Resonance is cool. Discomfort is cooler.

John Maus, the synthpop-craftsman-turned-philosophy-professor, has a complicated relationship with performing live. As he explains in an interview with Bombsite.com, he sees the live setting as a way to bring together fans in one big celebration, but also as an opportunity to pose some fundamental questions about the place of “live performance” in music and in society.

How does he pose these questions? By refusing to use a live band. By letting his studio recordings play behind him exactly as they appear on his albums. And by making no effort at creating the illusion that his backing tracks are anything but recordings. He sometimes sings along, sometimes forgets, usually just sort of screams a bunch. And when you watch the video above, it’s pretty clear that all of this makes much of his audience noticeably uncomfortable.

When we talk about media, especially branding and advertising, we often talk about resonance. The idea that cultural products succeed when they “resonate” with a mass audience, when they reach out to a whole lot of people and tickle a core part of their being. Usually when folks mention resonance, it’s discussed as a harmonic thing. Desires and cultural products meshed together in beautiful unison.

But what if we understand our audience so thoroughly that we know which parts of their worldviews are shaky, which parts can be questioned and probed and provoked? Then we can create something more powerful than resonance the way most folks understand it. We can skip harmony altogether. We can create discomfort.

I’ve quoted some of the interview here:

 “I’ve tossed [around the idea of playing with a live band] but I think that there is … I still really feel that there is something more interesting in the way that I’ve been doing it. It’s too bad that some people are really rubbed the wrong way by it. It’s not the intention whatsoever. I think it speaks to performing in a more accurate way. It’s objective in that sense that of representing the world as it stands. Some guy asked me in a magazine, what was it, about Brittney Spears at the VMAs or something, about that moment when the karaoke went haywire or something. This has happened on Saturday Night Live and stuff, when the lip sync goes off and everyone is just stupefied because the curtain is lifted and the heart of the situation that has opened up before that is just … and they have no idea how to behave and no idea how to act because the things that control all of that are gone, suspended for a moment. Something like that is what I’m after perhaps.

What is a live performance about? I mean this live situation has been interrogated in so many ways, by theater, avant-garde theater and experimental music. Pop music—punk rock—hasn’t asked very many interesting questions about the live situation. Perhaps it could. Is it about watching people play instruments? Is it about people coming together? I don’t know. Getting up on stage and standing above everyone else. I don’t know. I don’t have any idea. It seems, by and large, that it is assumed by some kind of mentality that it is indeed about people playing instruments or something live in front of you and recreating a recording. I certainly hope it’s not about this metaphysical thing of presence, like, They are really there with me. Am I really that much more there with you then as on the recording? I mean, I don’t know about that. So yeah, it’s a big question mark that I don’t have any answers for.”

It takes more than visual gags to build a brand

When folks share ads like this, they usually preface the images with headlines like “this is what effective advertising looks like” or “what a clever ad!” But while this Colgate floss ad is pretty clever, and while it’s bound to be shared dozens more times than it already has, it doesn’t actually do much for Colgate’s brand. Instead, it’s an example of the sort of ad I want to see less often. Here’s why:

1. It doesn’t actually brand anything. The ad revolves around a visual joke that dramatizes the benefit of flossing. Not flossing with Colgate, specifically. Just flossing. And although “advertising the category” can often work, this ad gives the Colgate brand no other meanings, narratives, or myths that could differentiate Colgate from any of its competitors.

After the two seconds it takes to figure out the fruit sans seeds is a metaphor for flossing, you’re left with an ad that says nothing about Colgate except the fact that it functions exactly how floss should. You could substitute the little product picture on the bottom right for any other brand of floss and the ad would make the same amount of sense.

On the other hand, try inserting Axe deodorant into an Old Spice ad or the other way around. See what I mean? Building a brand requires far more than merely dramatizing the product’s most basic function.

