[IPA Ex Dip Module 1] I believe that the future of brands lies in finding harmonies in the wave like properties of culture

Abstract

In a society of accelerated cultural change, I see a conflict. One that sees the inner cultural values of a brand fall out of synchronous with the fast moving and amorphous pace of outer culture. And one that is shortening the lifecycle of brands that require a cultural context to connect with consumers. Brand building has often assumed the effect of culture on markets was static and not catered for the increasing speed of the cultural climate.

I believe that the future of brands lies in finding synchronicity in the varying properties of modern culture. And therefore brands need to better analyse and define the cultural systems in which they operate to determine the speeds at which they need to move.

Introduction

The role of culture within brands emerged as a dominant theme in the latter half of the last century, and has provided a means for brands to borrow interest and associations from the macro-environment in which they exist.

Some brands rely heavily on culture to substantiate existence, others just need to be aware of the cultural climate in which they operate, but all must understand that the nature and patterns of culture have been fundamentally altered by the mass adoption of connected technology.

Culture is always moving, but in today’s environment…

…It’s moving much faster

…It’s more visible

…It’s more porous

As a result, brands are finding themselves operating in an unpredictable climate where meaning to consumers and contextual relevance are variables in a constant state of flux.

For many years, brands built success from resolute values that were rooted in slow moving or unchanging human and product truths[1]. These values largely defined their company culture, reflected how they conducted business and related to the consumer. But they assumed that the cultural effect on markets was static. Today, brands face the challenge of balancing these inner cultural values with the fast moving and amorphous pace of outer culture.

“A brand survives and thrives by adapting to a changing dynamic environment”[2] and therefore should be a system that interacts with its environment. This essay explores how the patterns and properties of culture can represented through a waveform model, and how different brand types can use this to determine the differing speeds at which they need to move. In examining this, I will pull out a series of principles that will help guide its practical application and which I believe will help inform the future of brands.

A badge of assurance to a part of culture

Brands began as a ‘badge or promise of certainty in an uncertain world’[3], a guarantee of repeat performance that a customer knows will satisfy.

It is often accepted that since this inception, branding has gone through a number of “ages” that were largely defined by the societal context and consumer conditions of the time. And that there has been a linear progression through these ages that has lead to what is defined by Franzen (2006) as Total Branding (Fig. 1)

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However, it could be posited that these ages are not discrete phases in history that occurred in sequence, but more so a cumulative build of discipline that should be viewed as a spectrum rather than a chronology. And as such, a relation to core benefit or essence must be concurrent at every point on the spectrum.

Principle – all brands should be built from a solid core of strong identity and clear benefits. Brand behaviour is not determined by the “age” in which we exist.

 

The spectrum determines a brands relationship to culture

A brand addresses the challenges it faces in today’s market conditions, by adopting a position along this spectrum. It is on the more recent additions to the spectrum that the role of culture within brands emerges as an important factor in brand building, and on the earlier stages where benefit prevails over everything else.

If you are the toilet cleaner Toilet Duck, you arguably don’t need to culture to help enable choice, your objective would be more toward establishing the brand as a heuristic[4] and doing so by building its mental availability[5]

At the opposite end you have the brand as a cultural icon that acts as “vessels for self expression and are imbued with stories that consumers find valuable in creating their identity”[6]. These are the passion brands that become culture engines in their own right[7].

Principle – Not all brands need culture to exist. Access to culture should be determined by brand type. 

 

 

2 Speeds of Culture

 Culture takes many definitions, but for the purpose of this essay, I choose to define it as:

… the collective programming of the spirit through which the members of the group distinguish themselves from other groups and determine how they relate to products and brands (Franzen, 2006)

For any brand there are 2 distinct cultural systems at play:

  1. The Inner System – The brand culture built on fixed or slow moving founding values
  2. The Outer System – The cultural milieu in which a brand operates

The inner cultural system, built from the left side of the spectrum, is rooted in benefit – the reason for a brands existence and should “involve everything at the core of a brand which works to the brand’s unique advantage in the marketplace”[8]. This system often determines the overall culture of the company.

