Attention culture vultures: stop the content scavenging and get on with some discovering
Sérgio Brodsky writes that we’re at danger of losing one of life’s most satisfying things: discovery.
Serendipity is one of the most beautiful things about culture. Sudden encounters with new ideas or sensorial stimuli can be transformational. However, the pressures from networked markets, the internet’s pre-empting mechanics and crowdculture strategies could be homogenising the richness of our cultural biodiversity, leaving unwanted consequences for both marketers and society.
Starting at the top, the influence exerted by the largest media conglomerates (eg. Viacom, Disney, Time Warner and News Corporation, among others) and the internet’s frightful five – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft – mean that the way we inform and entertain ourselves gets predetermined by programming that is most appealing to advertisers and their target audiences.
In response to people’s desire for new, fresh experiences, those same conglomerates will ‘coolhunt’ the most interesting types of content. However, what could be seen as too original, too different or too controversial gets pasteurised for the broadcasting of mainstreamed tastes. The genre known as ‘world music’, for example, is the by-product of different Indigenous sounds remixed with electronic synthesisers able to produce more palatable, contemporary tracks.
On the one hand, ad-funded culture gives people greater access to musicians that, otherwise, may go unnoticed. On the other hand, the original messages of completely unrelated music styles – ranging from Ravi Shankar (India) to Gipsy Kings (Spain by way of the south of France) or Cesária Évora (Cape Verde) – get homogenised under a unifying banner that facilitates their commercialisation, while partially diluting their cultural value.
As helpful as it may be, having a ‘suggested for you’ top row on Netflix or Amazon’s ‘those who bought this, also bought those’ suggestions actually make it harder for us to broaden our tastes as well as our minds. There’s no need to be adventurous when doing your online groceries, but the sort of algorithmic thinking that rules the internet could be stopping us from forming a more diverse repertoire of experiences and the ability to empathise with the different.
When it comes to brands and branding, ‘owning’ an innovative ideology that breaks with category conventions has proved immensely successful. The ‘colonisation’ of cultural niches by brands was, in fact, the cover story of a 2016 Harvard Business Review issue. Its author, Douglas Holt, coined the approach ‘crowdculture’. To harness the opportunity, all that’s needed is a savvy marketer to do the data mining and some social-listening panning to find the cultural gold.
Chipotle, for example, chose the emerging movement of preindustrial foods to compete with the ideology of industrial food. It perfectly timed the opportunity against a series of meaningful events like Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation (2001), Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me (2004) and Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006).
In 2011, Chipotle launched its game-changing campaign ‘Back to the Start’, targeting anti- establishment food influencers. In 2013, ‘The Scarecrow’ campaign sustained the hype with an inspired vision of the future.
Chipotle is not a unique case. Many other brands have followed suit. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ tapped into critical comments about size-zero celebrities to ignite a multi-channel celebration of real women’s physiques in all their normal diversity. Pepsi went even further by branding an entire emoji lexicon with its 2016 PepsiMoji campaign.
The problem, however, is twofold. First, culture is in constant flow and what is clearly positive today could be negative, confusing or uninteresting tomorrow. According to research, cultural trends last an average of two years, while brands may take a lot longer to grow strong. Second, by failing to embody a set of cultural values, brands risk losing social trust, the underpinning element of any healthy economy.
That was when, in May 2015, Chipotle became its own worst enemy, after announcing it would only sell food free of genetically modified organisms. At first, this would seem like validation of its crowdculture strategy. However, given the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, Chipotle’s marketing was accused of contributing to unfounded, anti-science fears.
‘Hypocrisy’ and ‘opportunism’ were also widely used words, since Chipotle only switched ingredients like cornmeal for tortillas, and soybean oil for cooking, having left its meat sources and soda fountains untouched. The move was also a step backwards in terms of pesticide use, since farmers had adopted corn and soy-tolerant herbicide in order to use less herbicide and switch to glyphosate, a safer herbicide.
Does Chipotle’s backlash make the preindustrial foods movement a fraud? Absolutely not. But, by failing to perform, Chipotle not only undermines the ideology around preindustrial foods, but also its variants preaching for healthy eating. As a consequence, brands promoting ‘fast food, slower’ may now be perceived as misleading, losing consumers’ trust. Supporting the assumption is Chipotle’s dramatic plunging sales for three consecutive quarters now.
The richness of healthy-eating ideology was reduced to Chipotle’s preindustrial foods campaigns, just as the diversity of Indigenous sounds was reduced to the genre of ‘world music’. And, even if I scroll down into abyssal depths of my social feeds in search of different new experiences, the likelihood is I will be programmatically served with content that I’m already likely to like.
Is there a way out?
Fortunately, yes. Instead of using your brand to (mis)appropriate culture, why not allow for more cultural discoveries? Just as artists are continually confronting our views of the world and ourselves with new, original content, brands too have this opportunity. Brands don’t need to stick their flags in uncharted territories to claim cultural relevance. Instead, they can enable new discoveries.
Recently I decided to watch a movie (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) that Netflix had not suggested, from a genre I don’t usually explore (foreign films). I gave it a go and was enthralled by the song narrating its opening scene. I immediately took my phone, Shazam-ed the song, and wrote its name on YouTube. To my surprise, I found myself on the Coke Studio channel that was specifically set up to showcase Pakistani musicians and a tremendous richness of styles!
As controversial as it may seem, Coca-Cola has without a doubt allowed me to ‘taste the feeling’ of a new cultural discovery without diluting its value. I’m not sure if that was a one-off execution, but it’d be a very smart move for Coke to keep opening new pockets of culture and in this way sustain its new positioning while simultaneously remaining culturally current.
The large media conglomerates and the internet will not radically change their modus operandi any time soon, but brands – and their agencies – could perhaps start breaking some conventions to enable people to be more free-thinking and to preserve the richness of culture.