2. It creates homogeneity. Even with the dearth of elements that would otherwise build meaning for the Colgate brand, you could argue the ad gives plain ol’ floss an idiosyncratic voice. But you would be wrong. I’ve seen dozens of ads for disparate products use this exact “brand voice,” in which they draw upon visual gags to dramatize their most basic benefits. By advertising itself in this way, Colgate starts to resemble every other product that used this voice in the past. It’s an exercise in homogeneity. It accomplishes the exact opposite of what branding should do.

3. It showcases the agency rather than the brand. Because this sort of ad is devoid of brand meanings that the product can call its own, and because it slathers the product in a voice identical to ads featuring entirely different brands, it ends up showcasing the voice of the agency or the copywriter more than it conveys the nature of the brand it’s supposed to advertise. The product itself takes a back seat to the advertiser. Which, once again, is totally backwards.

I was once told that, when advertising is at its best, it seems not to come from an agency at all, but from the heart of the brand. Something that cannot be said of the ad above.

4. It lacks legs for future work. While this ad makes for a clever one-off, the lack of any real brand message, voice, worldview, mythology, etc leaves us nothing to extend to other platforms or even to future campaigns. Like, we’ll keep finding clever ways to tell our audience “floss cleans your teeth?” It’s weak.

Ultimately, when we’re standing in the dusty corner of the supermarket where all the floss lines the walls, and we’re trying to choose between rows of identical brands, will Colgate stand out because at one time it was featured in an ad that made a clever visual joke about flossing? We might remember the gag, but it’s safe to say we’ll forget why it existed at all.

Breaking the ice in silence: mobile gaming and public life

As Zynga continues to hemorrhage employees and stock value, casual gaming seems to have found plenty of promise on mobile devices. And although developers face challenges building an audience without the techniques that worked so well on the computer screen, mobile game development is on the rise.

But here’s the interesting part—unlike laptops and desktops, the mobile phone has for over a decade been our panacea for alleviating the tension that comes from dragging our private selves into public space. During those moments we’re surrounded by strangers (or even friends!), the phone gives us a bubble of our own into which we can duck away. And the rise of smartphones, accompanied by the increasing popularity of mobile games, seems poised to change the nature of both our private bubbles and the public life that surrounds them. 

Now, as you probably know, the cell phone gave us many ways to cope with the inherent insecurity of public life even before text messaging. Jonathan Franzen describes really nicely the role that mobile phones play in this spacial negotiation. It’s a really long blurb, but well worth reading:

Just 10 years ago, New York City (where I live) still abounded with collectively maintained public spaces in which citizens demonstrated respect for their community by not inflicting their banal bedroom lives on it. The world 10 years ago was not yet fully conquered by yak. It was still possible to see the use of Nokias as an ostentation or an affectation of the affluent. Or, more generously, as an affliction or a disability or a crutch. There was unfolding, after all, in New York in the late 1990s, a seamless citywide transition from nicotine culture to cellular culture. One day the lump in the shirt pocket was Marlboros, the next day it was Motorola. One day the vulnerably unaccompanied pretty girl was occupying her hands and mouth and attention with a cigarette, the next day she was occupying them with a very important conversation with a person who wasn’t you. One day a crowd gathered around the first kid on the playground with a pack of Kools, the next day around the first kid with a color screen. One day travelers were clicking lighters the second they were off an airplane, the next day they were speed-dialing. Pack-a-day habits became hundred-dollar monthly Verizon bills. Smoke pollution became sonic pollution. Although the irritant changed overnight, the suffering of a self-restrained majority at the hands of a compulsive minority, in restaurants and airports and other public spaces, remained eerily constant. Back in 1998, not long after I’d quit cigarettes, I would sit on the subway and watch other riders nervously folding and unfolding phones, or nibbling on the teatlike antennae that all the phones then had, or just quietly clutching their devices like a mother’s hand, and I would feel something close to sorry for them. It still seemed to me an open question how far the trend would go: whether New York truly wanted to become a city of phone addicts sleepwalking down the sidewalks in icky little clouds of private life, or whether the notion of a more restrained public self might somehow prevail.