The outer cultural system is part of the macro-environment in which a brand operates. As noted by Franzen (2008)

Consumers’ wants are culturally determined and shaped by the environment in which the consumers live

 A brands interaction with the outer system is important, as cultural conventions determine how appropriate behaviours and attitudes are learned, and its cues are used to help navigate situations of choice. This is not dissimilar from one of the formative roles of brands – to simplify choice.

As consumer wants are defined by culture, it is important for brands to correctly interpret its signs, symbols and meanings and use these as tools to connect with people.

I believe having a clear strategy that addresses both systems is imperative for a brand to thrive in today’s market conditions. However, it is the relationship between these two systems that is the critical factor, as it is how a consumer relates to a brand. Marketing is the common language used to reconcile these two systems and make the inner system decodable to the consumer via the means of outer culture and vice versa.

Principle: Marketing translates slow culture into fast culture, and uses its cues to simplify choice

High, low, fast and slow

For brands to effectively operate at the different speeds of culture, they need to move with the patterns most relevant to them, so it’s worth looking at its different dimensions:

High and Low

Cultural theorist Edward Hall (1976) classifies culture as either high-context or low-context[9] Where high-context cultures depend on the context to signal the appropriate message, and where in low-context cultures the message is less influenced by context and where “rational information prevails over social information”[10] The spectrum of high to low is the first key point in defining the importance of the outer system of culture to a brand as this determines its visibility.

It could be argued that in high-context cultures, interactions with the outer system are less necessary, as consumers will take sufficient information from communications from within the inner system.

Fast and Slow

A shift in the way media is deployed and consumed has led to an acceleration of the cultural cycles that exist within the outer system. McCracken (2012) describes these decreasing lifecycles of culture as “Culturematics” – instances of culture with short half lives[11]

Evidence can be found on this when looking at search trends of the recent cultural phenomenons of the Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style (Fig. 2)

2

(Fig. 2)

Ideas are very quickly appropriated and then discarded.

Technology is the clear driver of this acceleration. Yakob (2011) has spoken of the diminished cultural latency and that “there is a link between the amount of time it takes to disseminate ideas, their seeming volume, and the length of time that they stay relevant.”[12] There are no technical limits to publication and distribution, but getting and focusing attention over a long period of time is a great deal harder. Scale is no longer a guarantee of stability. Production of culture is now open to anyone and everyone. Platforms and tools are becoming more central than publishers and distributors.[13][14]

But it is not to be said that because culture is moving faster, all brands should move at a similar pace. Binet and Field (2013) present evidence to support the value of brand communication being most clearly felt over the long term and a slower pace.[15]

The total number of business effects rises steadily as the campaign length increases… This is largely as one would expect: the longer a campaign runs, the more investment has been put behind it and the more time it has to generate effects.

What this sets up is a system of differing speeds and depths that brands need to adhere to, the merits of which help appropriate behaviour to cultural context.

Principle: Analysis of the cultural dimensions provides a rich understanding of the context of both the inner and outer systems
Principle: Moving fast is not an imperative. Sustainable business growth takes time

 

Using a Waveform approach to manage the different speeds of culture

Culture takes many forms and has many properties. I believe these properties can be expressed as Waveforms.

Every waveform has 3 core properties – Amplitude, Wavelength and Frequency, and these can come to represent to different elements of culture (Fig. 3)

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(Fig. 3)

  • Amplitude – depth of culture, how visible it is based on high or low context
  • Wavelength – the length of a cultural cycle
  • Frequency – The repetition of appropriations of this cultural cycle

For the above example of the Harlem Shake

  • Amplitude – Low, it has doesn’t change culture in any way
  • Wavelength – Short, small half life
  • Frequency – High, repurposed quickly

I believe that brands need to find the right balance of waveforms to effectively communicate with consumers through culture, and this balance is guided by the position they occupy on the spectrum. The waveform model can be used to determine the differing speeds at which they need to move.

