The current trend among agencies, consultants, and pundits is around purpose. It sounds lofty, and there can’t possibly be anything wrong with focusing on a brand’s purpose for existing, right? The problem, as I see it, is there’s definite potential for it to be very self-centered and not customer-focused. Even when couched in such beautiful language as “shared values” and “aligned with ideals” it is usually 100%, completely, about the brand.
Over the last year, I’ve done a lot of work on life stages and how households in different phases approach work, relationships, and day-to-day life. Something we’ve shared with our clients is that along life’s journey, there are many traditional rites of passage. In this country, they often relate to the achievement of “The American Dream” ideal, the “ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”
This path for achieving this improving social status has, for the most part, been linear and sequential, usually over time and characterized by belief in:
- Hard work
- Loyalty to an employer
- Sacrifice (delayed gratification)
- Material possessions as symbols of success
- Equal opportunity
Truth be told, large swaths of our population haven’t believed this version of The American Dream existed for some time. There is no loyalty between employers and employees anymore. There is little perceived reward for hard work and sacrifice. Acquiring material possessions is not environmentally or economically sustainable. So we’re experiencing a “pivot” of The American Dream. A different version exists, and it’s a vastly different journey depending on your generation.
Millennials, for many reasons, have rejected many aspects of this historical, social progression and they would rather experience smaller doses of the dream along the way (and it’s not because they are lazy or entitled - get over that, boomers). Gen-X career progression is blunted by Boomers who aren’t retiring, so they are starting companies and taking control of their destiny. And boomers (disclosure, I’m a boomer)? This generation may be the one that struggles most with living their version of the dream. Under-funded for retirement and unhealthy due to many life choices, this group is going to be a significant drain on societal resources over the next 20 years.
I anticipate these differing expectations for “The American Dream” will be a continuing source of conflict for the foreseeable future. The implications are vast and the subject of a future blog 😏. However, from a broad perspective, the way to address this is to shift brand strategy from traditional market positioning (positioning vis-a-vis competitors, consumption) to one of cultural positioning (the day-to-day life of an audience, positive impact). Cultural positioning is about trust and the extent to which a customer feels the brand truly has their best interest at heart. It’s an entirely different way of thinking, away from campaigns and messaging, and toward action. The question evolves from “What are you saying?” to “What are you actually DOING?” and that is what brand strategy must address.
In a recent survey conducted by Clutch, a B2B research firm based in Washington, DC, three brands (United Airlines, Pepsi, and Uber) were analyzed to determine the relationship between PR crises and brand reputation. Clutch interviewed me to comment on the survey findings and to offer my opinion about how trust plays a significant role in maintaining brand reputation.
Marc Posch of Mark Posch Designs discusses some of the challenges technology brands face with green branding. "Green" is often associated with political ideology - how can a brand transcend this?
There is always some hot new idea in branding, endlessly hyped with breathless promises of game-changing and revolutionary disruption, always discussed as if it is just right around the corner. The latest has been about automation (the trifecta of robotics, digital assistants, and artificial intelligence), proclaiming industry disruption, transforming consumer behavior, even predicting massive economic upheaval with massive job displacement. Reality or hype?
There is the saying “everything old becomes new again.” But I feel there’s been a more substantive shift in culture. We now have access to data that we’ve never had before, with unprecedented immediacy. Add on advanced analytical methods and artificial intelligence, and then sprinkle in the immediacy of sharing “thought, word, and deed.” What I’ve realized is that it is not the underlying principals that have changed, but rather the influence and permanence of the systems that govern them.
If you had asked me a week ago what I thought of Virtual Reality (VR) for marketing and branding, I would have answered along the lines of “clear use case for gaming with some event- or specialty-based marketing application.” I recently tried out a headset this last week at a Microsoft store, and...color me wrong.
If AI is increasingly in our lives and will be increasingly interactive, how should we think about the exchange? We are soon going to need to design our brands’ interactions with people with some level of empathy. Not a canned responses based on a set of contrived rules - but the ability to intuit emotion and react appropriately based on real-time feedback.
Lean agencies or marketing groups rarely have the time or money to conduct marketing research, yet they still need powerful insights to develop effective solutions to business problems. The solution is using the existing data you have in the context of cultural systems.
Cultural systems are the complex set of actions, beliefs, and customs that are present any group, and can be deconstructed to understand how any system works.
A big problem many small organizations face is a lack of time and money to do marketing research - the kind that larger companies seem to have at their disposal. But any small business will tell you that understanding customers is critical to their success, probably even more so than for their bigger competitors. I'm kicking off a series about how you can overcome this challenge and still get powerful insights that will help focus your strategy and guide creative direction. It's about quickly and affordably getting meaningful insights that will inspire confidence in your clients or prospects.
The key is leveraging the vast amount of data that already exists, which yes, is quite obvious. But what's important is then analyzing that data in the context of cultural systems. Cultural systems are the powerful social forces that shape how we think, relate or act, often without our even knowing how they are influencing us. It’s what shaped us as we grew up, and what continues to influence us as we go about day-to-day life.
It's things like kinship, how we’ve come to believe what is attractive or healthy, the role of rituals and tradition, even the physical space around us as we interact with something or someone.
I am going to talk about how to start thinking in terms of cultural positioning, or where your brand fits into day-to-day life. This is opposed to classical market positioning, a fairly intellectual exercise, where we analyze where a brand fits vis-a-vis its competitors. We are going to learn how your brand can successfully evolve in this rapid iteration, business environment we live in. The next video is a good one, explaining what cultural systems are and using the concept of "social power" in the recent election as an example.
I recently watched a focus group react to some concepts and after, colleagues shared conclusions that surprised me. I marveled at how our personal biases were shaping what we heard and saw. We don’t often consider this bias in our thinking, but we should because it leads to a better perspective. We realize we are applying our meaning to what people say or do which is not necessarily their meaning.
As data analysts, we pride ourselves on being unbiased or objective, and when we are designing research, we diligently seek to reduce sources of bias. Constructing research this way is considered a best practice of our trade. But is that the only bias that exists? Are we also considering the unavoidable social and cultural forces that subconsciously shape human behavior and perceptions?
There is a mistaken belief that failure is bad. Companies focus on adherence to plan over speed to market because predictability and stability are preferred over short-term variability. The problem is, with constantly changing technology and a rapidly transforming business environment, focusing on predictability, safety and stability will increase business risk rather than decrease it.
Last week, I heard of a documentary about Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and being a HUGE fan, I had to watch it. The surprising result was some inspiring lessons for all the budding entrepreneurs out there - lessons of perseverance, dedication to ideals and embracing change.
There is the old saying in business, “Good, cheap or fast - choose any two.” It’s always had an immutable feeling to it, even as massive changes in technology and culture rocked traditional business processes. It’s time to pronounce this classic belief disrupted as well. Working eight years in a small agency and the last year with lots of startups has taught me “good/cheap/fast” insights are absolutely possible. It’s a matter of learning how to put existing data in the context of the cultural systems in which it was generated.
A lot of marketing pundits are claiming brand loyalty is dead. Perhaps not. Maybe it’s that brands are simply being “positioned” in an obsolete way. By expanding classic brand positioning to be more around a role in a community with common interests, brands can continue to be relevant and irreplaceable in people’s lives.