Franzen’s cigarette metaphor is apt, but with old fashioned cell phones being replaced by their “smart” cousins, it also seems oddly dated.

The phone user of the late nineties and early aughts sought refuge from public space by striking up highly audible conversations. Like second hand smoke, whiffs of random peoples’ private lives would waft in your direction whether you liked it or not. And to make matters worse, cell phone conversations are often amplified, exaggerated. A way to cope with public personhood by overstating the private.

Smartphones, on the other hand, let us seek the same refuge in a much more silent way.

Climb aboard DC’s metro any time there’s more than, say, five others riding, and you’re bound to see someone whip out their smartphone and whisk themselves away to the world of a casual game. But it’s a quiet, lonesome escape. Other passengers aren’t yanked into the private worlds of over-the-phone interlocutors who speak with just a little too much fervor. Instead, it’s a train full of private bubbles that don’t intersect.

But casual games can’t replace the comforting power of calling a close friend. Interacting with a computer-generated chess opponent or with rows and rows of unvanquished Tetris blocks won’t assure you that, out there in the trenches of public life, everything will be OK. That’s why it’s a little baffling that, according to the MIT Technology Review article I linked above, mobile developers are having such difficulty filling their games with the same sort of social elements that made games like Farmville such a hit.

My suggestion? The team putting together tomorrow’s hit mobile game should hang out at a bus stop. A doctors’ office. The DMV. Any place where there’s bound to be icy tension between the self and everyone else. And when they find themselves reaching for their phones, they should ask, “how can my game alleviate this tension I’m feeling right now?” Because when someone actually downloads and plays their game, it will likely be to do just that.

 DMV pic by Omar Omar

I love this. It’s almost a commentary on (or even a parody of) the whole concept of branding. Something as simple as ice cream can totally transform when accompanied by visual cues laden with cultural meaning.

I love this. It’s almost a commentary on (or even a parody of) the whole concept of branding. Something as simple as ice cream can totally transform when accompanied by visual cues laden with cultural meaning.

With online communities, the real fun comes when the conflict starts

Online communities have been a thing since the internet was just a little baby internet, and it’s safe to say most folks who claim to be “digital natives” are also “online forum natives” in some form or another. But now that brands are discovering more ways to connect with audiences online, there has been growing interest in building new communities from the ground up.

It makes sense, then, that folks would try to figure out how today’s thriving communities reached the heights they did. In the past few months, Fast Company covered the rise of Pinterest, as well as DavisWiki, the local wiki page for the town surrounding UC Davis. What both communities have in common, aside from being incredibly vibrant, is a set of founding members who, from the looks of things, poured into the community every ounce of passion they had.

For DavisWiki, FastCompany writes:

Neustrom and Mike Ivanov launched the first site (not that they knew many more would be coming) simply to capture the weird stuff they were learning about Davis as students there. They were discovering underground tunnels and campus chickens and strange building history.

And then the whole concept took off, with Davis residents relishing the opportunity to contribute what they knew. “People think it’s like Patch.com, that we pay people to do this,” Neustrom says. “No, we don’t pay people anything! People are just into it. They just love the idea of having this project. And that’s what we want: all of these autonomous, cool communities.

And for Pinterest:

In Pinterest’s early days, Silbermann gave out his cell-phone number, attended blogger meet-ups, and personally composed weekly emails that were sent out to Pinterest’s tiny, but growing, community. “It’s like you’ve built this little city with nobody inside of it yet,” he says. “And you want to fill it up with the right kinds of people who are going to teach future people what they should be doing when they move in.” Most Silicon Valley types look at early users as viral marketers; Silbermann saw them as role models. (Until recently, Pinterest’s welcome email advised users to “pin carefully” because “your pins set the tone for the community.”

But while these origin stories are pretty fascinating, it’s not exactly news that a community would begin with passionate founders. What’s really interesting— and largely missing from the Fast Company articles— are the levels of control each community had to exert to make sure the right forms of passion were channeled in the right ways.

