Roundtable: Brands in the age of culture

By Sponsored by Carat | 15 July 2016
Brands in the age of culture

In the information age, consumers are increasingly savvy when it comes to marketing. Today, consumers know more about the products, services and brands that interest them than ever before, which makes culture more important to building brands than category. AdNews partnered with Carat to explore the big shift from category to culture.

In an era where there is so much choice, merely getting a product in front of eyeballs is rarely going to be enough. Getting someone to buy into a brand could have more to do with how that brand is perceived rather than the product
or service being provided.

For internet savvy people, including most people under the age of 40, marketers view consumer engagement as a powerful weapon in getting a message out there. However, it often requires a nuanced approach that relies less on telling people what they should buy rather than building a customer experience that gently tugs at their curiosity.

Enter ‘culture marketing’, where building a memorable experience and community builds trust and consumer loyalty, eventually leading to sales, or so we are told.

Culture beyond category

Culture marketing is nothing new, a brand such as Red Bull is arguably better known for extreme sports and music events than its caffeine rich energy drink. Publishers such as Vice, well known for being edgy and youth oriented, are tapping into the power of culture not just from a sales perspective, but in advertising.

“We fundamentally believe that culture marketing is the way of the future, particularly with a younger demographic,” Vice’s commercial director Alex Light said.

“Data that we've seen suggests the millennial demographic responds much more to this type of marketing than the older demographic and it has much greater influence on purchase intent. To meaningfully impact on culture you've actually got to start something new.”

Media agency Carat said it has been “obsessed” by the move from category to culture for a couple of years now.

“We know one of the most important things for our clients is to increasingly build trust with their consumers,” Carat global head of innovation JR Little revealed. “The way to build trust is understanding consumers deeply and building a relationship with them in the cultural settings that matter to them.”

The end goal, Little added, is to get consumers to think about a brand before they enter a category setting, where the battle turns to price, utility and other practicalities.

Authenticity play

Indeed, keeping a consumer in a culture setting is supposed to give a brand an advantage, but is this the case across all categories and companies?

Not so said Multi Channel Network editor-atlarge, Paul McIntyre, who takes a more cautious view of brands that try to play the culture card.

“I guess when this whole notion of brands inserting themselves in culture comes in, we have to ask if they have the right, and does it make sense?” he queried. “There's lots of volume but being meaningful is another thing altogether.”

McIntyre cited content marketing as an example of that. A 2015 study across six social platforms found that content volume from brands was up 60% while engagement was down 19%.

“One thing we do really well as an industry is clutter and volume ... we throw more shit at people and peak capacity in terms of attention,” McIntyre said. “It's not either/or when it comes to broadcast or social, it's about getting the mix right and being authentic.”

Carat chief strategy officer Sam Hegg believes a lot of brands try to ‘piggy back’ these cultural trends, which often are spurred from youth culture, but where this often falls down is the authenticity part. It’s a viewpoint shared by most of the roundtable, particularly Isobar associate strategy director Carly Drew.

“I think all brands have the right to play in this space but if they can't do it well or authentically, they do it badly so their right is then removed,” she said. The space to play in is much more limited for brands that are in low interest categories or have low purchase frequencies, Drew added.

McIntyre disagreed that all brands and categories can do it successfully, suggesting there are some brands, such as toilet paper or tomato sauce, where it might only work for 10% of their customer base.

“I want to be seriously convinced by someone that every category and brand can do it and simultaneously ... you've got an even bigger fight to get cut–through,” he stated.

A new conversation

Twitter Australia chief executive Karen Stocks observed that a common pitfall is brands treating culture marketing as another fad.

“We see some brands that do it for the sake of it, they think it is a marketing strategy to attract a specific audience versus fundamentally believing this is a new way to have a conversation,” she said.

One company that is playing into culture with varying degrees of success is Australia’s iconic carmaker Holden. In some parts of the business, such as motorsports, Holden has a loyal and passionate following that is fully engaged with the brand.

Holden’s involvement in the sport is genuine; the brand has a long running rivalry with Ford in the Supercar Series and Bathurst 1000.