9

(Fig. 4)

It is the relationship between the slower waveforms that govern the inner culture system and the faster waveforms of the outer culture system where brands can find the translation points that can help them build brand equity through the macro-environment in which they exist.

Take the example of Red Bull. Its cultural waveforms move both slow and fast

  • Inner Culture – It’s essence as a brand that “gives you wings”, providing the skills, power abilities to achieve whatever you want to[16], which they have built a company culture from moves very slowly. In most western cultures the ideology of possibility of individual achievement has prevailed for many centuries [17]
  • Outer Culture – however the way it relates to outer culture is much quicker. It uses the domain of extreme sports, an area in which some of the youth of today use to construct their identities, as vessel to translate the essence of achievement in action and communication

Its waveform representation would look as below (Fig. 5)

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This highlights the opportunity for marketing to act the translator between the 2 systems and to output culturally relevant communications as a product by analyzing the amplitude, wavelength and frequency of the 2 cultures in which it operates.

Principle: Inner culture and purpose should be the driver; outer culture gives the opportunity reinterpret this purpose

 

 Conclusion

 Breaking down culture in to its constituent parts feels like an abstract exercise, but I believe expressing its different speeds as waveforms can have a practical application for brand planning. Throughout this essay I’ve outlined some principles, which I hope can give direction on how to operate within the fast paced cultural climate.

Not all brands are required to oscillate wildly[18] with the speed of outer culture and embrace the real time world; some will prosper by purely communicating their benefits, others will seek to borrow interest and associations from culture. But all brands need to be built from something and have a clear foundation – the inner system – and it’s from this they can start to embrace the fast paced world in which they exist.

 

Sources

[1] Dave Trott Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in Out-Thinking the Competition

 (2013) – Quoting Bill Bernbach, in ‘We knew more before we knew anything’  – Macmillan; 1 edition (23 May 2013)

[2] Giep Franzen The SWOCC Book of Brand Management Models  -Warc (2006)

[3] Paul Feldwick What is Brand Equity, Anyway? – World Advertising Research Centre (8 April 2002)

[4] Richard H. Taylor and Cass R. Sunstein Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness – Penguin (5 Mar 2009)

[5] Prof. Byron Sharp – How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know – Oxford University Press (11 Mar 2010)

[6] Douglas B. Holt How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding –Harvard Business School Press (1 Oct 2004)

[7] Kate Newlin Passion Brands: Why Some Brands Are Just Gotta Have, Drive All Night For, and Tell All Your Friends about – Prometheus Books (24 Feb 2009)

[8] Helen Rubenstein Brand Essence Concept – Warc (2006)

[9] Edward Hall Beyond Culture Anchor Books; Anchor Books ed edition (1 Jun 1997)

[10] Giep Franzen and Sandra E. Moriarty The Science and Art of Branding M.E. Sharpe (1 Oct 2008)

[11] Grant McCracken Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football… Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas – Harvard Business Review Press (15 May 2012)

[12] Faris Yakob Cultural Latency & The Dawning of the Information Age – Talent Imitates, Genius Steals (Blog) (April 2009)

[13] Matt Locke The New Patterns of Culture: Slow, Fast & Spiky – Test (Blog) (November 2011)

[14] Nicolas Carr The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember – Atlantic Books (1 July 2011)

[15] Peter Field and Les Binet The Long and the Short of it – IPA (2013)

[16] Dietrich Mateschitz – On brand as media company – Fast.company interview (17 February 2012)

[17] Douglas Holt What becomes an Icon Most –Harvard Business Review (March 2003)

[18] The Smiths Louder than Bombs- Rough Trade (30 March 1987)

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Lance Armstrong, Default Settings and Transhumanism

Professional cycling is in a weird place right now. Last week Lance Armstrong was finally stripped of his multitude of accolades after the covers were lifted on one of the most prolific doping scandals in the history of sport.