For most communities, maybe a year or two down the road, the original founders’ vision will meet challenges. They will confront new members who are just as passionate as they are but either express that passion in different ways or prefer different forms of content. And the founders will have to determine to what extent they mold their original vision to meet those new realities. To name an extreme example, how would you react if your community developed a vibrant subgroup who liked to exchange nude pictures of underage girls?

Last year, Farhad Manjoo poked fun at Pinterest for its emphasis on literal-minded earnestness rather than the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that seemed to fill the rest of the internet, proving the community really had developed a salient tone. You were more likely to see folks post pictures of bedspreads because they genuinely liked the bedspreads than you were to see proclamations that nothing really mattress.

How naturally did this tone emerge? How much moderation was needed to maintain it? Did an internal culture form over time in which the members policed themselves? Or was it all top-down?

Meanwhile, the wiki nature of DavisWiki means self-policing is both inevitable and encouraged. There’s no need for a benevolent dictator to steer the content, because the platform lets members moderate themselves. But it’s worth exploring how the resulting group dynamics developed over time. How many competing interests inhabit DavisWiki? How many “edit wars” do we see, and what form do they take?

If brands want to sculpt communities from the ground up, finding passionate founding members will only be the first step. The truly interesting part happens once the place blows up and outsiders come spilling in. Then we can see how the founding members react, and it’s like watching the most entertaining fish tank ever. 

Fish pic taken from !ºrobodot

On ideologies, advertising, and pants

Often you’ll hear people say advertising exists primarily to sell products. And while this is true, it leads many folks to believe every ad needs an explicit call to action and a straight-faced reading of product benefits, both of which create really dull (and really ineffective) work. And, as you’ve probably seen, the hard-sell is a sure ticket to the kinds of annoying interruptions we all try to avoid.

Instead, the best ads present a lens for viewing the world. They offer an ideological framework that makes the purchase of their product desirable.

This morning I saw a great example of this framework-making function not in an ad but in a Slate article, which asks its readers to stop ironing their clothes. Here’s a quote:

Wrinkled clothes represent fabric as it is, not as we wish it to be. Cotton, for instance, is meant to luxuriate in those criss-crossing gulches, those puffs of pockmarks. It is born in the fields, born from the ground! Why can we not find it in our hearts to accept its inherent wildness? Why must we labor to tame it, for centuries on end, in an endless stalemate of human versus wrinkle? We will never win. Wisdom dictates: Just give in. Free your fabric and your mind will follow.

You could easily imagine this copy as a voiceover for a television spot, no? It’s really interesting copy. It ties the wrinkling of cotton to a narrative of authenticity, where only through leaving cotton wrinkled can we experience the true nature of the fabric. There are references to “the fields” and the “ground,” to taming “inherent wildness.” It’s rife with little signifiers that usher forth a sort of back-to-our-roots ideology.

And it’s meaning-laden copy like this that has the potential to disrupt categories. Imagine if Dockers witnessed all its competitors adopt its signature anti-wrinkle fabric (my guess is they already have). Struggling for market share, Dockers could differentiate itself by taking a Pro Wrinkle stance. Tap into those narratives of authenticity, talk about how men’s clothing has distanced itself from our “natural roots” and needs an overhaul.

It could then discontinue those non-iron pants and, with the wrinkle-prone chinos that remain, ruffle them up before hanging them on in-store displays.

A Facebook campaign would ask fans to submit pics of their most wrinkled, messy outfits, the best of which would be displayed on Dockers’ homepage. These are the people who embrace cotton’s inherent wildness, the page might say.

And once that’s over, there are plenty of other content-marketing possibilities. Send Dockers Agents across America to find the most sterile office in the country. Then give that office a makeover to “untame it.”  

See? Once you couple the brand with a lens or framework, the executions and the nitty-gritty start to present themselves naturally. 

