Grey Salmon and Building A Brand

A few years back, people were left reeling after ABC revealed in a piece on farmed salmon a widespread use of chemical coloring in the industry. Following the report, much of the public voiced concerns, outrage in some cases, over the chemicals used and a general feeling of deception about the practice’s existence, even though this is hardly a trade secret. Even so, the notion of farmed salmon having the color of their flesh altered in any way was disconcerting to many and there are countless websites and journals calling into question the products stemming from salmon farming specifically and aquaculture in general.

But while many consumers and consumer groups, were and are shouting for more transparency in the industry around the labelling of synthetically colored salmon, the question remains: is colored salmon actually bad for us to eat? And should we be encouraging the industry to abandon the practice in place of a chemical-free farmed salmon—one with a decidedly less appealing grey flesh? There are a couple of overarching themes that need to be explored when thinking the problem through.

Biology. So what is it that makes wild salmon pink? The chemical in question can be found in nature. Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring antioxidant, meaning that it helps to protect cells from damage and happily turns wild salmon pink. Functionally, synthetic astaxanthin used by aquaculturists is the same. The synthetic compound will have exactly the same effect in the body of the farmed fish as it does in the wild. In the wild, it is a natural process which occurs when fish consume a diet of algae and krill. The same process is mimicked with farm salmon, meaning they are receiving the same nutrients they would in nature, and their bodies metabolize astaxanthin as they would in nature.

The process, as it turns out, is about more than visual appeal. Astaxanthin is essential to the salmon natural reproductive cycle and functions as a provitamin, being converted to vitamin A. Salmon are unable to make astaxanthin themselves, needing a dietary supply for these vital functions. It just happens to have a pink pigmentation to it, which in turn impacts the salmon flesh. So the notion of “dying” is something of a myth. Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of difference between wild-caught and farmed salmon, at least for the more reputable farms, simply because farmed salmon are fed a diet that seeks to maximize the fish’s natural nutrition and mimic what they would eat in a wild scenario. Major farmers will give their fish a diet that keeps their fatty acids as similar to that of wild salmon as possible – it’s a matter of flavor and, in turn, profits.

To be sure, there are ample arguments why NOT to eat farmed salmon, all of which are open to debate. Contaminants in the water, the types of feed used, and a host of other issues are all relevant, and I’m certainly not advocating one position or another. But color is hardly one of them.

The Ick Factor. Beyond biology, there’s also the matter of how we respond to foods that don’t fit out psychological frame.And grey salmon falls into that category. A study by DSM showed that shoppers are more attracted to darker shades of salmon. And that added color can be priced higher in part because of its resemblance to wild salmon. Not dying farmed salmon would make it more affordable, but only if people would actually purchase salmon that’s not pink, which doesn’t seem likely. We have a cultural understanding of how ingredients and dishes are “supposed” to be. These reflect notions of cleanliness, nature, purity, and an array of other norms. Consequently, eating grey salmon would be reminiscent of eating blue bread – beyond the potential novelty, it simply doesn’t fit our understanding of what’s “right”. Furthermore, grey is a color often associated with decay or blandness in our society. So in addition to grey salmon falling outside our idea of what salmon “should be”, it also signals associations with unhealthiness and death. Pretty heavy, yes, but relevant if you’re farming or selling salmon for a living.

We learn from those around us what’s worth eating and what should be avoided, and those categories vary between regions. But somehow, the reminder that taste  is so very relative, and so very learned, never fails to shock. The same holds true when we think about how food should look. Ultimately, visual appeal is just as important as the tasting experience of the food. Before we even take that first bite, we’ve already judged the meal in front of you. How that food looks makes an impression, even a promise, with the viewer. Pink salmon promises delight. Grey salmon promises disappointment.

