The Growing Challenge of Cultural Pluralism
Most of us can think back to our teenage years when the gaps between different cultural groups were chasmic. Some people literally wore their cultural allegiance on their sleeve. But cultural affiliation went beyond what you wore and the music you listened to: language, attitude, behaviour, ritual, ideologies, political allegiance; every aspect of your life could be dedicated to fitting in as part of that tribe. It was a major investment in time and money.
But finding belonging through cultural identity is changing. Digital is forming new cultural communities around what were previously niche interests – and it’s doing so at scale. It is also allowing people to form multiple cultural identities, simultaneously creating a new, more complicated picture of cultural affiliation. You don’t have to invest time and money curating an image in the real world when your avatar can do it for you. This subcultural affiliation is no longer the preserve of the teenager; these identity trends span every age and demographic.
This is presenting new opportunities for brands to drive greater relevance and affinity with consumers. But in a more complicated, transient and nuanced world, it also presents challenges: which opportunities are the right ones and how do we engage a community that can on first sight appear completely baffling and alien?
Digital connects people like never before
Digital has facilitated greater connection between like-minded people. Connections are no longer bound by geography or time. People can seek out others with like-minded interests, bridging the physical boundaries that have traditionally defined whether cultures have flourished or failed.
This new reality creates huge scale in different passion points, even in areas that on the surface may appear niche. This is no more true than the meteoric rise of eSports. What started with teenagers in bedrooms discussing the best gaming strategies has spawned a multi-million dollar entertainment market, with professional gaming teams battling in front of full stadiums of fans for multi-million dollar prizes. 32 million people around the world tuned in online to watch the League of Legends World Final in 2015. This phenomenal growth has happened with a very limited penetration in the ‘mainstream’ consciousness.
But this isn’t just a ‘large audience’; this is a thriving cultural community in its own right. The eSports space is defined by a large number of tribes, each grouped around key gaming titles, and within each tribe there is an almost limitless number of sub-tribes. The eSports culture has developed, from an outsider’s perspective, a dizzying array of stars, personalities and influential figures, with a plethora of stories, myths and legends that shape that community’s perceptions, with a shared experience communicated in an almost impenetrable language. The simplistic title of ‘gaming’ does not do justice to the rich cultural world that exists within.
Wherever there is a large captive audience, there is an opportunity for brands, and this year we have seen progressive brands who understand the power of fragmented cultural opportunities taking the first steps into this space. Red Bull have opened an eSports channel, Samsung have sponsored a team, and Coke Zero have sponsored viewing areas. But the challenge for these brands, and others as they enter the space, is how to connect authentically with a large, passionate, specialist audience in a way that is believable, emotive, and part of the community.
What constitutes a subculture is changing
Digital has reduced the barrier to exploring different aspects of identity. Rather than having to fully commit to a cultural identity, digital lets people simultaneously exist within different cultural communities.
In this world, we can no longer pigeon-hole people into generic archetypes. We need to get away from overly simplistic caricatures such as a ‘worried mum’ or ‘millennial’. Thinking in terms of cultural communities can help us because these images are defined and constructed by the consumer themselves through their active participation in a community.
Some of these communities can at first sight seem downright bizarre. Auto-sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a tingly feeling that some people experience when exposed to certain sound triggers, such as whispering or soft brushing noises. Digital has connected people who experience this sensation, allowing them to share their experiences and also create content that triggers the feeling. This has led to a large community forming around this topic, with 100,000 members on Reddit and the most popular ASMR Youtuber, Gentle Whisperer, generating over 250 million views.
Dove, the Mars chocolate brand, created an ASMR video for its China market, to try and connect with this hugely popular subculture. Pepsi have also created Instagram content heroing their softly fizzing drink as a way to try and connect with this subculture.
These cultural communities are hard to penetrate
Much like eSports, at first glance, the world of baking seems fairly straight-forward, but this masks a complex web of subcultural groups. There are bakers who bake to master classics, gluten-free bakers, bakers who bake just to perfect a visual aesthetic, clean-living bakers, life-style bakers, show-stopping obsessives, minimalists, and innovation seekers. Each group has a different motivation, and a different cultural expression of their passion which needs to be understood to authentically operate in this community.
Some communities require different touch points to be reached authentically. This is something Adidas are really pushing forward. For example, when launching their D Rose Jump Store, they placed adverts in the local chicken shops of Hackney and advertised on local pirate radio. They’re now building on this approach by pushing into dark social, using WhatsApp as a social channel to build connections with hard to reach consumers.
Particular visual aesthetics are important to form authentic connections with consumers. For example, Haul videos have a very particular communication style. Haul videos are short films where girls share their recent purchases from shopping trips.
Despite being made by disparate people usually on their own, the community has organically developed its own aesthetic: a pastel pallet, script typefaces, quick jump cuts, and shallow depth of field are the hall marks of the haul world. To live in this space, brands need to ensure they capture this popular aesthetic.
How can brands build cultural connections in this fragmented landscape?
To connect with cultural communities, brands need to really understand and analyse the culture before jumping in. In particular, there are four elements which are key to connecting with a community:
· Landscape: what are the groups and sub-groups within a particular cultural community? What unites them and how are they different?
· Actors: who is influential in each community? What is their identity and what do they represent?
· Rituals: what are the common behaviours within a community? What are the fables that act as common currency amongst members?
· Language and aesthetic: how do members of the community communicate with each other? What is the common slang language? What is the dominant visual style?
Once the community has been fully understood, only then is it possible to formulate your own brand narrative which plays to this community, utilising their language, codes and aesthetics in an appropriate way, and taking advantage of the most suitable media opportunities to best reach this community.
Bigger brand impact lies outside of the mainstream
The rise of fragmented cultural communities is starting to challenge the hegemony of mainstream culture. As people spend more time in different cultural communities, large-scale cultural moments hold less sway.
Future success lies in creating connections in cultural spaces outside of the mainstream. The best brands will be malleable: able to fit within a range of subcultural communities, but flexible enough to mirror and match that community. Brands that adopt this model will have more impact with consumers. By being part of the community, they will create greater affinity with consumers, and this affinity will drive purchases in our world of abundant choice.
Each week TMW Unlimited is releasing a new thought piece on the trends and opportunities that they think will matter to marketers this year. You can read the full trend piece here.
Genre: People , Strategy/Insight