Journey has now been live for over three years, and it barely registers views. It turns out that consumers have little interest in the content that brands churn out. Very few people want it in their feed. Most view it as clutter—as brand spam. On social media, what works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox. The problem companies face is structural, not creative.
Big companies organize their marketing efforts as the antithesis of art worlds, in what I have termed brand bureaucracies. They excel at coordinating and executing complex marketing programs across multiple markets around the world. But this organizational model leads to mediocrity when it comes to cultural innovation.
These celebrities are all garnering the superengaged community that pundits have long promised social media would deliver. What works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox. The idea that consumers could possibly want to talk about Corona or Coors in the same way that they debate the talents of Ronaldo and Messi is silly.
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But a decade ago Nike abandoned its competitive-underdog ideology to go all in on branded content, using famous athletes to make entertaining sports films. Ballet star Misty Copeland—who grew up in poverty with a single parent—is an athletic, muscular dancer in a profession that celebrates waifish, reed-thin women.
Under Armour made a video about how she rose above adversity the voice-over is from a rejection letter saying that her body was completely wrong for ballet , showing her dancing in a formfitting sports bra and pants that reveal her curvier physique. Under Armour broke the frame by placing her in what was essentially an old Nike ad: a backstage video of Gisele in an intense kickboxing workout. The company announced the partnership ahead of filming.
It immediately stirred up the crowdculture: Sports fans were cynical, Gisele fans were curious, fashionistas were puzzled, and feminists simply loved it. Under Armour succeeded because it innovated with ideology—using female celebrities to provocatively push against gender norms.
Social media allows fans to create rich communities around entertainers, who interact directly with them in a barrage of tweets, pins, and posts. Sports teams now hire social media ambassadors to reach out to fans in real time during games, and once the game is over, the players send along insider photos and hold locker-room chats.
Beyond the major platforms, new media sites like Vevo, SoundCloud, and Apple Music are spurring even more direct digital connections. While the rise of crowdculture diminishes the impact of branded content and sponsorships, it has greased the wheels for an alternative approach that I call cultural branding. The dramatic breakthrough of the fast-casual Mexican food chain Chipotle from to before recent outbreaks of foodborne illness demonstrates the power of this approach.
Specifically, Chipotle succeeded by following these five principles:. In cultural branding, the brand promotes an innovative ideology that breaks with category conventions. To do that, it first needs to identify which conventions to leapfrog—what I call the cultural orthodoxy. Americans had come to believe that, through dazzling scientific discoveries margarine, instant coffee, Tang and standardized production processes, big companies, overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, would ensure bountiful, healthful, and tasty food. As time passes, disruptions in society cause an orthodoxy to lose traction.
Consumers begin searching for alternatives, which opens up an opportunity for innovative brands to push forward a new ideology in their categories. Iconic brands are cultural innovators: They leapfrog the conventions of their categories to champion new ideologies that are meaningful to customers. As a result, they enjoy intense customer loyalty and superior sales and profits, and garner loads of free media coverage.
In business, few achievements are more prized than creating an iconic brand. Yet the two dominant branding models are not designed to do the job. The first model, mindshare branding, is one that companies have long relied on. It treats a brand as a set of psychological associations benefits, emotions, personality.
The second model, purpose branding, has become popular in the past decade. In it, a brand espouses values or ideals its customers share. Whiskies compete to be perceived as upscale and masculine. In the s the major brands sought to align themselves with the male ideal of the day: the sophisticated modern corporate executive.
Branding in the Age of Social Media
How could it break through? Mindshare-branding experts would advise the company to convey, very consistently, the key brand associations: masculine, sophisticated, smooth-tasting, classic. Purpose-branding experts would encourage the firm to champion its core values. Instead, the firm tacitly pursued a cultural-branding approach. Because masculine ideals are shaped by society, they change over time.
In the face of a nuclear threat, the corporate executive seemed too sedentary. The enormous popularity of Western films was one indication of this shift. Yet in the American imagination, the area was also one of the last authentic pockets of the frontier, where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone had gotten their start.
So when American men yearned to revive the ideology of the frontier, the whiskey offered great potential as a symbol. Conventional models would never build a strategy centered on such a downscale version of masculinity. But in cultural branding, inverting marginal ideologies is one of the tricks of the trade.