Putting Pink Into Practice. So if your goal is to sell more farmed salmon, you have to convey that its pink hue isn’t detrimental and that it keeps the buyer from freaking out. Great. Those are fairly straightforward tasks, assuming you can get people to stop long enough to listen to what your brand has to say. This holds true of nearly any product – features, benefits, and fact are all necessary to make your brand’s case. But they hardly win hearts and minds. And that requires digging a bit deeper and connecting bigger cultural truths to what you make or do.

In the case of farmed salmon, one path may be to speak to the higher moral truth of climate change and consumption. Wild-caught salmon is commonly available but under current rates of spawn and catch, it is not sustainable. The ability to make an identical version of this nutrient increases the ability of the industry to sustainably grow without depleting naturally occurring, but limited, resources. Therefore your brand stands for something bigger than fish production, it stands for a healthy, sustainable future. Adding astaxanthin using the current methods, while not perfect, helps maintain and preserve the planet and wild fish stocks. Of course, there is a simple reality that in a polarized, digital age you will always be a target. Taking a position means taking on risk. But responding to criticism strengthens a brand’s relationship with its customer base. Some negative commentary is short-lived, some is continuous and reflects a specific world view. In either case, it requires having a plan in place to diffuse the situation.

And the clearer your brand’s cause, the easier it is for that plan to come together. The point is simple — dig deeper, whether you’re selling salmon or flea medicine. Uncovering cultural patterns of meaning leads to better branding, better campaigns, and better marketing.

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Beer, Brands, and Identity

Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans nearly everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history and people have enjoyed raising a pint with friends since well before, well, pints were a thing. By 4000 BC the Sumerians were fermenting a form of bread to make a fermented pulp which had a “divine drink” By 3000 BC the Babylonians had up to 20 different types of beer. Beer is the foundation of civilization. But how do we go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in bottles, cans, or some other vessel?

While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction most likely goes to wine or mead), beer is considered to be a staple of many a diet. Over the course of human history the choices were largely dictated by the means of production – you drank the local brew because of availability, or, once mass production had nearly crush the independent brewery you drank what you were told to drink between episodes of Gun Smoke and the ball game. But today people have an incredibly wide range of choices available to them. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” Within the U.S., the craft beer industry has grown considerably over the last decade, accounting for over 24% of all beers sales in 2017. So what’s the driving our choices and how can we apply those same principles to other food products?

Physicality

A central element in driving beer choice is “sensorial’, meaning it has qualities, whether the product itself or its packaging, that provokes our tastes and catches our eye. In other words, it stands out from the rest of the pack because it tantalizes our senses. Craft beer does this, in part, with considerably higher quality ingredients being used in the brewing process. Recipes are more elaborate and produce distinct flavors. Craft drinkers know they’re looking for something identifiable rather than something that appeals to the masses. Domestic beers is “watered down”, “flavorless”, “bland”. Craft beer, on the other hand, engages more of the senses. Enter the label, the bottle, the website. They serve to establish a particular flavor, lifestyle, to situate the product within a given community context. The packaging and display of the beer enhance the sensory experience, giving it a life of its own, a sense of identity. So beer is more than the taste, it’s the presentation, as well.

Making It MeanIngful

Food has symbolic meanings based on association with other meaningful experiences. An example of the symbolic meanings including food references can be found in many of our common expressions. Bread is a good example of the symbolism found in foods. When people sit together with friends at a meal they are said to break bread with one another. This expression symbolizes a setting where friends come together in a warm, inviting and jovial manner to eat. Bread has been called the staff of life – and as I alluded to before, bread is, in one sense, liquid bread. As much as taste and design impact the decisions we make about our beer, creating a sense of meaning is perhaps just as powerful. Food and drink, but especially beer, provide you with more than a taste experience. They are endowed with mystery, nostalgia, a sense of purpose. They provide the drinker with a sense of purpose.

