The Pitfalls of Pop Culture

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A couple of months ago, I attended a screening of the advertising retrospective, Art & Copy.

The film showcases the anecdotes and ideas of some of the greatest visionaries in the history of the advertising.  Personally, I enjoyed it.  My girlfriend, clearly dragged along by some sense of obligation, was plainly horrified.  As icon after icon reflected on the nature of advertising and the role it plays in shaping and reflecting popular culture, I could sense her growing skepticism.  “Do people actually talk like that!?  It’s ******* advertising!”

Most non-industry types don’t like to think of advertising as a cultural driver.  “Culture” being the kind of term we like to reserve for more weighty affairs like art, music, religion, media and politics. Nevertheless, as a mass-shared experience, advertising is certainly a key driver of popular culture.  In fact, according to one of the more popular schools of ad philosophy, the ultimate proof of advertising greatness is entry into the pantheon of pop culture.  (Presumably, the key metric here is a parody t-shirt sold at the Jersey Shore.)

Certainly great advertising should become part of culture, but amidst conversations of sustainable brands, increased consumer targeting, fragmenting media, and interest-driven attention, is pop culture immortalization really the ultimate metric of success?  Or should we pursue more modest objectives?

Pop Culture and the Media

In some of the more bizarre sequences of the film, director Doug Pray punctuates the musings of industry titans with cutaways and statistics demonstrating the Orwellian might of the advertising machine.  Larger than life transmission antennas, printing presses churning thousands of pages, ad-saturated pans of the urban American landscape, over 6-kazillion impressions served… oh my!!!  Truly it is a mighty sword we wield!

But it’s an important point: For a long time culture was a localized phenomenon.  Regions developed their own cultural idiosyncrasies and touch points because there were limits to how far ideas, customs, language and art could spread.  The concept of ‘pop culture’ is entirely modern, made possible by the advent of mass communication.  Pop culture, as we think of it, is only possible when everyone consumes the same art, film, politics, magazines, newspapers and books.

It’s notable, however, that digital isn’t mentioned anywhere in the film.  Not once.

Digital challenges the paradigm of mass communication and, by proxy, the role of advertising in culture.  With digital, consumers retain a larger degree of control over their content consumption.  Not only can they choose what they ingest, but they also retain the mechanism to create and propagate their own content.  The result has been rapid media fragmentation as every individual tailors their content consumption according to their interests and passions.  In short, it has driven the niche-ification of media.

In terms of user experience, it’s fantastic.  In terms of pop culture, it’s devastating.

The Dangers of Brands and Pop Culture

It’s generally assumed that pop culture is a good thing for brands.  Mass awareness, broad appeal, and cultural ubiquity are all buzz words brand managers dream of.  But pop culture is a double-edged sword.  It exists in a state of constant churn.  Almost by design it is disposable.  Very few pop culture icons endure – most are relegated to the status of one-hit wonders and fads.  Flame-outs are one thing, but, sometimes, simply the act of going mass is enough to destroy a brand.

It is an understatement to say that the beverage industry is a competitive space.  Since 2005, the category has seen more than 1,350 ready-to-drink teas, soft drinks, and energy drinks enter the already-crowded cooler.  Today, the beverage landscape is defined by over 2,600 brands competing for our nations’ parched palates.  These new beverages are driving 50% of the category growth – a third of that being driven by beverage categories that didn’t exist five years ago.  A beverage brand, even a powerful one, needs to stay on its toes.

Coca-Cola is a worldwide beverage leader and, to keep that crown, they aggressively defend their category dominance with a portfolio of over 3,000 beverages.  It is fair to say they know a thing or two about building beverage brands.  In 2001, Coca-Cola identified and acquired a small juice brand called Mad River.  The drink had a strong regional following and its prospects were looking bright.  With access to Coca-Cola’s marketing budget and distribution juggernaut the company expected to grow Mad River into the next drink sensation.

Coca-Cola exploded the brand across the country, but, suffice to say, the brand was not well received.  Sales didn’t even come close to the lofty expectations.  Coke soon discovered that without “organic” growth and an existing fan base, the brand was meaningless.  Shortly thereafter, the brand quietly joined a graveyard of failed beverage experiments.  A run at pop cultural stardom literally destroyed the Mad River.  Today, Coke talks about the “art of emerging,” building brands slowly among niche advocates – allowing the brand to embed itself among its core advocates and build volume over time.

Malcolm Gladwell famously discussed a case study with similar results, Airwalk sneakers.  The brand was cruising along in its niche until it was decided that Airwalk was ready for the big time.  The brand exploded with increased distribution and a host of creative advertising – all of which met with resounding success.  But somewhere along the way, Airwalk abandoned their more niche efforts and subtly changed the manufacture of the shoe to make it more palatable to mass consumers (at the same time sacrificing its utility for skating).  Their core consumers felt betrayed and abandoned the brand.  Meanwhile, legions of new fans happily gobbled up their alternative style… for awhile.  Like most pop culture, people eventually lost interest and moved on.  Today, Airwalk survives at stores like Payless ShoeSource, which probably moves a lot of sneakers, but leaves their reputation in tatters.

Sustainable Brands and Pop Culture

In the new media landscape, successful brands have evolved their approaches to survive.  Red Bull builds their brand by catering to many small niche segments and interests, building loyalty among many smaller circles of advocates.  None of their efforts are particularly designed for pop culture consumption.

Even the iconic Nike, perhaps the biggest pop culture phenomenon in branding, has evolved their approach.  They produce a lot of work designed to burrow deep into the culture of their various niches.  Each athletic niche is supported by initiatives that cater specifically to that audience.  Think of initiatives like Nike Master Control, Nike Women, or Nike+.  Spots like Break to Build and digital deployments like Head 2 Head resonate deeply within their target audiences, but not necessarily with the larger crowd.  They commission artwork, galleries, spaces and created initiatives like NikeID to appeal to their urban-minded fashion consumer.  To say Nike is just a Swoosh and an iconic tagline is to overlook the myriad cultural-circles that support it.

It’s not a failure if a campaign for a pair of Nike limited edition shoes doesn’t take off.  It’s successful because it doesn’t take off.  It keeps a group of urban influencers feeling special and elite, so they keep coming back to the brand and making it cool and relevant.  It’s precisely the lesson Airwalk had to learn the hard way.

Keeping Brands Relevant

A friend of mine argues that all advertising is designed to understand, infiltrate and create culture.  We drill down and research and plan campaigns and initiatives that we feel will resonate with our target audiences.  We develop sophisticated media plans to effectively target our audience and encourage initiatives to “go viral.”  We talk about the long-tail power of the web and the individual desire paths consumers weave through professional and amateur content.  We applaud applications and tools like the North Face Snow Report that cater to specific groups of people.  How is any of that consistent with pop or mass culture?

Pop culture is cool because it’s big, but dangerous because it’s disposable.  As media continues to fragment and social advocacy becomes increasingly important to reach consumers, brands need to recognize the value of building brands that can effectively resonate within a specific cultural circle.  Brands that can establish themselves as touch points of loyal, cultural communities stand a far better chance at sustaining year after year.

Perhaps brands can be cultural relevant without being pop culturally relevant.