What was more shocking was how endemically woven it had become in to the practice of the sport. Shortly after the facts began to unravel the New York Times produced this excellent visualisation:

Of course Armstrong’s 7 Tour de France malliot jeune are prominent, as are Contador’s 3. But more interesting is sheer the volume of other riders who have either have either tested positive, admitted to doping or been sanctioned by an official cycling, or antidoping agency. I mean in 2003, it accounted for 7 out of the top 10 riders (more worryingly, with an average of 5 out of 10 over the last 10 years, what really happened in 2012? – arguably cycling’s best year and certainly the year it was propelled into the consciousness of the British public)

What I find interesting about this all of this is that according to the data, doping appears to have become the category norm. In essence, to take performance enhancing drugs had become the default setting for professional cycling.

Default settings are really important for setting behaviour, as they in effect offer the path of least resistance to an outcome and a socially accepted means of reaching it. People have strong tendencies toward this, inertia and a bias toward accepting the status quo of whatever situation they are faced with. Because, of course it is easier to do nothing and go along with it – irrespective of whether or not it’s the right thing to do. So in cycling, when the default setting for performance is to dope, riders don’t challenge this status quo.

So, when the team leader of the US Postal team sets the new precedent for behaviour and diffuses it outward through his team, he changes the architecture of choice within cycling. When you look at it from this behavioural perspective, perhaps what Lance Armstrong has done is far more impactful than just cheating his team to victory; perhaps he has changed the behaviour of a whole sport.

We are conditioned to abhor any form of physically altering method in sport, it is perceived to give an unfair advantage and extend the possibilities of human capability by altering the physiology of the athlete. But, in the case of cycling, it stops being a fair advantage, because by default, every competitor has been altered in this way. They have all, through medical science, found a way to better their performance. If you were to compare cycling to say, Formula 1 – in Formula 1 you have basically 2 areas of competition the drivers’ championship and the manufacturer’s championship, one is about human skill and the other about human ability to optimise machine performance. This is less pronounced in cycling, as the only machine that can be optimised is the bike.

What I find interesting about the doping scandal is that the machine that was optimised went from the bike to the human. Through scientific endeavour, they are bettering human performance in the way an engineer would modify elements of a car to make it a better racing machine. We talk a lot about a Darwinism at play in technology, a survival of the fittest, with the fittest being those that serve a genuine human need or purpose. And we say that great technology (and let’s divorce the word technology from things that run on electricity and just look at it as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes) extends human capacity. It is realistic to say that methods used by the US Postal team fit the mould of great technology and application, but perhaps not so through the amorphous filter of morality.

So as a provocation, and ignoring the huge ethical debate embedded in this subject, is it fair to say that through the augmentation of technology on humans, cycling has been progressed by its riders becoming faster, stronger and better athletes, thus making it a better sport? Transhumanists (who believe that enhancing of this nature is desirable), would say yes. Perhaps this is a step towards Kurzweil’s Singularity on a physical scale. Or perhaps little enhancements like the contraceptive pill, contact lenses or even mobile phones are the baby steps we have been taking for a long time. But in a world where default settings are increasingly being set by technology, do the rules then change with its ability to stretch performance? I don’t know. But I think that people’s natural aversion to biotechnology is rooted in the fear that it may corrupt or compromise a value they have in the world or the people they care about and I can only imagine this changing.

Technology moves quickly, but the pace adoption and cultural appropriation is much slower. Once it was unheard of to see Cricketers wearing helmets even though they were freely available, now they do so by default. Perhaps we are moving toward the new default being defined by biotechnology.

Grayson Perry, Meaning and Playfulness

 

 

Recently every post on here, which now seems to have slowed to a quarterly drip, starts off with an apology  (to myself) for a general apathy toward writing up thoughts that are not directly related to Digital or Planning in some way. This post is no different, and in fact more than 8 months overdue.