Brand identity (and personal identity to a large degree) can be formed by the beers a brewery chooses to produce in relation to their definition of craftwork. Anchor Steam puts its history and dedication to the craft front and center in their identity through the connection to San Francisco and the tradition of “steam brewing”, as well as intentionally remaining relatively small. Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City encourages their brewers in creative freedom, while Green Brewery creates all their beer while only using organic ingredientsAnd then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

And then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

But beyond the logo, the messaging, etc., many, if not most, of these breweries act. They have deep connections with their communities and facilitate a sense of betterment. Blue Brewery, for example, works closely with local charity organizations by giving them the proceeds from their monthly art shows. Free State helps support local organic farmers. Sun King sponsors events throughout the Indianapolis area, donating time and money to the efforts. They are all visible and engaged, helping establish themselves as anchors in the process of place-making.

Beyond Beer

So can it be done beyond beer? Do these same qualities apply to beef? Or milk? These are typically consumed away from the larger community, either alone, with family, or friends. They still fit into the complex symbolic exchange of sharing food, but they aren’t necessarily the types of food or drink you consume at a party, for instance. I would be inclined to say yes.
Personal and cultural connection to a place has a tremendous impact on the decisions we make about what we buy. Unless, of course, we’re talking about commodities. Whether that connection is to a direct cultural experience or to imagined community (e.g. a point in time, say, the late 1800s), the more connection you have to the product, the more likely you are to embrace it, to share it with likeminded individuals. If you’re from Maine, maple syrup has meaning. But if you’re from Maine, beef has meaning, too – it’s just that said beef may mean something representative of a bygone era to you. Regardless, the notion of craft factors in by establishing a strong set of feelings.

The feelings of both freedom and enslavement that mass production engenders appear to have been particularly invigorated in the wake of the economic crisis in the past several years. As opting out isn’t on the table for most, adapting within the system, personalization and localization, and efforts at self-sufficiency abound. That includes how we think about food. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement, the sharing economy and the associated decline in markets such as new car purchases, artisanal or slow-food cooking, and the success of marketplaces such Etsy, where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion economy and gain something one-of-a-kind; revealing tensions towards mass production’s global reach and grip. It also creates a connection to something tangible. So too is it with how we construct meaning around our food. The more we can create a sense of connection and humanity with our food and drink, the more likely we are to create devotees.

Culturally speaking, in essence, what one eats defines who one is and is not. Eating is a daily reaffirmation of one’s cultural identity. Many people affiliate the foods from their culture, their childhood with warm, good feelings and memories. The food is part of who we are and become. It ties us to our families and holds a special worth to a person. Foods from our culture, from our family often become the comfort foods we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. Be it beer, beef, or bread, tying what we consume to our personal identity and cultural context drives adoption.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

AI Marketing: Can the Matrix Buy Milk?

AI is the continued topic of discussion in 2017 and will no doubt remain so for the foreseeable future.220px-HAL9000.svg.png Enabling machines to learn, make decisions, and adapt to circumstances without input from people (rather than simply obeying pre-programmed instructions) is the reality of the post-modern world. And while it presents tremendous advantages to society and businesses, there are just as many disadvantages. Being a product of a certain generation, I can’t help but conjure up memories of Terminator and The Matrix with self-aware, self-programming machines running amok.

But there are probably more people who subscribe to the more optimistic view that applying a more restrictive, less autonomous form of machine learning to the wealth of data could help identify correlations and patterns that were impossible for humans to see before. And the potential advantages are limitless – new ways of treating illness, quicker response times for emergency services, etc. From a business standpoint, offers will become more personalized, more relevant, and potentially involve less direct interaction (imagine your home being able to order groceries based on what it has learned about your tastes, habits, or medical needs). Imagine HAL 2000 with a heart of gold.

That said, there was quite a stir last year about customer service chatbots last year, but most of these were actually very limited, merely guessing the most likely answer to fit the question. Impressive to a point, but hardly the breakthrough we’ve all come to expect from SiFi. Real AI, underpinned by natural language processing, neural networks and machine learning, will understand how humans think, talk, and categorize concepts, making it smarter and easier to interact with. It’s simply a matter of time and processing power. And the more we use it, to depend on it, the better it will become. So we will no doubt see a proliferation AI buddies in the year to come, such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc. .

