The way brands connect with consumers has changed drastically over the years.
It used to be that companies would develop their brands position through introspection, by identifying what they saw as the defining attributes and benefits of their brand, then pushing that vision to people.
Today, brands need to look more actively and purposefully at the culture buzzing around them in entertainment, in fashion, in the news, on social media and use that awareness to inform how they should best position and integrate themselves into the world.
Both brands and culture are shaped by one thing, stories. As humans we build culture and by extension, brands primarily through telling stories.
That’s how we make sense of the world and of ourselves by storytelling. It’s innate, tribes and nations tell stories to create community. And since the dawn of capitalism, we’ve been telling stories to sell ourselves and our brands.
To reach the hearts and minds of consumers is now harder than ever. Power is shifting from sender to receiver, which means that companies have no choice but to play on consumers’ terms. In order to break through, you need to find out how your brand can be interesting and valuable in people’s lives.
If you’re going to try and tap into the culture of the moment, you have to do so authentically.
That’s why Pepsi’s campaign with Kendall Jenner, for example, proved such a disaster. The essence of the ad was to show Jenner quickly solving the complex problem of police brutality by handing a police officer a can of pop. But the messages conveyed in the ad were not founded upon any kind of recognisable belief system, and thus they came off as cheap and shameless and tone-deaf.
Every brand is connected to a culture, I’m not talking about the internal corporate culture of the company. I’m talking about attaching their brand to the ideas, customs and social behaviour of people.
A brand can’t survive without attributing itself to a culture. Because culture predates branding, it’s how people have been living and connecting for centuries, so attaching your brand to a culture is the only true way to connect with people.
Brands that don’t attribute themselves to a culture can never be relevant or stand out. Think about it, realistically how many ways can you talk about a product beyond features, promotions or offers, you’d never think about certain things unless you need them e.g. burgers, socks, trainers etc. on a normal day unless your hungry you won’t thing of a burger, same with socks you don’t generally think about them unless you need some. So is there a way for such brands as burger, sock or trainer brands to remain relevant and be apart of people’s daily conversations?
Entrepreneur and former advertising executive Peter Grossman:
“Your brand must be a part of the culture, because consumers are a part of that culture. Consumers trust brands, now, to act almost as cultural barometers. And they’ll leave brands behind if they don’t feel like they can trust them to represent and stand for their values.”
By attributing themselves to a culture be it popular culture or any other, a brand can remain relevant and fresh. Brands need to do more than talk about their products, they need to tell their story, give people the chance to engage in experiences and always maintaining a point of view about different topics. Because generally people aren’t thinking or talking about said brands, they are talking about topics that interest and affect them, so if brands can inject themselves into these topics they in turn inject themselves into people’s conversations and popular culture.
Instead of interrupting users with self-centred messages understand pop culture and be apart of it. Burger King has many great examples of injecting themselves into culture.
Back in 2014, when customers visiting a BK in the heart of San Francisco during Sunday’s pride parade asked cashiers what made the “The Proud Whopper” different from a standard-issue burger, they simply said, “I don’t know.” The mystery was revealed once diners opened the rainbow-coloured wrapper and got a taste: absolutely nothing is different about this burger, nothing at all. To emphasise the point, the interior of the wrapper came with a second message: “We Are All the Same Inside”.
Back in April 2018, in Spain, BK teamed up with Sony to allow PlayStation Plus members to place their Burger King orders at home online while playing from their own PS4 console, without having to put down the controller. During the campaign, BK operated a command centre to handle those orders, together with nine professional gamers.
In December, 2017, the FCC repealed net neutrality rules that regulated businesses that provide internet access to consumers. Being net neutrality is a complicated topic to explain, Burger King came in with a metaphor: they set up a social experiment at a BK location and taught Whopper buyers a memorable lesson. Real customers reacted to being charged more for the same Whopper -or, for the regular price, having to wait longer for a Whopper as BK employees intentionally, and seemingly pointlessly, slow down their service.
The goal for brands today, then, is this: tell stories that ingratiate your brand in the culture so you become a part of it, too. Actively invest in that culture, be authentic in your engagement rather than trying to usurp your selfish intentions on it.
This is what the best brands do, after all — the Apples, Nikes and Amazons of the world. These are the brands that stick around, remain relevant, and make an impact on the culture they’re participating in. They work hard to understand the culture they want to influence.
And that’s what, at the end of the day, you’ll need to do if you’re building a brand today. The world has changed, and the way companies maintain relevance has, too as well.
You need to find out how you can become a part of the conversation and play a meaningful role in people’s lives. If you succeed with that, people will find your products and come back for more.