Post Crisis Values and Attitudes on TV — Who Are We Looking Up To In These Difficult Times?

With the end of the fifth season of Game of Thrones and scores of fans getting anxious about what the future will have in store for their favorite characters, an analysis on current preferences towards TV series and especially how those can be connected to branding is not only interesting I think, but important for marketers who want to remain ahead of the trends.

Mass entertainment — particularly TV and movies have long been excellent barometers of public sentiment. With the instant global reach of streaming and the internet we can now track how these shows impact markets both locally and globally to provide us insights on emerging trends. The TV show preferences following the 2008 financial crisis reveals a distinct values and attitudes shift that can help us as marketers better understand the time we live in through the main characters. Let’s look at some global numbers and examine some insights they reveal.

*Size of the bubbles reflect the numbers of fans on Facebook per each TV-series as on 10th of March 2015

The two graphs above show a comparison among the most popular TV-series before and after the 2008 financial crisis. In particular, the X axis shows the ethical values of the protagonists of the series, the Y axis indicates the life equilibrium balance of the series (how much a life-changing fact changed the dynamics of the plot) and the size of the bubble shows its popularity (ref: number of fans on Facebook as of 10th of March 2015). What can be immediately noticed is dramatic shift in the distribution of the TV series around the map.

Pre-crisis we had a clear and strong dominance of positive attitudes and value, with 15 out of the top 20 series dominated by characters behaving ethically in a situation of relative stability. Fun, enjoyment (and in some cases also a good dose of thrill matched with a good laugh) leading to a happy ending was what viewers were looking for: heroes saving the situation, as difficult as it could be. From the small everyday relationship problems of Sex and the City, Friends, or Desperate Housewives, to the work-life balance challenges of Grey’s Anatomy and Entourage, to finally the more security and safety oriented issues connected to the crimes of NCIS, CSI, Criminal Minds, etc. the path was always the same: a problematic situation solved by a good guy or girl with a happy ending. Moreover, 85% of the TV series considered took place in a situation of relative equilibrium — like in the pre-crisis era. Something might happen (crimes, terrorist attacks, infidelity, pressure on the job, troublesome gossips, etc.), but all problems are typically related to single episodes and not what the entire premise of the show is based on.

Looking at the second chart a complete different reality can be seen. First of all, there is not anymore a clear dominance of any quadrant, with all TV series spread around the graph. The situation shown is more of a reflection of the insecurity of the times we live in now: people looking for new possibilities, but not always sure about what are they really aiming to.

Secondly, and even more important, characters behaving unethically after a drastic event in their life grew exponentially, accounting for 30% of the fans of all 20 most popular TV series. People’s insecurity and skepticism about government’s promises are currently at the highest level of the history of several countries we have recently worked in, like Ukraine, Greece or Serbia, just to name the most apparent ones.

What some people are looking for now is not anymore a super hero coming down from the sky to save the situation (considered too far from their lives and not relatable to them), but someone who can fight the system from inside, but on their own terms and in their own way. The profile of a practical, sharp and determined individual who cuts through the status quo with harsh efficiency.

The Emergence of the Good Bad Guy

Breaking Bad is the most obvious example of this trend. Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with a terminal lung cancer reconsiders the priorities in life and determines that he must provide his family with the resources to ensure them a good life after his death. A noble enough objective certainly, but less than noble when he becomes one of the most dangerous drug producer and dealer of USA, willing without hesitation to take down any person between him and his goal.

This atypical character collected over eleven million fans on Facebook and in 2014, according to an analysis on consumers’ watching habits of TiVo, it was also the most “binge-watched” shows broadcasted (“binge” defined as three or more episodes watched per day). This exceptional result, unthinkable in the times before crisis, showed that fans of Breaking Bad are not just occasional viewers, but passionate about their favorite character and intensely curious to discover as quickly as possible all his moves. The trend of unethical characters becoming more and more appealing is confirmed by the second and third most binge-watched shows — the Netflix drama, House of Cards and the HBO epic, Game of Thrones.