With AI, we have the opportunity to build decision-support systems that see, hear, understand and collaborate with us to help make decisions faster, more relevant and better informed. Which brings up an interesting idea: to whom do we market? Human beings are the obvious, unchanging element in the process, but are we on the verge of having to think about how to market to the machine? And if so, what does that look like?

If AI has the potential to act without our involvement and on our behalf, then we need to be ready to “sell” to the machine. And if AI can learn to make judgements about our personalities and those things to which we have an emotional or culturally grounded response, then our virtual assistants will be targets for marketing. For example, milk is more than a commodity. My assistant will be able to discern that I have a taste preference for glass-bottled, clover-fed milk. But it will also know that consumption aligns with my workout schedule, that I need to reduce my fat intake due to my age, and that I have a dinner party coming up where milk is likely to be used in cooking. It will have to weigh all of these variables, just like I would, and make decisions about what to buy. And that’s just milk. Now apply that to a car, a medication, or a vacation. The implication is that we will need to consider the possibility of marketing to a device that is weighing the same sorts of variables a human being would way, but which has a very different way of conceptualizing, categorizing, and responding to the world. Welcome to the brave new world of marketing to machines.

 

More Truth in Advertising

There is a strong belief out there that the interruption-disruption model in advertising is dying out, thanks to shifting consumer trends in behavior and technology. Because shoppers and consumers are increasingly in control of their media content they can and do simply skip those ads they don’t want to see. Social media has further altered the landscape – people are now creating their own content be it in the form of a testimonial, a simple tweet or a video homage. But it’s important to remember that the interruption-disruption model is not a product of a post-industrial world.  It dates to the earliest civilizations, with merchants calling out to passersby the quality of their goods. Something to keep in mind.

Thus the story goes that marketers and advertisers who want to maintain a meaningful level of engage will need to completely rethink what it is they do. They will need to turn advertising into content.  Not only products and brands need to be sold, so will the means by which we promote them. Advertising will need to be so compelling that people seek it out, promote it and help create it. The new ad model is about creating great content and finding ways to make it part of the larger social and cultural dialogs.

But how true is this model? Is there a fundamental shift that is so dramatic that the old way of doing things no longer has a place? Forgive me, but I’ve heard similar things before – the TV would cease to exist by the year 2000; the invention of Internet would democratize the world and open-source would change the nature of capitalism. When CP+B declared that the model had changed by saying that the “big idea is boss,” they were simply repackaging the big idea. Yes, consumers have gained more control through social media, DVRs, Hulu, etc. They will no doubt continue to change the landscape. But only to a point.

The truth be told, I don’t believe the notion that consumers are or ever will be totally in control of the ads they are exposed to any more than I believe that war will cease to exist because of Twitter. Magazines, online and off, will not stop printing ads.  TV advertisers will not do away with the 30-sceond spot for product placement exclusively.  Not every campaign will need to be guerilla marketing. Yes, the technology changes and the techniques we use to promote on brand over another, but there is no reason to assume the old model will simply vanish.

Again, the interruption-disruption model is not new and though it will change, it isn’t going to vanish.  Advertising is about capturing attention.  It is and always has been about telling a story and getting people to stop, look and listen. Add to that a simple fact that the technology wonks out there seem to overlook: people simply don’t care. They don’t want to exert much energy or time learning about the range of products available to them or the hundreds of outlets in which to buy them.  People are lazy about most things.  They have better things to do with their time than spend 4 hours on CNET.  Yes, there are those that do, but they simple do not make up the majority.

In addition to basic disinterest, people love (and respond to) advertising far more than they’ll ever admit. We are trained to say we dislike advertising, but is it true?  It’s a sociolinguistic construct, just as asking a person how they are doing (something that in truth we don’t much really care about). The fact is that the old model will be modified, but it certainly won’t die.