When Brands Sell Culture

Advertising is an unavoidable part of life for most people. It’s been with us since we were born, surrounding us on TV, magazines, and billboards—burrowing into our memories. Speaking as an American thirty-something who remembers a time before the internet, ads have always been around. In the days before Netflix and DVR, we were forced to patiently watch every ad, sometimes with joy and humor, and sometimes with mind-numbing repetition, all the while just waiting for the show to return. Nevertheless, we always powered through— and had a good time, for the most part. Yet, despite our Hulu’s, our YouTube’s, and our ad-blockers, ads still manage to find a way; and they’re obviously still with us today. Sometimes they take a stance on a political issue, sometimes they sell us a fantasy life, and sometimes they just join in on a harmless meme. It’s hard not to see the fakeness in one, and then trust the genius in another— all the while knowing that it’s still selling a product.

Branding techniques have evolved from unique selling points, to emotional selling points, and now cultural selling points, as Dino Dimitropoulos writes: “Culturally tuned brands are interacting with consumers in new ways, places and moments by telling stories that are part of culture and hence are more truthful and appealing. Consumers purchase branded products in order to experience and be associated with these stories and enhance their own cultural identities.”

Cultural selling points (or CSPs) are nothing new, but they now seem more prevalent than ever, and brands are vying for our attention by tapping into the trends.

With the advent of endless streaming content, documentaries have made a comeback, and brands have capitalized on this trend by making their own documentary-style content. Sometimes it’s long-form, and sometimes it’s bite-sized, but it always seems to be less about the product and more about an inspirational lifestyle or aspirational feeling. Patagonia follows a rock climber up El Capitan in Yosemite, and RedBull showcases extreme skydivers who jump from terrifying heights. It all makes for well-produced, engaging content that unknowingly tricks the viewer into watching branded content. One wonders, however, what the true purpose of these ads are. Does Patagonia clothing make you a better climber? Does RedBull give you the energy and courage to get into extreme sports? Or is it all just a benevolent, subtly sponsored, inspirational gesture by a company who truly wants me to live life to its fullest? Even Coors Light took a turn with the doc-style ad when it featured the story of an aspiring fashion designer whose plans were halted when he was diagnosed with a heart tumor. He eventually overcame the illness and released his fashion line, and you hardly realize it’s a Coors Light ad until the very end. I can see both sides to this. On the one hand, it’s a great piece of well-shot, well-edited content, and it’s good to see Coors Light greenlight something with substance. On the other hand, one might see it as a corporate giant saying, “overcoming adversity is trendy, let’s cash in on that.” There’s a quote from the video when the fashion designer says, "Doctors would tell me to walk three times a day, and I would walk five times a day. I started getting stronger and that's when you can't stop me.” I couldn’t help but wonder if drinking Coors Light also helped him get stronger.

Sometimes for brands, tapping into the cultural conversation is more about taking a political stance. After the 2016 election, lots of brands made commercials that took a position on some of the main wedge issues. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t (a-la the botched Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial). When it worked well, we got beautiful ads that promoted a strong positive message, such as the AirBnB We Accept ad, and the Budweiser Born the Hard Way ad. Both ads deal with the issues of diversity, immigration, and accepting people who are different from yourself. Budweiser’s ad was shot like a well-produced motion picture, and told the story of how its founder immigrated to America and struggled to get by, but eventually realized his dream of creating a beer company. It took a side on the immigration issue by implying our nation was founded and built by immigrants (and rightly so). It is interesting however, to wonder that if Budweiser wasn’t a corporate juggernaut with a well-established brand, would they be able to take a stand on an issue like this? If the ad were to upset their more right-leaning audience (which I imagine is a large portion) and it hurt their sales, would they have made an ad like this? Maybe they don’t have to worry about it hurting their bottom line because they’re already so established and ingrained into American culture. Maybe the more interesting question to ponder is why do companies feel the need to take a stance on a political issue? Maybe it’s genuine, maybe it isn’t. In Selling What They Preach, Megan Garber writes, “You could see them all as progressive messages that share a convenient conviction: that the right side of history can often double as the more lucrative side of history.”

Aside from these heavier issues, brands can take a more light-hearted approach by tapping into pop culture. A lot of times, brands piggyback onto popular TV shows. Several brands like Google, Target, and even other shows like Sesame Street tweeted about the season 2 premiere of Stranger Things. Nearly everyone was talking about the season 2 premiere, and brands were paying attention. This is the more fun side of cultural marketing, and it kind of humanizes the brand by saying, “Hey, we’re cool, and we watch the same shows as you.”

Sometimes it’s unclear which brands have official partnerships, and which don’t, and it’s interesting to see them piggyback on the success of something else without having to be officially affiliated. Sometimes it doesn’t work. This tactic backfired on McDonald’s recently when they brought back their discontinued szechuan sauce after it was referenced in a Rick and Morty episode. The plan didn’t go so well, fans got a little out of hand, and the creators of Rick and Morty were able to distance themselves from the situation by simply stating that they weren’t partnered with McDonald’s. Another example of it not working is when brands try to use memes. Usually by the time a meme has reached the attention of a corporation, it’s pretty old and overused, and the brand just ends up looking like a grandmother saying something is “on fleek.”

Another example of piggybacking is when brands provide the production funding for something they see as leverage to promote some other cause or campaign. This is often the case with the rock band OK Go. They’re known for their creative and complex, chain-reaction style music videos that require huge production costs and can’t be done without funding. Last year they partnered with Morton Salt to do a music video for The One Moment. The resulting video was a stunning, time-bending Rube Goldberg style production, and it didn’t even mention Morton Salt until the very end, with a call to action for their “Walk Her Walk” campaign. It seems like Morton knew this video would get millions of views, and cleverly integrated their campaign, almost as an afterthought. It would be interesting to see how many viewers actually went on to check out the Morton Salt campaign.

Cultural selling points are an interesting trend in today’s marketing. The urgency for a brand to appear real and authentic (or quirky and fun) sometimes really works, but sometimes it comes across as disingenuous. It is possible that a company is honest when they express their core values or say they want to change the world for the better; but a lot of times, the actual history of a company doesn’t support the same narrative. And this article isn’t trying to discredit the content from a purely artistic standpoint. It isn’t to say that something can’t be beautiful, artistic, or groundbreaking if it’s funded by a corporation or a car company (everything is usually funded by something else). But at the end of the day, when you look past the authentic documentary-style, the high production value, and the incognito brand integration, it all boils down to one thing—selling a product.

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