Cultural Relevance

Article excerpt

CEOs must go beyond marketing to embed their products in the culture. BY FAITH POPCORN

In 2006, the long-predicted death of advertising will reach a critical point. Equally important, forwardthinking corporate leaders will build their marketing strategies not around media but around culture.

The ineffectiveness and irrelevance of traditional media-driven messaging are glaringly apparent. Newspapers and magazines are being eclipsed by the Web. Online music sharing, satellite radio and podcasting (downloadable "playlists" from personal and Web-based friends) are eroding the "ear share" of commercial broadcast radio. TiVo and other digitalvideo recording (DVR) systems, which are forecast to be in 25 million homes by 2007, allow viewers to wrest control of their programming from the networks. Already, DVR users are skipping past 60 percent of the ads that they would otherwise see (the equivalent of $6.6 billion in media spending). Coming next: a new DVR machine that will offer the option of completely excluding commercials when it records programming. Say goodbye to the 30-second spot!

But new technologies that liberate consumers from Big Media are only part of the story. A much larger development is the series of cultural trends that have led consumers to reject artificial, highly scripted, top-down marketing. People's attitudes toward Fortune 500 companies and other established institutions have migrated from trust to distrust to outright dismissal.

Consumers are sick of spin, hype and empty promises. They see through the latest efforts to salvage marketing as usual whether through product placement, "buzz"-based promotion or some other contrived technique. Instead, they are turning toward peer-based sources of information about companies, products and services. At Web sites such as Epinions.com, for example, people swap comments about their experiences in the marketplace. Control of messaging has shifted decisively away from companies' marketers and toward consumers.

The "mass" in mass marketing has become an anachronism. In place of that mass is an unruly, fragmented set of subcultures, each of which expects to be approached on its terms. Marketing Interruptus-trying to reach people by intruding upon their time and attention-simply doesn't work in today's on-demand, consumer-driven culture. Buying media share, in other words, no longer buys you mind share.

Many business people seek refuge in the purely technological side of this transformation. They focus on sophisticated tools that give them a new and improved version of old-fashioned marketing metrics. With online advertising, for instance, they fasten on the wealth of click-through data that now comes their way. Granted, these new metrics offer useful information on how consumers respond to an ad: If they're clicking through to learn more about you and your product, then the ad must be working, right? Wrong.

Those metrics run the risk of trapping leaders in a fool's paradise. They move marketing only a step or two beyond the traditional emphasis on making-and then obsessively counting-"impressions" through advertising. But today's overexposed consumers are immune to impressions. The challenge now is to move from impressions to connections, because it is connections that produce sales.

Investing in Culture

Simply put, in the new marketing landscape, culture is the new media. For marketing purposes, the old media channels no longer work. It is through culture, and only through culture, that companies will reach consumers in the post-advertising future. What is "culture"? It's what people are passionate about. It's the music, the fashion, the language, the technology, the spirituality of generations.

Culturally relevant marketing is about enmeshing a brand into those elements of culture. …