Ultimately, mass media have an amazing ability to mess with our worldviews. To justify beliefs we already have or to make us feel uneasy when our beliefs clash with someone else’s. That’s why, when brands tap into this ability of the media to create and challenge social meanings, you see the sort of work that prompts discussions and disrupts categories. The stuff that makes us feel differently about a product or even the world in general.

And because these narratives can constantly be flipped, challenged, reshaped, there’s always potential for brands to unleash this kind of work in the future. Even if the product in question is a pair of pants.

 Picture of wrinkled clothing taken from http://thewelldressedman.net

Microsoft just invented a ritual for the Surface. Hmm.

As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, I’m always fascinated when companies use visual media to associate their products with rituals, whether or not people practice those rituals in real life.

I’m also fascinated when brands depict on-screen “communities” in their ads, hoping we’ll imagine the brand as part of that community and consequently ourselves as members when we buy the product.

Microsoft’s new spot for its Surface tablet, which I’ve posted above, does both. It presents a fictional community participating in a ritual. And of course that means I can’t help but post it on my blog.  

This tactic of bringing lots of folks together in front of a camera and presenting them as a community, a tactic you’ll see often in the branding efforts of Coke and Pepsi, is interesting because it seems tailored specifically to reach as wide an audience as possible. The whole world is gathering around this one brand, and you get to be a part of a global movement!

But what’s peculiar about the movement that Microsoft has put together is that it’s unified around a single behavior—clicking together a keyboard and a tablet. It’s as if the strategy team expected their audience to reject this clicking action, so they decided the spot should make the behavior seem totally normal by presenting throngs of average folks doing it together.

Not that connecting two pieces of computer equipment is all that weird, but it strikes me as strange that Microsoft would have to overstate so dramatically that “This is Something Normal People Do.” Oh, and it reminds me of this Brazilian ad, which also presents a visual community in order to frame a potentially taboo behavior as normal.

According to Jeremy Holden, one of the emotional elements that hold together social movements is the set of visual symbols that “represent an encapsulating beacon” for the movement’s members, symbols that can come to signify the movement so thoroughly that their removal effectively strips away the emotional support the movement once had. The Roman Legion had its eagle. Microsoft has a clicking keyboard.

Content strategy, tuna style

I love reading about the ways branding tactics that seem “of the moment” are just repackaged versions of practices that date back a century or longer.

According to a Slate article published last month, tuna companies used a form of content strategy to woo shoppers before anyone even dreamed of social media:

Mainstream Americans considered the fish too gamey, until a cannery in San Pedro Bay, Calif., figured out that the steamed white meat of albacore tuna has very little flavor if you drain the fish’s own oil and can the meat with olive or cottonseed oil instead. The company began marketing the product as a chicken alternative in 1907. It distributed thousands of free recipe booklets, which contained mostly classic chicken or canned salmon recipes with tuna as a substitute. Americans found that tuna’s flavor was hardly noticeable in the right sauce, and sales began to rise.

Through disseminating free booklets, the tuna cannery gave its product a new set of meanings—tuna was no longer a niche food to be eaten on occasion or to entertain guests. It assumed the airs of an everyday ingredient, one that occupied the same role in the kitchen as chicken and milk.

Here, you can see all the “best practices” in action. The recipe books advanced the brand’s story. They brought real value to potential customers and wove seamlessly into their existing behaviors rather than begging them to adopt new ones. Pretty much all the characteristics of a successful content strategy except without the news feed.

And when we see these analog versions of content strategy done so well, it makes it even more ridiculous when critics dismiss today’s digital equivalent.

Corey Mull argued in AdAge that brands are misguided when they try to form “relationships” with customers through sharing content, first because most folks aren’t interested in relationships with brands and second because sharing content only leads to cognitive overload.

All valid points, except he assumes content strategy exists only to form these sorts of “relationships.” He overlooks the far more powerful form of content strategy that helped tuna achieve its current place in American kitchens. The sort of content that wraps brands in cultural meaning the same way print and television advertisements have done for decades.