At the end of last year, the British Museum hosted what was for the me the exhibition of the 2011 – Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen. Grayson, who seems to effortlessly weave himself between the elitist art circles, the lefty middle classes and the populist media with a grace, agility and honesty that sees him perennially welcomed with open arms wherever he may go, appeared on Channel 4 in a short series exploring class and culture in modern day Britain (digression – which is all pretty important as noted in a post by Russell Davies recently – because as a nation, we’ve become less politically minded and substituted these ideologies and beliefs that were strong in the 60s and 70s with a passion for culture). (another digression – this shift in focus has led to something called soft politics, which is about connecting with people through stories over straight politics – I’m not particulary politically minded, but to me this interesting, largely for the above reasons I would assume). Anyway, Grayson Perry’s crossdressing form reappearing on TV and prompted me to write something about his last exhibition.

As a culture, we are obsessed with meaning and finding meaning hidden deep beneath the layers of veneer and aesthetic. This could never be more true of our industries, and for good reason – we ask meaningful questions of people to set us on the path to creating communications that will resonate with them, because then from the outset we have developed a depth of understanding that allows to get much closer to them as people. Likewise brands are being forced to occupy a much higher order of being, that goes way beyond believing in things and then providing products and services around these beliefs – because people want more now, they want meaningful value to be added back to their lives and those of their communities. The search for meaning is of course an inherent trait of humanity that traces itself back to the birth of civilization and religion.

So, upon entering the exhibition it was refreshing to be greeted with the open line:

‘Do not look too hard for meaning here.

I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.’

And from that point you enter into a story that is both profound and pointless, obscure and obvious, silly, sincere and severe, but most importantly playful, and overtly so. Unlike so much of Art today, what you see is not hidden behind esoteric rhetoric, meaning is not selectively reserved for those who have extensively studied the thinking of Adorno or Walter Benjamin, it’s just kind of there. And it’s funny. Really funny.

The British Museum is an Argos catalogue of the outputs of humanity since the dawn of time. Everything has a neat order, a place in context and a unique number. It is ‘where the world meets the world’ as they say. Grayson has interwoven his Art with this catalogue of the craft of old in a really exciting way. One of the core themes of the exhibition according to him, was to create the means to find oneself among the collections of the BM – ‘seeing oneself,  one’s personal connections as a human being, reflected back in the objects made long ago by fellow men and women with similar, equally human, concerns’ – the craft here is in playfully weaving art into history without over imposing – a fantasy world, deftly overlayed upon the history of a real one.

And it looks a bit like this:

Alan Measles, Grayson’s teddy bear and ‘benign dictator of his childhood imaginary world, where his roles included surrogate father, rebel leader, fighter pilot and undefeated racing driver’, crashing down over Latvia on an urn and in the style and placed next to:

An Iranian painting from the 1500s called ‘The Gardener and the Bear’. In reward for the man’s kindness, the bear seeks to kill a fly on his face with a stone. The inscription reads: ‘A clever enemy is better than a stupid friend.’ (Alan Measles also has his own blog here)

The more you traverse the tapestried walls, souvenirs of pilgramige and shrines, you start to see how cleverly injects modern culture in to ancient artefacts – flags of Alan Measles doling out sensible advice to other religions, reality TV vases, maps of our truths and beliefs featuring chavs and emos – it’s all things that they tell you Art isn’t, in fact it’s far more playful.

Playfulness is pretty important these days. Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus would have as all thinking that we will be using our spare time to collaborate toward achieving a greater good and not passively consuming lean back media, and this to an extent is still very true. But now, people are starting to realise the value of play and unstructured time in a society that has become more goal orientated and always on than before. Play, for reasons spontaneous and serendipitous, is a much greater driver of creativity, imagination and innovation.

According to JWT, we don’t really have that much time for it these days:


I mean, I’ve written this because I feel I need a functional and measurable output for my spare time.

It seems there is a big gap for brands and business to help people play and to encourage them to stop reacting to the flow of a real-time world. The 20% times and hackathons we see are prime examples as to how beneficial play can be if structured correctly.

Anyway, in The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen, Grayson Perry has mastered the playful and un-obtuse and allowed people to look, laugh and think without being consumed by a search for a hidden layer of meaning. I think this quote sums it all up best:

‘Part of my role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, I tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant. Like religion is not a rational process, I use my intuition. Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience.