A Darwinian gale continues to blast across the marketing landscape, compelling brands to adapt to how they connect with people or risk being a footnote in history. How brands connect through culture has seen seismic change over the last decade—even the last year—brought by social media and digital innovation that has revolutionized how culture impacts marketing and its role in consumer strategy. For brands to survive in this era, they have to move at the speed of culture, which requires thinking about culture differently and mobilizing in a new way.
The focus on speed has changed everything. A new consciousness has emerged that has given rise to the importance of the cultural moment. Whatever it is about—a news development, a meme, a cultural happening, a pop-up store, a celebrity post—the burst of intense media and social activity that accompanies a moment affirms its value for as long as it lasts.
This cult of the moment reflects a powerful new drive: people wanting to be first to be part of a popular idea. The idea can take any manner of forms and doesn’t require participants either to believe deeply in the idea or have to buy something (although funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo do). What’s crucial is that they want to be part of the idea because it has cultural voltage, and staking a claim to it earlier confers loftier status and bragging rights. Given culture’s fast-paced, ever-evolving nature, this means having to move quickly. It's not just about owning Snapchat Spectacles now before they go mainstream, but beating rivals in a scavenger hunt to get them.
These same principles—being part of a popular idea and staking a claim to it early—apply equally to brands and marketers. They have to move at the speed of culture and find inspiring ways to engage with the cultural moment and through it to connect with people. Here are three main strategies are in play:
Brands can plan and prepare for some cultural events even though they might not be entirely predictable. Nike’s "Someday" spot ran moments after the Cubs won the World Series, and wouldn’t have aired if the Indians had triumphed. Nike helped define the moment with an idea that added to the experience and celebration instead of being a hollow reach for the spotlight.
Inserting themselves into planned cultural moments is now a conventional move in many brand playbooks, which means they have to get more creative than just showing up. At the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, Apple aired a half-time teaser trailer featuring the Weeknd who was the performing act right before the intermission. The ad’s timing created the illusion that its story was a continuation of the Weeknd’s night, which showed him leaving the event and heading to an after-party full of mystery. It scored the highest engagement despite being outspent by other brands during the event.
Brands give people moments they want to be part of when they create unmissable experiences. In 2012 Redbull’s Stratos space jump earned the biggest live audience in history at the time—52 million live viewers. In 2016 a parachute-less skydive by Luke Aitkin for Stride Gum was compelling live viewing because the restriction to wear a parachute was lifted moments before he jumped. Of course being a part of a popular idea is more rewarding for fans when they can participate in the event than merely be viewers. The ability for a live event to serve up additional content extends viewership beyond the moment with 360 video and drone film emerging as favored forms. With Facebook Live and Instagram’s live stories, brands have even more tools to have real-time conversations with consumers. This space will continue to grow and evolve.
The most frequent opportunities for cultural resonance emerge without warning. The popularity of memes represent opportunities for brands to be part of a cultural moment and conversation. There’s no expectation of brand commitment, and if it doesn’t conflict with brand character it can help a brand be seen as more modern, human, and playful. Hillary Clinton, James Cordon, Target, Chubbies, and Sprite were all quick to join in #MannequinChallenge. By reacting to an idea that was not their own with speed and focus, a brand shows it has humility, too.
It’s why some enlightened brands have embraced social media as an engine for their customer service. Best Buy pioneered with the (now defunct) Twelpforce to connect employees’ product expertise to people regardless of geography. Jetblue now uses Twitter mainly as a channel for customer issues. They’ve mobilized to recognize and address problems in near real-time. The transparency of social media chatter makes quick containment crucial to avoid a brand’s reputation from being tarnished. The emergence of fake news sites and the speed at which consumer disaffection grows gives brands added reason to act quickly. Here the inverse is true: They’ve been cast as part of an unpopular idea that they need to eliminate.
The speed of culture isn’t limited to what people or brands participate in, but also includes how they participate and consume. When Snapchat stories were launched, Taco Bell used the new storytelling format to promote its spicy chicken Doritos Locos Taco. Starbucks established itself early on digitals bleeding edge through streaming music, mobile payments, and mobile ordering ahead service.
Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, the medium is as much of the message to be at the heart of the moment. Introducing new experiences from existing platforms matters as much in owning a moment as pioneering a new platform.
Moving at the speed of culture is an evolution in how brands use culture to connect. It has two main implications. First, the need to flex focus across anticipatory, live, and reactive moments of opportunity, and be equipped to act quickly. Second, to take a fresh look at community strategy. The cult of the moment unites people as a group in a different way than communities typically bond. Understanding these dynamics is the first step to being able to tap and convert its potential.