It’s a given that marketing has changed through the years, but now, more than ever, it seems that companies are finding it difficult to generate consumer interest through digital platforms. Massive, well-known brands like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are having a tough time gathering followers, likes and shares on social media. Why is this?
Douglas Holt has been trying to answer this question for years. Holt is the author of How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding; he addressed the issue of marketing in the age of social media in the March edition of the Harvard Business Review.
Social media is fascinating because, while it should make brands more significant, it does quite the contrary. Holt accredits this to a phenomenon he calls “crowdculture.” Crowdculture depicts how digital crowds now serve as effective and prolific innovators of culture – completely changing the rules of branding.
A crowdculture can form surrounding literally any genre, person, thought, product, activity, idea, etc. For example, there are crowdcultures surrounding everything from coffee to refurbished furniture to libertarianism. Simply put, a crowdculture is a group of people who may only have one thing in common, and they rally together behind that one thing. Crowdcultures aren’t a new concept, but social media has made them more prominent, public and accessible than ever before. It has given them a voice, and therefore changed the face of digital marketing.
According to Holt, there are two types of crowdcultures: subcultures and art worlds. Subcultures incubate new ideologies and practices. Their beliefs or behaviors may be considered different from the main groups within our society. They may follow an unpopular religion, be fixated on an uncommon activity or be in line with a specific fashion trend. Subcultures can range from bikers or hipsters to vegans and survivalists. Essentially, there is no limit to how specific a subculture can be. They form Facebook groups, online forums and so on, to connect with people from around the globe with similar interests.
Art worlds, on the other hand, are dedicated to breaking new ground in entertainment. Artists ranging from musicians to writers to filmmakers and so on, gather online in an inspired collaborative movement. They bounce ideas off of each other or work together to develop entirely new creative concepts. In the same way that social media has rapidly made subcultures more accessible, it has done just that for art worlds.
The problem for innovators is that they have a hard time reaching the masses online, because the masses are actually divided into these crowcultures. In the past, companies could enforce one blanket advertising campaign and see success. Now, everything is so divided online that this has become an unrealistic approach. So what should companies do?
According to Holt, it all comes down to cultural marketing. Because crowdculture diminishes the impact of branded content and sponsorships, there needs to be a shift that occurs where companies acknowledge and cater to some of these subcultures and art worlds.
Holt gives the example of Chipotle. Before the recent outbreaks of food-borne illness, Chipotle was dominant at cultural branding, becoming one of America’s most compelling and talked about brands. In the late 2000’s, Chipotle recognized that consumers were tired of the way the fast food industry was run; they wanted something fresh, something organic. Chipotle took advantage of the opportunity to connect with this large subculture of health enthusiasts and market directly to them.
In 2011, the company launched an online video entitled Back to the Start. The animated short film follows a farmer who has transformed his farm into a hyper-rationalized industrial farm. Becoming disgusted and terrified of what his establishment has become, he decides to convert his farm back to its original pastoral version. Chipotle released the film with small media buys and then seeded out on social media platforms, and it took off like wildfire. Tens of millions of viewers watched the video as it made its way around the world wide web. The company later did the same thing with another video entitled The Scarecrow and saw a similar response.
Chipotle’s films worked because they went beyond entertainment, according to Holt. They exploded on social media because they emphasized myths that passionately captured the ideology of the preindustrial food crowdculture. Because they tapped into the concerns and fears of this specific audience, they didn’t have to compete against other fast food companies, because no one was doing what they there doing.
In short, Holt says companies would be wise to tap into specific crowdcultures in order to brand effectively. Too many companies try to follow trends, but in the digital world of here today, gone tomorrow, trends don’t last long enough to make an impact. Crowdcultures are more permanent, more passionate and more effective when it comes to making your brand known.