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Cultural Relevance

CEOs must go beyond marketing to embed their products in the culture.

In 2006, the long-predicted death of advertising will reach a critical point. Equally important, forward-thinking corporate leaders will build their marketing strategies not around media but around culture.


The ineffectiveness and irrelevance of traditional media-driven messaging are glaringly apparent. Newspapers and magazines are being eclipsed by the Web. Online music sharing, satellite radio and podcasting (downloadable “playlists” from personal and Web-based friends) are eroding the “ear share” of commercial broadcast radio. TiVo and other digital-video recording (DVR) systems, which are forecast to be in 25 million homes by 2007, allow viewers to wrest control of their programming from the networks. Already, DVR users are skipping past 60 percent of the ads that they would otherwise see (the equivalent of $6.6 billion in media spending). Coming next: a new DVR machine that will offer the option of completely excluding commercials when it records programming. Say good-bye to the 30-second spot!


But new technologies that liberate consumers from Big Media are only part of the story. A much larger development is the series of cultural trends that have led consumers to reject artificial, highly scripted, top-down marketing. People’s attitudes toward Fortune 500 companies and other established institutions have migrated from trust to distrust to outright dismissal.


Consumers are sick of spin, hype and empty promises. They see through the latest efforts to salvage marketing as usual-whether through product placement, “buzz”-based promotion or some other contrived technique. Instead, they are turning toward peer-based sources of information about companies, products and services. At Web sites such as, for example, people swap comments about their experiences in the marketplace. Control of messaging has shifted decisively away from companies’ marketers and toward consumers.


The “mass” in mass marketing has become an anachronism. In place of that mass is an unruly, fragmented set of subcultures, each of which expects to be approached on its terms. Marketing Interruptus-trying to reach people by intruding upon their time and attention-simply doesn’t work in today’s on-demand, consumer-driven culture. Buying media share, in other words, no longer buys you mind share.


Many business people seek refuge in the purely technological side of this transformation. They focus on sophisticated tools that give them a new and improved version of old-fashioned marketing metrics. With online advertising, for instance, they fasten on the wealth of click-through data that now comes their way. Granted, these new metrics offer useful information on how consumers respond to an ad: If they’re clicking through to learn more about you and your product, then the ad must be working, right? Wrong.


Those metrics run the risk of trapping leaders in a fool’s paradise. They move marketing only a step or two beyond the traditional emphasis on making-and then obsessively counting-“impressions” through advertising. But today’s over-exposed consumers are immune to impressions. The challenge now is to move from impressions to connections, because it is connections that produce sales.


Investing in Culture


Simply put, in the new marketing landscape, culture is the new media. For marketing purposes, the old media channels no longer work. It is through culture, and only through culture, that companies will reach consumers in the post-advertising future. What is “culture”? It’s what people are passionate about. It’s the music, the fashion, the language, the technology, the spirituality of generations.


Culturally relevant marketing is about enmeshing a brand into those elements of culture. Think of it as a kind of genetic engineering, in which you weave the DNA of your brand into the cultural DNA of your target market. Done right, this approach will lead your brand to be practically indistinguishable from the surrounding culture-just as two strands of DNA fuse and become one. It will also result in a relationship with consumers that lasts.


The lesson for CEOs is simple: You can buy media, but you must invest in culture.

Consider Tylenol, a brand that my colleagues and I have worked with over the past few years. Executives at Tylenol wanted to improve their ability to reach 18- to 29-year-olds. So we delved into the culture of this demographic.


Young people today, we discovered, have a different attitude toward pain than most of their elders. Rather than seeking to avoid pain, they often embrace it as a badge of honor. We arrived at that insight by reading cultural signs that ranged from tattoos and piercings to the body-slamming effects of skateboarding. That was the first cultural investment we made on behalf of Tylenol.


Then we helped Tylenol weave its brand into that culture in a strategy called Ouch! The company wove its brand into “pain-friendly” segments of youth culture. It did so through the four P’s of cultural relevance: people, places, press and products. It formed alliances with people such as skateboarding phenom Tony Trujillo and BMX biker Dave Young. It sponsored such places as a skate bowl in Brooklyn, an especially powerful example of discreet yet relevant marketing. (The Tylenol brand name didn’t appear on the facility, yet it was referred to spontaneously and globally as the Tylenol Bowl.) Tylenol contributed to new forms of media, or press-youth-oriented zines, for example, that aligned the brand with culturally authentic voices. For instance, it supported artists to paint, draw or make films or music that showcased pain through their chosen medium. Finally, it offered customized pain kits, pain-themed CDs  and other products.


With Ouch!, Tylenol didn’t attempt to borrow the “cool” of that culture; it integrated into it. The Tylenol brand has become part of the essential fabric of young people’s lives. Tylenol also recently awarded health insurance coverage to selected icons of youth culture. Nothing could be more relevant to this culture-and nothing could be further removed from traditional marketing practices.


The measure of the success of Ouch! lies in how tightly the Tylenol brand has become woven into the larger culture. In 2004, Saturday Night Live did a parody advertisement for a product called Tylenol Extreme. Four times as long as an actual commercial, it mentioned Tylenol seven times. As a writer for Fortune noted, “That kind of exposure is priceless: It can’t be TiVo’ed out.”


Yet the importance of cultural relevance goes well beyond marketing. In their ongoing quest to build public confidence in the post-Enron era, CEOs must demonstrate to consumers that honest, two-way communication exists between their company and the surrounding culture. The conversation about your brand-indeed, the fate of your brand-will take place with or without you.


So when your CMO meets with you to discuss your company’s media plan, stop her and ask this question-the most relevant question of all: “Who’s writing our culture plan?”


Faith Popcorn is CEO of BrainReserve, a marketing consultancy, and the author of EVEolution, Clicking, The Popcorn Report, and most recently Dictionary of the Future. 


Click here To read the rest of AGENDA 2006


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