In House of Cards, Francis Underwood, angry for not being assigned his promised seat as U.S Secretary of State, proceeds on a path of ruthless political revenge and unbridled ambition, secretly manipulating both allies and rivals alike to achieve his goals and objectives that reveals what many fear and too often believe about the motivation politicians. The Game of Thrones takes a more fantastic approach in place and time, but the premise and character portrayals are strikingly similar: complicated conspiracies and betrayals in pursuit of money and power.

A Modern Traditionalist is not an Oxymoron

Let’s now take a step back and look at the big picture from a geo-political point of view. In a collaboration between Garrison Marketing Group, Synovate and Richard Farkas, a political scientist from the University of DePaul in Chicago, we introduced a societal phenomenon we called the Kwaśniewski Curve that illustrates the evolutionary process that all the former communists and many other rapidly changing markets over the last twenty years have taken. It takes the name from Kwaśniewski because as President of Poland, he was perhaps the first to recognize and utilize in his successful reelection campaign the unique combination of both modern and traditional values in rapidly changing societies.

It is important to start the analysis with this curve in mind because in some countries the usual dynamics behind it have been changed by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

The typical 3 phases of the curve are:

1) Starting point: Security and Control, where life in the Soviet Union and associated countries was; stable, secure, non-materialistic and family focused

2) Middle Step: Almost single minded pursuit of Power and Recognition, after the Soviet Union collapsed; capitalism at its worst with a primary focus on individual materialism, egoistically pursuing personal success — prestigious material possessions, wealth and power.

3) Final Step: Conviviality and Sense of Belonging, when great numbers within a society become fully modernized but yearn for a return of the more traditional values and attitudes from before. The outcome — traditional values merged within a modern lifestyle

A successful brand wants to be relevant to where society is moving — to be appealing for the consumers, but at the same time not stretching ahead too far and risking a disconnect with today’s consumers. This is why understanding seemingly small deviations from the typical curve’s path becomes crucial to maintain a challenging and meaningful position on the market.

During our work we continually track the evolution of societal values. We have never seen such a strong deviation from the curve like in the past two years. Looking at Romania as an example, an important trend can be highlighted.

Instead of passing organically from the second to the third step of the curve, the movement of the society was not unidimensional. Only a part of the population (the less affected by the crisis) followed the curve towards modernization with an increasing focus on others. However, the remaining part of the population (typically more rural and with a lower socio-economical level) started reversing back along the curve, looking for the security of the good old days and becoming increasingly skeptical about any novelties brought on the market. Modern for many of them is now associated more with risk and danger.

This situation led to a growing disparity in terms of economics and cultural orientation and fostered a much stronger feeling of disappointment and mistrust towards institutions. It is in this climate that the so-called “anti-hero” characters in movies and TV shows experienced their exponential raise of their popularity — the ones who, despite all difficulties that someone/something bigger than them imposed, they managed to turn the problem into an chance to gain from it and at the same time getting a revenge on the ones culpable.

Another environment in which the application of this trend is clearly visible is the political arena of course. Parties of protest that are often built with a destructive agenda that speak to the disappointment of people — proposing to take down the current institutions instead of working on possible solutions within the untrusted status quo are rapidly gaining consensus all over Europe.

The Role of Brands

Does this mean that all brands should now focus on portraying “the good bad guy” image and position themselves more aggressively against the status quo? The answer is not so black and white and depends on several additional factors.

First of all, the size of the brand matters. A mass brand talking to a huge part of the population should avoid an exclusive and aggressive positioning for two reasons:

1) It’s true that the anti-heroes acquired appeal in this period, but they are still not the most aspirational ones (also in the TV series post crisis, the one with the highest number of fans remains Walking Dead, where the protagonist maintained his ethical values even after a drastic world change). A more inclusive positioning is advised rather than risk alienating many to appeal to a few.

2) The Kwaśniewski curve is organic and the various societies, even though temporarily not following the usual pattern, will likely go back to the known dynamics as soon as the crisis will wane.