Take a look at Gap’s relatively recent collaboration with fashion bloggers, such as this tie-in with Hypebeast and the Street Etiquette fixture Joshua Kissi.

Yes, asking viewers to “like” the image is pretty lame, but there’s something more interesting afoot— Gap, a company that has struggled with relevance in the past few years, associates itself visually with two fashion communities that are relevant. And it does so in a way that looks sort of convincing. The model, a fashion blogger who has built a formidible fan base of his own, doesn’t abandon his style to “sell out to the megabrand” but instead incorporates Gap seamlessly into his existing look. It’s difficult to tell what sort of relationship this content forms with anyone, but it does generate a fresh set of cultural meanings for the brand.  

Using content strategy to give brands cultural meaning also prevents the sort of cognitive overload Corey mentions in his article. While everyone might be sharing content nowadays, the brands that pierce through the noise are the ones whose content resonates with the values and desires of particular audiences. Which makes it even more crucial that brands make as clear as possible what communities, ideologies, and milieus they associate with and then design their content to entrench those associations in a deeper way.

And for a great example of content strategy that achieves this sort of resonance, we need only turn to the recipe booklets that taught households in 1907 how to cook tuna.

Top photo by difractado

When you own the car and you drive the car, even your decisions about, “are you going to put a bumper sticker on it?” There’s an idea of an audience.

I feel pretty strongly that this is true, not just for cars, but for almost everything you buy, that our real “audience” is really ourselves. And the person that you’re really speaking to when you’re speaking about, “why me in this car? Why is this the right car for me?”… You’re making a statement to yourself about yourself.

In sort of an abstract way, you’re sort of, you’re thinking about what they might be thinking of you and, like, whether or not they like your Obama sticker or your “save the whales” or, you know, your Christian fish or whatever it might be.

But the crucial thing is the self, is your own audience, your own story of, like, “I’m not that guy, I am that guy” or that woman.

Because the truth is, no one cares, on the highway.

Rob Walker from the documentary Objectified

In the land of “dark social,” cultural relevance matters

Public communications platforms like Twitter and Facebook have given such a high degree of visibility to specific ways of talking about brands that, whenever a new study comes along and reveals the ways brands are not being discussed in public, it becomes Big News.

An Atlantic article last week discussed the shadowy place where referrer traffic is untraceable, because the traffic comes from links passed around in private rather than from other websites. Since so many different exchanges (emails, Gchats, Skype conversations, mysterious diaries found in parking lots) can generate this sort of “direct” traffic, it’s incredibly difficult to measure.

The article even states that, across a broad aggregate of online magazines and other media sites, almost 69% of the social referrals came from these untraceable sources.

And while it’s important to highlight the forms of online communication that take place outside the public eye, this new piece of data mostly reiterates a truth many marketers have already heard but which nonetheless gets muffled amid all the talk of social media engagement. 

Napkin Labs recently found that only 6% of fans engage with a brand’s Facebook page via likes, comments, polls and other means, while a study conducted a year beforehand found something similar:

Being a fan, for the most part, is a rather passive activity. A whopping 77% of consumers said they interact with brands on Facebook primarily through reading posts and updates from the brands.

A measly 17% of respondents said they interact with brands by sharing experiences and news stories with others about the brand, and only 13% of respondents said they post updates about brands that they Like.

In fact, giving disproportionate attention to a form of engagement only a minority of folks practice is quite a common theme. Martin Weigel summarizes the issue in an excellent blog post, in which he writes:

The visible consumer is easy to find. Visible and vocal, they are the people lining up waiting for the new Apple Store to open. Waiting overnight to be the first to buy the latest iteration of Call of Duty. Or Harry Potter. Sporting Harley Davidson tattoos, and signing up as fans on Facebook. The visible consumer is well, visible. They don’t require that much effort to find and spot.

But uncritically extrapolating from the visible consumer or placing a disproportionate emphasis on the visible consumer warps our understanding. And blinds us from seeing and understanding the consumers who really matter.

