American author Seth Godin once stated that “marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” As most entrepreneurs are aware, the significance of self-promotion and raising public profile is immeasurable when looking to kick-start, maintain or grow a burgeoning enterprise. It is perhaps for this reason that so many companies and brands turn to the most fickle and changeable of mistresses: popular culture.
But do campaigns that rely on what’s hot in music, literature, film, television or any of the other countless forms of mass entertainment simply employ the cultural zeitgeist for monetary gain? Or do they perform a social function, influencing and informing what we talk about around our morning cup of coffee?
It is certainly true that since the early days of marketing, clever bods have used what is broadly liked and recognised in order to generate interest and create a relationship with their target demographic. “It’s not just taking the ‘borrowed interest’ of a famous asset, but tapping into the deeper needs that make people care,” says Alex Dundson, co-founder of The Bakery, a marketing agency accelerator. “It’s about the stuff that moves people.”
Switch on any television during a commercial break and you are likely to stumble upon an ad using pop culture of some kind. Pepsi, for example, has used a plethora of household names from the world of music and sport, including Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and the ever bankable stars of the Premier League, to sell its products. Chanel and Galaxy too have utilised the glamour and elegance associated with Hollywood icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe to appeal to the intended buyer. And a recent hard-hitting ad from environmental activist group Greenpeace strips down the opening sequence of Disney classic The Lion King, removing all animals one by one to highlight the human-inflicted damage upon our rainforests and wildlife.
It would therefore seem that the employment of pop culture is both ubiquitous and universal in the world of advertising. But the fundamental question is why?
The dominating view is that in using popular culture in their campaigns, brands are better placing themselves to speak with their desired audiences. They can spark an interest and dialogue around whatever product they may wish to promote.
“Pop culture has always been a way – if implemented right so you’re not piling on the bandwagon – that you can tailor your message to a much more targeted audience,” says Mark Artus, CEO of 1HQ, the brand agency. “You can align better and get more traction.”
Meanwhile, for Jason Goodman, CEO of Albion London, the creative agency, it’s more about the ability of pop culture to generate much-needed word-of-mouth surrounding brands and their wares. “Obviously the way big brands have borrowed from pop culture is a bit of an advertising norm,” says Goodman. “What’s interesting in all businesses and start-ups is the way you make culture part of your communications and marketing.”
Indeed, some advertisers not only utilise popular culture in their marketing collateral, but influence it. With technology continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, the campaign has become almost as significant as the product itself. Brand identities have infiltrated the public psyche and become ingrained in the general consciousness to such an extent as to merge into the lexicon and take on a life of their own. Who hasn’t been told they ‘should have gone to Specsavers’ or described themselves as ‘tangoed’ when they’ve been a tad overzealous with the St Tropez? Both of these are examples of instantly recognisable marketing constructs that have been taken willingly to the public bosom. Now are the days of gorillas drumming heartily along to Phil Collins in the name of Cadbury, and Russian-accented meerkats vowing to find you the cheapest possible car insurance. Similarly, in the case of product identities, does anybody today truly vacuum their home? Or search online? Doubtful. They hoover and they google. So strong are the identities of these leading names that they become synonymous with the product itself.
The reason for this new viral form of marketing lies at the feet of technology, argues Goodman, the man whose company helped pair Oprah Winfrey with Skype, and is responsible for those Wonga grannies so many people are now familiar with. “There’s a blur now between how people can create celebrity content and involve celebrity in content,” he says.
These campaigns have irrevocably altered the advertising landscape and the approach to using pop culture in marketing. “Those kind of ads just identify a certain asset of that brand that resonates with the consumer” says Artus. To be catchy now, it seems, is about the combination of saturating the technological universe and coming up with a concept both innovative and enjoyable to your audience. George Smart, owner of Theobald Fox, the creative agency, says creating a memorable campaign is the name of the game. “Nowadays to make something catchy you have to be creating something that consumers will buy into, share around,” he explains. “There’s been a massive shift between consumers and advertising. The best advertiser is now the consumer.”
Does this mean the days of using traditional pop culture endorsements – the face of George Clooney plastered over your not-so-average coffee machine, for example – are a thing of the past? Goodman thinks so, taking the view that this as a ‘dying area’ and claiming that “if you are going to identify brands with these big pop culture names or concepts then at least make it useful and add some value.” However, Smart disagrees. “People will always have heroes,” he explains. “And pop culture has seen all sorts of reference points that make up people’s lives and define them in terms of how they mix their interests.”
It’s well and good debating the merits of a star-studded advertising campaign, but the million dollar question for your average SME is ‘what can I do to compete with the big boys?’ Nick Moutter, CEO of Admedo, an ad-buying platform, says SMEs can be slightly slow on the uptake when it comes to advertising and culture-based marketing, partially as a result of budget constraints. He recommends smaller companies think a little out of the box to get the best for their money.
He concludes: “If you’re a small business and you put something quirky in front of someone that isn’t the standard ad, you’re going to get a better return.”