The positive correlation between size of the brand and the need for a more inclusive positioning is confirmed when looking at the fastest growing global brands of 2014. The ranking is based on the Consumer Reach Point growth rate (CRP) as an indicator to determine which brands are winning at the moment of truth (point of purchase) and the universe considered to be the 50 biggest brands globally in terms of CRP. This indicator is computed multiplying 3 factors:

a) Penetration — percentage of households buying the brand in each country

b) Population — number of households in each country

c) Frequency — number of times each household purchased the brand on average in a year

Source: Kantar World Panel 2014

Even though the growth rates of these global brands does not match the impressive triple digit growth of some underdog brands, the amount of CRP acquired in absolute values is incredibly high (above one and half billion in the case of Lay’s), in an environment where managing to gain just a full percentage point is often considered a solid result.

Not one of the brands shown in the chart above used an exclusive positioning in their brand communications. Oreo continues to build on the now famous “Wonderfilled” platform, keeps adding linked communications, the latest being “Play with Oreo”, that targets both kids as well as adults. Dove is doing the same but remaining focused on women, adding to the epic “Campaign for Real Beauty” started in 2004 (celebrating the differences in women’s bodies and inspiring them to be comfortable within their own skin) several smaller campaigns. From Always’ #LikeaGirl to Pantene’s #ShineStrong and #NotSorry, Dove’s decade long campaign to encourage positive body images in women is still the gold standard of female empowerment. Downy lightly challenges conventions with the “Rip Your Clothes On” campaign, but in an ironic and inclusive manner. Even Cheetos, with its delightfully mischievous advertising and online campaigns, although playing on the “bad guy” trend, sticks to a playful interpretation.

A second crucial factor to be considered in addition to the size of the brand is deliverability of any messaging linked to the established positioning of the brand. How many brands can efficiently take up the role of the anti-hero and be credible about it? Certainly not the majority of them. Can you imagine Coca-Cola taking up that role after years and years pushing optimism, authenticity and inclusivity?

The personality of the CEO of the company is an additional factor that can support deliverability. An example of a company that is exploiting the current trends and quickly gaining market share is T-Mobile through its highly visible CEO John Legere, the personification of T-Mobile’s current positioning in the USA. According to his declaration: “There is no difference between me and T-Mobile. I am all about T-Mobile, I live this brand. I am T-Mobile and vice versa”. Cynically tweeting against all competitors with biting comments (to his over a million followers), he managed to create a massive buzz around his name and company and growing both awareness and number of clients converted versus the two giants AT&T and Verizon. It is an interesting strategy that reflect societal values and can be more easily delivered by a brand that is a distant third to the two major players in the massive US mobile business. He praises himself stating that he is one the very few CEOs across industries not being “spoiled”, accusing others of sitting in meetings all day instead of facing and listening to customers”.

Another industry in which the hero underdog phenomenon is growing is the beer sector. Microbreweries often play the rebel card against the bigger and more institutionalized brand by associating to their core benefit “to be real and honest, accusing their far bigger competitors of cutting production costs at the expense of quality. This is a successful positioning for many small players in these times where word of mouth tends to spread at an extremely fast rate and at a time when many people distrust the established players and are conversely looking for simplicity and honesty (while at the same time taking a shot at the big guys).

There is however a way in which also big brands can benefit from the association to the famous anti-heroes of the moment.

Clorox did a wonderful job in getting the attention of the fans of Breaking Bad, but played it ironically without focusing on the “whole package” of the character, but instead emphasizing only some key aspects of Walter White’s personality (confident, strong, driven, and dedicated) and associating those elements to their main positioning platform: continuity — 100 years and counting. In this way even a big brand can revive their relevance, yet remain consistent with the brand history.

In conclusion, there are several ways on building on a specific trend (in this case the anti-hero/anti-establishment protagonist) and many of them can be very effective if played with finesse. What is very crucial is to always keep in mind who are the core consumers of your brand and how you can best tweak your brand’s positioning to be relevant to the times while staying true to your core brand values — and therefore the loyalty of your existing customers. For some small brands targeting a niche consumer segment, the anti-hero and anti-establishment message can be powerful and exclusive, even if polemic and cynical sometimes. It is an interesting environment we all find ourselves in these days whereby both big and small brands can explore how much they are allowed to stretch their brand without breaking it…which would be bad.

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