It’s easy to direct most of our focus to the discussions taking place on public platforms, where a brand’s most devout enthusiasts lay out their opinions and attitudes for all to see. But this obscures the vast number of conversations happening in private, conversations in which folks attach a whole range of meanings to the brands they discuss without any of it wafting toward marketers’ ears.

But the fact that we lack direct access to these interactions needn’t discourage us. Instead, it’s a call to make brands culturally relevant, to hone our communication strategies so they resonate with the large swathes of people whose thoughts and behaviors we can’t monitor in real time. Here are a few ways to do this:

First, make it easy to figure out where the brand fits culturally, so it’s just as easy for me to talk about that brand with my friends.

When I say “fits culturally,” I mean the brand should make clear what causes they support and what values, milieus, and communities, they associate with.

J Crew, for example, has embedded itself so thoroughly in the heritage Americana aesthetic that the company comes to mind every time someone dares to say the phrase “timeless and classic.”  

Brands like Stonyfield, Chipotle, and Patagonia use owned and paid media to advocate for real environmental change.

And Whole Foods taps into the foodie values of the upper middle class to establish itself as the official grocer of the American yuppie.

Associating the brand with a clear cultural milieu is important because, while I know very few people who will repeat to their friends a brand’s tag line or key soundbites, plenty of folks who will mention a brand if it solidifies their own connection to a particular identity or cultural space.

In other words, because these brands’ cultural associations are so pronounced, I know exactly how I’m positioning myself when I talk about them with my friends. And if drawing attention to a particular brand associates me with a desirable identity or community, I’m much more likely to mention that brand in conversation (or walk around carrying Whole Foods bags like the man above).

I hear way too many folks, whether in interviews or trade publications, draw a line between “lifestyle brands” and “functional brands,” where a toiletries company shouldn’t try to embed itself in a cultural space because, well, it makes toiletries. But if you really want people to discuss your deodorant, tying that product to a desirable identity (look at Old Spice or even Axe!) is a good way to start.

Second, find a point of view that taps into the desires of large swathes of people.

In the blog post from Martin Weigel I mentioned above, two of the brands he cites for their zealous niche audiences are Apple and Harley. And yet both brands reached the heights they did because their messaging grasped the ideological core of broad cultural movements, touching upon concerns that lots of people shared.

Apple best summarized its ideological connections in its 1998 “Think Different” campaign, but since then the majority of its communications have championed the same themes of nonconformity and creativity, along with the idea of using these traits to make life simpler and more fulfilling. Arguably, Apple’s embededness in such a consistent set of values accounts for the uproar that ignited when the company released its “Genius” ads last July, where the cultural cues of past campaigns had been replaced by something far more banal.

Harley Davidson, as its 2011 “Cages” spot makes clear, taps into the theme of escape from hum drum mediocrity. The image of the tough-guy rider doesn’t just deepen the brand’s appeal among a niche audience. It becomes a symbol for a much more widely-held set of desires.

Lastly, make sure your communications strategy actually aligns with your business practices and internal culture.

Many brands have a campaign or two where they embed themselves in a cultural space, and that’s about it. Visit their website, and they become another dull brand drawing attention to the same dull set of rational benefits as all their competitors.

On the other hand, brands that do have a cohesive communications strategy fall apart when their business practices diverge wildly from the ways they present themselves. No example is clearer than BP, which carried all the visual symbols of a ‘green company,’ and yet, well, you know the rest.  

Ideally, the brand’s external presence should spring from values and practices within the company. That way, even with employees using social media to broadcast their own thoughts, and even with customers interacting with the brand offline in ways social media managers will never hear about, there is far less a chance of image clashing with reality.

In the end, the fact that only a fraction of conversations about brands reach the ears of marketers shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. Instead, it’s a reason to take a deeper look at how brands resonate with the values of audiences from many different communities. How (or even whether) they incorporate that brand into their identities. And how we can use that information to adjust our communications strategy to motivate the broadest number of people even if they fall outside the reach of our social media presence.