Branding in the Age of Social Media

Is your Brand Competing for Crowdcultures
To brand effectively with social media, companies should target crowdcultures. Today, in pursuit of relevance, most brands chase after trends. But this is a commodity approach to branding: Hundreds of companies are doing exactly the same thing with the same generic list of trends. It’s no wonder consumers don’t pay attention. By targeting novel ideologies flowing out of crowdcultures, brands can assert a point of view that stands out in the overstuffed media environment.

Take the personal care category. Three brands—Dove, Axe, and Old Spice—have generated tremendous consumer interest and identification in a historically low-involvement category, one you would never expect to get attention on social media. They succeeded by championing distinctive gender ideologies around which crowdcultures had formed.

Axe mines the lad crowd. In the 1990s feminist critiques of patriarchal culture were promulgated by academics in American universities. These attacks whipped up a conservative backlash mocking “politically correct” gender politics. It held that men were under siege and needed to rekindle their traditional masculinity. In the UK and then the United States, this rebellion gave rise to a tongue-in-cheek form of sexism called “lad culture.” New magazines like Maxim, FHM, and Loaded harked back to the Playboy era, featuring lewd stories with soft-porn photos. This ideology struck a chord with many young men. By the early 2000s lad culture was migrating onto the web as a vital crowdculture.

Axe (sold as Lynx in the UK and Ireland) had been marketed in Europe and Latin America since the 1980s but had become a dated, also-ran brand. That is, until the company jumped onto the lad bandwagon with “The Axe Effect,” a campaign that pushed to bombastic extremes politically incorrect sexual fantasies. It spread like wildfire on the internet and instantly established Axe as the over-the-top cheerleader for the lad crowd.

By targeting novel ideologies from crowdcultures, brands can stand out.

Dove leads the body-positive crowd. Axe’s aggressive stand set up a perfect opportunity for another brand to champion the feminist side of this “gender war.” Dove was a mundane, old-fashioned brand in a category in which marketing usually rode the coattails of the beauty trends set by fashion houses and media. By the 2000s the ideal of the woman’s body had been pushed to ridiculous extremes. Feminist critiques of the use of starved size 0 models began to circulate in traditional and social media. Instead of presenting an aspiration, beauty marketing had become inaccessible and alienating to many women.

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” tapped into this emerging crowdculture by celebrating real women’s physiques in all their normal diversity—old, young, curvy, skinny, short, tall, wrinkled, smooth. Women all over the world pitched in to produce, circulate, and cheer for images of bodies that didn’t conform to the beauty myth. Throughout the past decade, Dove has continued to target cultural flashpoints—such as the use of heavily Photoshopped images in fashion magazines—to keep the brand at the center of this gender discourse.

Old Spice taps the hipster crowd. The ideological battle between the laddish view and body-positive feminism left untouched one other cultural opportunity in the personal care market. In the 2000s, a new “hipster” ideology arose in urban subcultures to define sophistication among young cosmopolitan adults. They embraced the historical bohemian ideal with gusto but also with self-referential irony. Ironic white-trash wardrobes (foam trucker hats, ugly Salvation Army sweaters) and facial hair (waxed handlebar mustaches, bushy beards) became pervasive. Brooklyn was chock-full of lumberjacks. Amplified by crowdculture, this sensibility rapidly spread across the country.

Old Spice branding piggybacked on hipster sophistication with a parody of Axe and masculine clichés. The campaign featured a chiseled, bare-chested former football player, Isaiah Mustafa, as a huckster for Old Spice—“the man your man could smell like.” The films hit the hipster bull’s-eye, serving up an extremely “hot” guy whose shtick is to make fun of the conventions of male attractiveness. You too can be hot if you offer your woman amazing adventures, diamonds and gold, and studly body poses, all with aggressive spraying of Old Spice.

These three brands broke through in social media because they used cultural branding—a strategy that works differently from the conventional branded-content model. Each engaged a cultural discourse about gender and sexuality in wide circulation in social media—a crowdculture—which espoused a distinctive ideology. Each acted as a proselytizer, promoting this ideology to a mass audience. Such opportunities come into view only if we use the prism of cultural branding—doing research to identify ideologies that are relevant to the category and gaining traction in crowdcultures. Companies that rely on traditional segmentation models and trend reports will always have trouble identifying those opportunities.

A decade in, companies are still struggling to come up with a branding model that works in the chaotic world of social media. The big platforms—the Facebooks and YouTubes and Instagrams—seem to call the shots, while the vast majority of brands are cultural mutes, despite investing billions. Companies need to shift their focus away from the platforms themselves and toward the real locus of digital power—crowdcultures. They are creating more opportunities than ever for brands. Old Spice succeeded not with a Facebook strategy but with a strategy that leveraged the ironic hipster aesthetic. Chipotle succeeded not with a YouTube strategy but with products and communications that spoke to the preindustrial food movement. Companies can once again win the battle for cultural relevance with cultural branding, which will allow them to tap into the power of the crowd.

By Douglas Holt – founder and president of the Cultural Strategy Group.

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