many companies and CEOs respond to Trumps call in the first place? CEOs like Elon Musk (who would eventually decide to stop advising the President after Trump backed out of the Paris Climate Accord) said he joined the Presidential Advisory Forum “…to provide feedback on issues that I think are important for our country and the world.” Being the voice of reason became a driving force for many of those who joined the effort.

The cynic might say it was just “good business?” After all, Trump won half the country’s vote. You don’t want to turn your back on half of America if you own a business. But it would seem now that “good business” is taking a backseat to “good.”

Only time will tell if this will affect their businesses. However, if one were to listen to the “loud” voices on social media, you would think it would be the latter. After 30 minutes of Chase posting Jamie Dimon’s statement on Facebook, 80% of comments were negative against Jamie Dimon and Chase.  That’s right, 80%. But the “like” response tells a different story from the comments. 95% of the clicks were likes and loves. Only 5% hate.

This is the world that CEOs are facing today. Ambiguity is the norm. And what should be a simple decision has become more complicated for business owners. Some businesses, like Nordstrom, who took hardline stances against the Alt Right from the beginning, saw increases in sales. However, sites like grabyourwallet.org who list companies who they believe you should boycott due to their anti-trump views are surprisingly popular. In February of 2017, this site had more than one million visitors.

So, you would think what Jamie Dimon and other business leaders did today would be easy. It was not. It was brave. It was just. And it could very well affect their business in the near future. The great thing is that ultimately they didn’t care. The hope is that, in the long run, choosing to support all people will lead to more customers choosing to do business with you.

 

 

The Rise of eSports

Since the advent and growth of eSports giants like Dota 2 and League of Legends, the gaming community has called for mainstream recognition regarding legitimacy. Take Colin Cowherd’s 2015 rant against esports for example. There are undeniable similarities between professional gaming and conventional sports, but the arguments have generally been ineffective in dispelling traditional beliefs formed by the collective generations of sports fans prior. While it is easy to dismiss playing video games as anything resembling an athletic endeavor, it is more complex than just noting the relative lack of physicality and declaring  as non-sports.

At their very essence,  are video games played in a competitive environment. Sometimes the games can be played one-on-one, other times, teams will square off against each other. But the key point in all of this is that  are competitive events. They are all about opposing players or teams doing battle in a real-time competition.

What’s In A Name? The traditional definition of professional sport is: all forms of competitive physical activity which, through organized participation, aim to provide entertainment to spectators and provide an income for the athletes, who in turn devote time training to increase their skills and experience to modern levels of achievement. But physicality alone cannot be the mark by which we measure “sport”. After all, look at poker. Poker is frequently broadcast on ESPN and other networks. This is equally true for chess and the National Spelling Bee. Is there anything remotely physical about playing poker? Or chess? Or a spelling bee? No.

And yet, all of these events are considered sporting events by probably the most recognizable sports network on the planet. Furthermore, players of  employ a strategies that play to their strengths while exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. If the game being played is a team-based game, then teamwork is essential. Like any other athlete, players have tremendous reflexes, dexterity, and problem-solving skills. So, what exactly accounts for how we define “sports” and what does it mean for marketers?

The Conceptual Breakdown. Judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture is termed ethnocentrism. People born into or surrounded by a particular culture begin absorbing its values and behaviors and build a worldview centered around these principles as the norm. Within the context of , this concept explains the psychology behind a lot of mainstream dismissal. Quite simply  don’t fit easily into our cultural definition of what sports should be. We do the same thing with other cultural categories all the time. For example, people in the U.S. struggle to classify crickets as food even though they are healthy, tasty, and plentiful. So, the struggle, whether it’s crickets or esports, is a reflection of cultural norms.

While ethnocentrism lends to maintaining the cultural status quo, generational gap is a concept referring to the differences between people of younger generations and their elders. It is the conflict between these groups which has catalyzed a lot of recent cultural change. This allows for members of the younger generation to form their own identities and cultures outside of older and mainstream influences. This is important to the development of  because despite its young age, its rapid growth foreshadows a change in the mainstream attitude towards it. The younger generation is growing up participating in and watching , thus making them part of their cultural norm. Within the next five years, there will be enough members in the community to challenge the mainstream dismissal of  and even gain the respect of the older generation regarding its legitimacy. And that should have everyone involved in marketing thinking.

Going Mainstream. Regardless of how you view , they are growing in popularity every year by leaps and bounds. Esports are on the verge of breaking out of their niche communities into mainstream focus. According to Newzoo, a company specializing in esports analytics, it’s estimated that the global esports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Legitimacy also continues to be added as traditional sports team owners such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the organization that runs the New York Mets, Sterling Equities, have begun to make multi-million dollar investments in esports leagues. Cities like Washington D.C. have even outfitted their professional basketball arenas for live esports taking a well-calculated gamble that esports are here to stay.

That growth and investment around esports has started catching the eye of big-name brands including Arby’s, Coca-Cola, Audi, and Gillette to name a few. That’s because they see an opportunity to reach a demographic sweet spot, namely males between the ages of 21 to 35. They have cash, they’ve grown up gaming, and they are increasingly hard to reach via traditional advertising. Newzoo estimates the current global  audience at 385 million people, including 191 million enthusiasts and 194 million occasional viewers.

It’s estimated that the global eSports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Spending by eSports still falls decidedly short of traditional sports. Enthusiasts will spend an average of $3.64 per person following the sport this year, according to Newzoo. Compared against basketball, on which fans spend an average of $15 each, and the short-term gains aren’t there for many brands. But like all things with esports, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. One reason for the discrepancy is that esports content is largely available for free and the money spent on merchandise remains relatively small. But spending is rising and expected to reach $5.20 per fan by 2020. Another reason is that eSports are drawing a younger crowd with less disposable income – for now. And this is where thinking about the long game becomes important. Building brand affinity and share of culture means building connections that last a lifetime. The earlier you bring a population into the fold, the sooner you become essential to the deeper cultural conversation. You aren’t reacting, you’re creating.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if eSports are seen as sports. People in the industry can identify similarities and use conventional sports as an example to adapt and grow the eSports culture. Growth in target audience involvement is currently more important than acceptance of members outside the base. And for brands hoping to remain relevant, having a presence in the eSports environment is extremely important.

 

 

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.

 

Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

 

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.

 

So how does it relate to development and design? Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

 

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

 

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.