Brands as Cultural Unifiers

Posted by Jim Nichols on January 27th, 2011 at 4:31 am

Every day I am more and more struck by how sports programs and interactivities are fast becoming the few mass experiences left in media. Yes, yes, the Superbowl. But a lot more than that. Why are there almost always sporting events in the top 10 programs? Why do entire cities come together to celebrate a pennant victory? What is the one sort of programming that can still be called appointment TV?

Why is all this the case? Because sports speak to something inside of most of us - a desire to be part of something successful that is bigger than ourselves.

Sports even seem to unify social media, which is (arguably) mostly a set of experiences that occur on an individual versus a group level. Other sorts of activities also can deliver mass audiences, but can they deliver engaged, united ones?

Sports do. We celebrate victories together. We stick our tongues out with the Phanatic at another team. We drive hours on a Saturday to see Penn State versus Pitt. OR whatever against whatever in your corner of the world.

Too often we use reach as a proxy for the idea of a common viewpoint and experience. We look at, for example, Facebook as this massive thing or place that everyone is a part of. But that view of Facebook or any other digital media experience is like saying we are united because we all use language or breathe oxygen.

We've spent so many of the last few years discussing fragmentation and shrinking audiences for media. I think we're entering an era of the opposite. Where we as disconnected individuals will seek more common experiences so as to have more social capital to share and bring us together. The massive audiences for games like Farmville are, I think, a reflection of that. Proof of a persistent need. That we all want some individualized experience, but we all need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

Some brands are particularly adept at making us feel part of something bigger. Red Bull. Apple. Coke and Pepsi on occasion - more Pepsi than Coke lately.

To me, there is a difference between the idea of "consumer control," which most marketers generally accept as a given, and "team membership", which is what I think the future of branding needs to be built on.

In my view, consumer control says that marketers are just passive facilitators of the wills of millions of individuals.

Team membership speaks to that side of people that wants to be recognized as important, but also as part of something larger than our own personal whims and preferences. We as marketers need to welcome, listen, and involve individual team members, not just be virtual waiters and waitresses.

One Response to “Brands as Cultural Unifiers”

  1. Kevin says:

    Great post, Jim. I believe we not only want to connect with people through something bigger than ourselves, but that we want to feel even more connected to them through the subtle wants and needs we have which are similar. For example, not only may we be Penn State fans, but we may be Penn State fans who drink Coke, like rock climbing, are conservative, etc. and we like to instantly find more like ourselves.

    From a layman's perspective, it seems that marketers have done more to connect relatively small groups of people to their brand rather than connect similar small groups of people to each other through their brand. If you agree, do you see that changing already, or do you see it as something which still needs to change? I think what you're suggesting is that marketers become more facilitators of teams rather than just waiters/waitresses to team's needs?

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