Beyond a beautiful tension: brand ideas and cultural conflict
An old JWT planning manual channeling the wisdom of Stephen King read once, “we believe that all insights spring from tension between or within ‘human truths’ (i.e. Maslovian needs that transcend cultural or geographic boundaries) and ‘cultural truths’ (i.e. motivations that differentiate).”
Tensions have always been at the heart of great communication and creativity whether that’s in a well crafted proposition like “Dirt is Good” or the tensions inherent in dialogic literature where “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices” are not subject to the authoritative control of the author.
A tension is the grit around which you can build a great brand idea.
But now brand ideas are being challenge to do more. They must go beyond messaging and through the layers of the business and really count. Their impact on the world is expected to be more purposeful and meaningful, they are challenged to be, ultimately, cultural.
In a world of adblocking, ad-blindness, privacy fears and noise exhaustion being “part of culture” is an excellent choice that offers the potential for brands to be distinctive by giving people something of value they actually want to experience as well as helping them achieve the “Job to be done”.
The challenge is that “Culture”, like the other C-word “content”, has become a buzzword. It seems that for the last few years every brand and agency is talking about “creating culture” and how:
“The best [ideas] make a poignant cultural point. Not a business problem, but cultural tension that you find. This one is a little meta and about advertising. If it’s great work, you can see exactly how it affects the culture,” Jason Marks, executive creative director of Partners + Napier in New York.
Unfortunately everyone seems to have a different definition of culture.
An official OED definition of culture is “the ideas, customs & social behaviour of a particular people or society”. This sets a far more ambitious objective for any work. It means more than creating opportunities for associations, sponsorships or product placement, more than working with famous designers and artists to create fashionable packaging or a temporary PR-driven Pop-up or even hoping that an ad catchphrase will “Simples” it’s way into common parlance.
A desire to have culturally relevance and impact gives brands at first two choices: to co-opt or to co-create? Do you seek to “borrow”, support and nurture external cultural creators — be an advocate of them so that they and the people they inspire are advocates of you? Or do you take the harder road of identifying unmet cultural needs and working with communities to tackle them head on?
This difficult later approach may mean building and judging brand ideas and creative work not by traditional proposition, messaging or tracking KPIs but the “6 elements of news”.
Beyond tension to conflict
Perhaps if anyone can lay claim to operating at the fast coalface of culture it is journalists. At journalism school students learn to ask the four Ws (What, Where, When, Why) alongside finding sources but also develop the inherent ability to interrogate a story for its strength relative to the 6 elements of news: Timeliness, Proximity, Prominence, Consequence, Human Interest, and Conflict.
The last element, Conflict, brings us back to the tension at the heart of a great brand idea but also pushes us on to a new territory appropriate for a new post-digital world.
Traditionally brands love anyone and anything. A conservative, mainstream brand wouldn’t dream of picking a fight. A mass market brand is for everyone. But as the aphorism goes, if you design for everyone, you design for no one.
Ryanair famously built to maximum saliency in the budget airline space on conflict and customer masochism. Protein World’s 2015 tube poster campaign sparked 40,000 people who would never buy their product to sign a petition but in 4 days it also helped acquire 5,000 new customers and online notoriety that barely scrapped through to its Instagram-fitness-model heartlands.
These are obviously extreme examples but brand ideas like Dove, Sunlight or even Yorkie with its old “Not For Girls” ads, show that brands can be culturally relevant by standing against something — and it doesn’t have to be something obvious.
If you compare these brand ideas against the 6 elements of news they achieve a high score on at least 3 or more of the heuristics as well as being created with distribution baked in.
This inspired me to make a canvas and test it out to see if there might be a way to build “Cultural Value Propositions” or Brand Ideas. Lovingly “informed” by the Business Model Canvas, this framework challenges us to ask how we make brands count and to ask,
- What value do we deliver to the individual or the community?
- How do we add value not noise?
- Which cultural needs are we satisfying?
It is open source so please have a go yourself and let me know if it works for you. While the canvas places all the heuristics on the same level I do think that ability to encompass Conflict could help a brand be truly distinctive in our brave new post-digital world.
If we are to create ideas and experiences that “create culture” then we should learn from outside our industry and one source is news and entertainment with their inherent feel for what creates human interest and culture.
In this way it is perhaps no surprise that the only work in the last few years that has truly effected culture, “the ideas, customs & social behaviour of a particular people or society“, is Channel 4’s Superhumans for the Paralympics…done by 4Creative, a creative agency within a broadcaster.
But maybe that’s an argument for another day.