Portrait of a Marketer as Cultural Anthropologist

Remember the good ‘ole days when cultural relevancy was purchased through TV commercials and catchy taglines?

Those days have fizzled out.

Advertising once controlled by three television networks is now in the hands of millions of consumers. Companies can spend millions on social media and see little return, while an unpaid celeb endorsement drives a pair of $9000 headphones (that have a one-star review) to sellout in 24 hours. Once heralded as the “new golden age of branding,” the rise of digital marketing and social media has made it even more challenging for companies to reach and engage their customers.


Once audiences could opt out of ads, it became harder for brands to buy fame.

The recent Harvard Business Review article, “Branding in the Age of Social Media,” discusses how the emergence of crowdculture – and the ability to opt out of ads – has changed the way big budget brands must engage with consumers.

Enter branded content.


Coke’s Jonathan Mildenhall claimed that Coke would continually produce “the world’s most compelling content,” which would capture “a disproportionate share of popular culture,” doubling sales by 2020.

It’s not as simple as creating compelling content to drive sales. As you might imagine, the project has not captured the attention of pop culture. The reality is that consumers have little interest in engaging with branded content. Would you want to get your daily news from Coca-Cola’s homepage

Red Bull does an amazing job at creating personalized experiences that engage and delight. (We’ve written about it here and here.) But, as the article points out:

Red Bull spends much of its $2 billion annual marketing budget on branded content, its YouTube channel (rank #184, 4.9 million subscribers) is lapped by dozens of crowdculture start-ups with production budgets under $100,000.

So, what’s a brand to do?

Holt proposes shifting from branded content to cultural branding.

Take, for example, Chipotle’s famous campaigns, “Back to the Start and The Scarecrow.” These campaigns worked because they went beyond just entertainment and art to “passionately captured the ideology of the burgeoning preindustrial food crowdculture.”

Holt breaks down how Old Spice, Axe, and Dove successfully employ cultural branding to stay relevant in the pop-culture conversation. This is a significant shift in big-brand thinking and involves a little more art than science. It goes back to the basics of understanding who your audience is and what crowdculture they fall into. (Maybe cultural branding is the key to reaching Millennials?) Perhaps that minor in Cultural Anthtropology will finally pay off?

One thing is for sure: gone are the days when brands with big budgets could buy their way into cultural relevance.

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Photo Credit: Seán Ó Domhnaill

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