The same transformation is unfolding in other countries dominated by industrial food ideology. Before social media, the influence of these works would have remained locked within this small fraction of society. Instead, crowdcultures grabbed the critiques and blew them up, pushing industrial food anxiety into the mainstream. News about every major problem linked to industrial food production—processed foods loaded with sugar, carcinogenic preservatives, rBGH in milk, bisphenol A leaching from plastics, GMOs, and so on—began to circulate at internet speed.
Parents worried endlessly about what they were feeding their kids. Crowdculture converted an elite concern into a national social trauma that galvanized a broad public challenge. Challengers to the industrial food ideology had lurked at the margins for more than 40 years but had been easily pushed aside as crazy Luddites. But as social media took off, an influential and diverse cluster of overlapping subcultures pushed hard for food innovations. They included advocates of evolutionary nutrition and paleo diets, sustainable ranchers, a new generation of environmental activists, urban gardeners, and farm-to-table restaurants.
In short order, a massive cultural movement had organized around the revival of preindustrial foods. Chipotle succeeded because it jumped into this crowdculture and took on its cause. Chipotle promoted preindustrial food ideology with two films. In the company launched Back to the Start, an animated film with simple wooden figures.
In it, an old-fashioned farm is transformed into a parody of a hyper-rationalized industrial farm: The pigs are stuffed together inside a concrete barn, then enter an assembly line where they are injected with chemicals that fatten them into blimps, and then are pressed into cubes and deposited in a fleet of semis. The farmer is haunted by this transformation and decides to convert his farm back to its original pastoral version. Crowdculture converted an elite concern into a national social trauma. The second film, The Scarecrow, parodied an industrial food company that branded its products using natural farm imagery.
The company is actually a factory in which animals are injected with drugs and treated inhumanely. A scarecrow who works at the factory is depressed by what he witnesses until he gets an idea. He picks a bunch of produce from his garden, takes it to the city, and opens up a little taqueria—a facsimile of a Chipotle.
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The films were launched with tiny media buys and then seeded out on social media platforms. Both were extremely influential, were watched by tens of millions, generated huge media hits, and helped drive impressive sales and profit gains. Each won the Grand Prix at the Cannes advertising festival. They worked because they went beyond mere entertainment. But they exploded on social media because they were myths that passionately captured the ideology of the burgeoning preindustrial food crowdculture. Chipotle painted an inspired vision of America returning to bucolic agricultural and food production traditions and reversing many problems in the dominant food system.
Chipotle was taking on pink slime! A brand can sustain its cultural relevance by playing off particularly intriguing or contentious issues that dominate the media discourse related to an ideology. The company used new-product introductions to playfully spar with the Reagan administration on timely issues such as nuclear weapons, the destruction of the rain forests, and the war on drugs. The company has been less successful in this respect: It followed up with a Hulu series that had little social media impact because it simply mimicked the prior films rather than staking out new flashpoints.
Then Chipotle moved on to a new issue, championing food without GMOs. Aside from the fact that this claim challenged its credibility after all, Chipotle still sold meat fed by GMO grain and soft drinks made with GMO sweeteners , GMO was a relatively weak flashpoint, a contentious issue only among the most activist consumers and already touted by many hundreds of products.
These efforts failed to rally the crowdculture. A number of other flashpoints, such as sugary drinks and industrial vegetable oils, generate far more controversy and have yet to be tackled by a major food business. Of course, leading with ideology in the mass market can be a double-edged sword. The brand has to walk the walk or it will be called out. Chipotle is a large and growing business with many industrial-scale processes, not a small farm-to-table taqueria. Delivering perishable fresh food, which the company is committed to as a preindustrial food champion, is a huge operational challenge.
To brand effectively with social media, companies should target crowdcultures. Today, in pursuit of relevance, most brands chase after trends. But this is a commodity approach to branding: Hundreds of companies are doing exactly the same thing with the same generic list of trends. By targeting novel ideologies flowing out of crowdcultures, brands can assert a point of view that stands out in the overstuffed media environment. Take the personal care category. Three brands—Dove, Axe, and Old Spice—have generated tremendous consumer interest and identification in a historically low-involvement category, one you would never expect to get attention on social media.
