US Insights

Brands Must Embrace and Disrupt Culture

Ann Green

Senior Partner, Client Solution and Innovation, Millward Brown

Brands 03.05.2018 / 09:00

kt_com_Takeaway 8

Brands must navigate a fracturing consumer base.

Consumers are more fragmented than ever in terms of the values they hold, the media they consume and the politics they support. The rise of social media and the ability to create personalized echo chambers have only multiplied this fragmentation. In this environment, marketers are struggling to build meaningful connections with consumers, and it is becoming harder and harder to accomplish this with consumers no longer defined by homogenous groups of simple demographics and psychographics.

We’ve been here before. The year was 1971 and the world was torn apart. In January, Charles Manson and his codefendants were convicted of the Tate-LaBianca murders. In March, the Weather Underground exploded a bomb in the men’s bathroom of the U.S. Capitol Building. In April, half a million demonstrators gathered in Washington, D.C., for the largest ever protest against the Vietnam War.

Another 125,000 protestors gathered that same day in San Francisco. In June, The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, which revealed decades-long deception by the U.S. government about the course of the Vietnam War. In July, The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison was found dead in his bathtub in Paris. In August, President Nixon abandoned the gold standard, effectively ending the Bretton Woods international finance system established at the end of WWII. In September, a riot broke out at Attica Prison in New York, which, after failed negotiations, was violently put down with the loss of many lives. In November, as the year drew to a close, Intel kicked off the digital era with the release of the first commercially available microprocessor.

In the midst of this unrest and turmoil, Coke first aired its now-iconic ad known as “Hilltop.” Developed for Coke by famed adman Bill Backer, Hilltop offered a positive message of hope and love, featuring a multicultural collection of young people, called the Hillside Singers, atop a hill outside of Rome singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” It mentioned apple trees, honeybees, snow-white turtledoves and love, all of it tied to the brand, as the Hillside Singers sang, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company … It’s the real thing.”

The tune was reworked as a hit single for The New Seekers in 1972 that reached number one in the U.K. and peaked at number seven in the U.S. The ad became so famous for its tuneful, catchy message of unity and optimism that it was later reprised for the finale of the AMC series Mad Men, which was set in the ad agency scene of the 1960s.

What Coke did with this 60-second spot stopped people in their tracks, causing them to rethink, in the words of the song, “what the world wants today,” and in particular, the definition of real. But Coke never lost sight of the fact that, ultimately, the commercial needed to sell Coke. The lesson is that when creating content designed to disrupt culture, brands need to both embrace a higher order purpose and reinforce the benefits of the brand. While subtle, Coke did this quite well, highlighting its story about real ingredients.

Today, a great example of an ad embracing and then disrupting culture in a way that clearly demonstrates the benefits of the brand is the Amazon Prime “Vicar and Imam” spot that first aired in the U.K. in 2016. In this ad, two aging friends, a vicar and an imam, get together to catch up over tea and discover that they have a similar problem. Each then uses Amazon Prime to send a gift to the other. When they open their packages, they discover they have given the same gift, a pair of kneepads.

“Vicar and Imam” celebrates interfaith friendship, and according to Amazon, it is about “selflessness and thinking of other people.” The ad features few overt product messages, but nevertheless, it is clearly designed to sway people to be more predisposed toward Amazon. To connect with the brand, the ad shows the vicar using the app and the emotional payoff of being able to order with Amazon’s One-Click and have a gift delivered the next day. It is not too much to say that Amazon is truly the hero in bridging the divide between these two parts of a fragmented world, Christianity and Islam.

After airing on TV, “Vicar and Imam” went viral. Twitter was filled with comments from people saying it was so beautiful that it made them cry. Others said it gave them hope.

Of course, it wasn’t warmly received universally. Some criticized it for pushing a divisive agenda about Islam. However, Kantar Millward Brown research puts these objections to rest. When we tested this ad, it triggered very strong positive emotional responses, with enjoyment in the top 20 percent of ads in our database of ads tested in the U.K. The usage of the app in the ad drove strong linkage to the Amazon brand. Most importantly, the ad performed in the top quarter of ads in our U.K. database in terms of giving people reasons to be predisposed toward Amazon in the future.

When done well, a brand can drive business performance by riding the wave of culture and making itself more relevant. Being part of culture connects people with brands on an emotional level. If brands can become a part of culture, then content, both brand- and user-generated, becomes the voice of the brand as opposed to intrusive advertising that frequently falls into the trap of being invasive, often to the point of stalking. Content connected to culture cuts across all screens, reaping the benefits of sharing, rather than triggering avoidance.

So, to be successful, brands must be culturally aware. But culture is complex and nuanced. Just as cultural relevance can help brands create strong and lasting connections, it can also, when done poorly, cause a brand to appear opportunistic rather than authentic. Brands must ask themselves if they have permission to address the social trend and if they have sufficient understanding of culture to engage appropriately. If a brand’s operational infrastructure is not rooted in the beliefs portrayed, these initiatives risk being seen as simply marketing stunts.

Brands can be a unifier in today’s fragmented marketplace if they truly stand for something relevant to the culture. But at the same time, brands run the risk of creating further fragmentation, with a negative impact on business performance, if the goal is merely to use culture to garner attention instead of leveraging it in a genuine way as a force for good.

One final thought. In the desire to embrace culture, brands must be sure not to leave consumers behind. What is going on in culture may not be pertinent to the daily realities, values and challenges of many people and thus if not done in a way easily recognized as relevant, could further alienate segments of people. Brands have a long history of being powerful agents for the better. Fragmentation makes this more important than ever.

Source: Kantar, Kantar Millward Brown


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