The carmaker nurtures its fanbase through digital and social media as well as TV and live interactions at race meets.

GM Holden executive director of marketing Geraldine Davys pointed out that “putting the customer at the centre of everything we do” has been a vital part of fine–tuning the culture marketing piece.

“It’s a really, really tight, effective way of communicating with a totally engaged audience,” she said. “I’ve got to say it is an audience that is very hungry for a lot of information and that’s everything from a race meet through to what's under the bonnet, what the next version of the car is going to be, who the racing drivers are, all that kind of stuff.”

Where culture marketing becomes more challenging for Holden is when it is competing with other brands, such as creating an experience around a specific model of car.

When Holden launched its Spark model, it ran culture–based marketing specifically targeted at young female drivers with the aim of being real and authentic. The culture part becomes more about the consumer being reached than about the brand, according to Davys.

“I think a lot of marketers build content for their brand as opposed to thinking that it's actually for the consumer,” she said.

Data and creative

Facebook head of agency sales Ellie Rogers said culture marketing has less to do with the type of media involved, as they all have a role to play, and more to do with relevance from a data and creative standpoint.

“My daughter doesn't wear nappies now, thank god, so advertising nappies to me is useless, but when she was in nappies they are incredibly expensive and I did want to know if they were cheap at Woolies,” Rogers said. “The other side of appropriateness is with a creative lens.”

An example of this, Rogers added, was McDonald's first ad on Instagram. The ad was targeted at millennials with a summer theme and Rogers said it was the first time the fast food giant decided not to use its logo in the creative to ensure it would remain appropriate for the audience and format. “You knew it was McDonald's but it wasn't in your face,” she said.

Convincing CEOs of culture value Exacerbating the problem, Little added, is the tension for marketers to deliver short-term sales in an activity that is designed to build long-term customer loyalty or engagement.

“So, the agency has to work really fast to get those sales in the near–term and then the client has to play the ambassadorial role of getting other people on board for the long game,” he revealed.

“Our clients are under extreme pressure to prove ROI, so they want everything attributed from the first time someone saw something all the way to the point that they bought the candy bar.”

Drew pointed out that determining the success of a culture marketing campaign is difficult because short-sighted metrics fail to account for the long-term value.

“That's the problem. You've got a marketing budget for this quarter you need to deliver and trying to measure value of that activity versus the value of a longer story or how you build up consumer trust,” she said. “As marketers, we underestimate how long it takes to build this.”

Davys says at Holden she tries to build a bit of “natural tension” in her team between the longer term brand strategy piece and the operational day-to-day fighting fires. She neatly describes this as a balance between retail and brand.

“It takes time, patience, determination and a very strong strategic plan [to ensure your brand and consumer base is ready for cultural activity]. That's where we are trying to get to but at the same time trying to integrate the pressures of volumes and dealerships who have to pay staff and do the basics of running a business,” she said.

Stocks added that the way communication evolves isn't always appreciated by corporate leaders who can often be from an older generation.

“I think we're at that point where we have a c-suite that hasn’t moved completely into the new reality and is
still holding onto how they made purchase decisions when they were young,” she said. “It will be interesting in 10 years’ time if that conversation is happening at the same level when the current c-cuite moves on.”

Rogers believes a way to overcome this generational conflict is by asking the board what matters to them.

“The first question we always ask [marketers] is what matters to the board? What do you need to report and how can we get as close as possible to that moment of truth and put some skin in the game so we are all aligned to the same goals?” she added. “Increasingly that's moving away from reach.”

Board level buy-in is imperative because unless there is a way to attribute cultural pieces to having an impact on the brand or sales, when companies hit hard economic times the cultural activities can often be the first to get cut. And, it’s about finding the right balance between measurable short-term ROI and harder to quantify brand building over a longer period of

“We always have to be in those category settings to make sure consumers can find us when they want to find us, but we increasingly have to be in these cultural settings and understanding very deeply the audiences that our clients need to resonate with,” Little said.

As with most areas of business, balance is the key, but it is clear that culture marketing is here to stay.

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