They succeeded by championing distinctive gender ideologies around which crowdcultures had formed. Axe mines the lad crowd. In the s feminist critiques of patriarchal culture were promulgated by academics in American universities. It held that men were under siege and needed to rekindle their traditional masculinity. This ideology struck a chord with many young men. By the early s lad culture was migrating onto the web as a vital crowdculture. Axe sold as Lynx in the UK and Ireland had been marketed in Europe and Latin America since the s but had become a dated, also-ran brand.
It spread like wildfire on the internet and instantly established Axe as the over-the-top cheerleader for the lad crowd. By targeting novel ideologies from crowdcultures, brands can stand out. Dove leads the body-positive crowd. Feminist critiques of the use of starved size 0 models began to circulate in traditional and social media. Instead of presenting an aspiration, beauty marketing had become inaccessible and alienating to many women. Throughout the past decade, Dove has continued to target cultural flashpoints—such as the use of heavily Photoshopped images in fashion magazines—to keep the brand at the center of this gender discourse.
Old Spice taps the hipster crowd.
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The ideological battle between the laddish view and body-positive feminism left untouched one other cultural opportunity in the personal care market. They embraced the historical bohemian ideal with gusto but also with self-referential irony. Ironic white-trash wardrobes foam trucker hats, ugly Salvation Army sweaters and facial hair waxed handlebar mustaches, bushy beards became pervasive.
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Brooklyn was chock-full of lumberjacks. Amplified by crowdculture, this sensibility rapidly spread across the country. You too can be hot if you offer your woman amazing adventures, diamonds and gold, and studly body poses, all with aggressive spraying of Old Spice. Rustling represents an even more troubling practice in some neighboring states. More than 2. And it explains why Florian and nearly 70 other brand inspectors throughout the state take note of cattle markings and documentation.
Those tools, along with an industry in which the key players develop familiarity with one another, make Colorado a difficult place to unload stolen livestock. State brand commissioner Chris Whitney notes that the markets themselves, like this sale barn on the northern edge of town, play the biggest role in discouraging rustlers. With his inspectors checking the livestock prior to auction — and holding any money if they have questions about ownership — turning stolen cattle in cash becomes a risky business.
Annual reports of missing or stolen livestock — the vast majority being cattle — average a little over , with losses ranging from a little over to more than head over the past four years. Others die on the range never to be found. Reports of a herd of cattle — it turned out to be 56 head — being driven by someone on horseback in the mid-December darkness in northeast Aurora went unheeded until the next morning, when Ray Wooters went to feed his livestock and found they were missing.
Whitney, the brand commissioner, suspects they may have been taken to a neighboring state. Kansas is a branding state, he says, but notes that it has only a couple of inspectors. Still, it would be difficult to account for a herd that large. But the more of that you do, the more risk that somebody will find out. Although the Western rustling archetype may feature grizzled, dusty scoundrels on horseback driving cattle away from their home range — or, updated, luring livestock grazing near a roadway onto a truck in the dead of night — sometimes the truth is more mundane.
If those cows have calves, he can mark them with his own brand, and sometimes no one is the wiser. Maybe he keeps the cows and enjoys the revenue from their offspring. In Moffat County, where cattlemen once ruled the range and rubbed elbows with the likes of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Tom Horn, two cases — a century apart — illustrate both the wild West romanticism and the modern-day realities of rustling. In , a jury convicted Monty Luke Pilgrim on 15 of 27 counts of theft of agricultural animals, concealing strays and wrongful branding — all felonies.
In all, there were nine alleged victims — neighboring ranchers — but the jury came back with the guilty verdicts pertaining only to five of them. In a case built largely on circumstantial evidence, Pilgrim claimed he was framed by a neighbor. Ascertaining that the calves had been born to the cows that did not belong to Pilgrim involved some uncommon investigative skills. A calf instinctively would find its mother. In this manner, brand inspectors and investigators determined that 36 cows and 31 calves from the herd did not belong to Pilgrim.
Ranch owner John Raftopoulos was running a couple thousand cows at the time. Like most ranchers, Raftopolous simply had factored their disappearance into the cost of doing business. The most common thing is for someone to pick up a newborn calf. We have that once in a while. Some of the cows had been missing for years. And he had to write letters of apology to five victims. The sentence seemed light to some observers, reinforcing a common perception that agricultural crimes tend to be less understood by the judicial system than other criminal behavior.