Social media was supposed to usher in a golden age of branding. Marketers originally thought that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter would let them bypass mainstream media and connect directly with customers. Hoping to attract huge audiences to their brands, they spent billions producing their own creative content. But consumers never showed up. In fact, social media seems to have made brands less significant. The issue is, social media has transformed how culture works, in a way that weakens certain branding techniques.
It has united once-isolated communities into influential crowdcultures. Crowdcultures are very prolific cultural innovators. Consider that people making videos in their living rooms top the charts on YouTube, which few companies have managed to crack. While they diminish the impact of branded content, crowdcultures grease the wheels for an alternative approach, cultural branding. In it, a brand sets itself apart by promoting a new ideology that springs from the crowd.
Chipotle did this successfully when it made two short films critiquing industrial food, tapping into a movement that began in the organic-farming subculture and blew up into a mainstream concern on social media. Other good examples come from personal care. Dove championed the other side of the divide, with campaigns that spoke to crowdculture concerns about unhealthy beauty standards for women.
Brands succeed when they break through in culture, and crowdcultures are a great vehicle for doing that. Companies have sunk billions of dollars into producing content on social media, hoping to build audiences around their brands.
Social media has transformed how culture works. Digital crowds have become powerful cultural innovators—a new phenomenon called crowdculture. While crowdculture has deflated conventional branding models, it actually makes an alternative model— cultural branding —even more powerful. In this approach, brands collaborate with crowdcultures and champion their ideologies in the marketplace.
In the era of Facebook and YouTube, brand building has become a vexing challenge. This is not how things were supposed to turn out.
A decade ago most companies were heralding the arrival of a new golden age of branding. They hired creative agencies and armies of technologists to insert brands throughout the digital universe. Viral, buzz, memes, stickiness, and form factor became the lingua franca of branding. But despite all the hoopla, such efforts have had very little payoff.
As a central feature of their digital strategy, companies made huge bets on what is often called branded content. The thinking went like this: Social media would allow your company to leapfrog traditional media and forge relationships directly with customers. If you told them great stories and connected with them in real time, your brand would become a hub for a community of consumers. Businesses have invested billions pursuing this vision. Yet few brands have generated meaningful consumer interest online.
What has gone wrong? To solve this puzzle, we need to remember that brands succeed when they break through in culture. And branding is a set of techniques designed to generate cultural relevance. Digital technologies have not only created potent new social networks but also dramatically altered how culture works. Digital crowds now serve as very effective and prolific innovators of culture—a phenomenon I call crowdculture.
Crowdculture changes the rules of branding—which techniques work and which do not. If we understand crowdculture, then, we can figure out why branded-content strategies have fallen flat—and what alternative branding methods are empowered by social media. In the early days of that era, companies borrowed approaches from popular entertainment to make their brands famous, using short-form storytelling, cinematic tricks, songs, and empathetic characters to win over audiences.
This early form of branded content worked well because the entertainment media were oligopolies, so cultural competition was limited. In the United States, three networks produced television programming for 30 weeks or so every year and then went into reruns.
Films were distributed only through local movie theaters; similarly, magazine competition was restricted to what fit on the shelves at drugstores. Consumer marketing companies could buy their way to fame by paying to place their brands in this tightly controlled cultural arena. Once audiences could opt out of ads, it became harder for brands to buy fame.
Brands also infiltrated culture by sponsoring TV shows and events, attaching themselves to successful content. Since fans had limited access to their favorite entertainers, brands could act as intermediaries. The rise of new technologies that allowed audiences to opt out of ads—from cable networks to DVRs and then the internet—made it much harder for brands to buy fame. Now they had to compete directly with real entertainment.
So companies upped the ante. BMW pioneered the practice of creating short films for the internet. Soon corporations were hiring top film directors Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, David Lynch and pushing for ever-more-spectacular special effects and production values.
These early pre-social-media digital efforts led companies to believe that if they delivered Hollywood-level creative at internet speed, they could gather huge engaged audiences around their brands.
Thus was born the great push toward branded content. And this time it came not from big media companies but from the crowd. Historically, cultural innovation flowed from the margins of society—from fringe groups, social movements, and artistic circles that challenged mainstream norms and conventions. Companies and the mass media acted as intermediaries, diffusing these new ideas into the mass market. But social media has changed everything.
Social media binds together communities that once were geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace and intensity of collaboration. Now that these once-remote communities are densely networked, their cultural influence has become direct and substantial. These new crowdcultures come in two flavors: Back in the day, these subculturalists had to gather physically and had very limited ways to communicate collectively: Social media has expanded and democratized these subcultures.
Together members are pushing forward new ideas, products, practices, and aesthetics—bypassing mass-culture gatekeepers. With the rise of crowdculture, cultural innovators and their early adopter markets have become one and the same. Producing innovative popular entertainment requires a distinctive mode of organization—what sociologists call an art world. In art worlds, artists musicians, filmmakers, writers, designers, cartoonists, and so on gather in inspired collaborative competition: They work together, learn from one another, play off ideas, and push one another.
Before the rise of social media, the mass-culture industries film, television, print media, fashion thrived by pilfering and repurposing their innovations. Crowdculture has turbocharged art worlds, vastly increasing the number of participants and the speed and quality of their interactions. No longer do you need to be part of a local scene; no longer do you need to work for a year to get funding and distribution for your short film.
Now millions of nimble cultural entrepreneurs come together online to hone their craft, exchange ideas, fine-tune their content, and compete to produce hits. In the process, new talent emerges and new genres form. Squeezing into every nook and cranny of pop culture, the new content is highly attuned to audiences and produced on the cheap. These art-world crowdcultures are the main reason why branded content has failed. While companies have put their faith in branded content for the past decade, brute empirical evidence is now forcing them to reconsider.
In YouTube or Instagram rankings of channels by number of subscribers, corporate brands barely appear. Only three have cracked the YouTube Top By January he had racked up nearly 11 billion views, and his YouTube channel had more than 41 million subscribers. How did this happen? The story begins with the youth subcultures that formed around video games.
When they landed on social media, they became a force. The once-oddball video-gaming-as-entertainment subculture of South Korea went global, producing a massive spectator sport, now known as E-Sports, with a fan base approaching million people.
In E-Sports, broadcasters provide play-by-play narration of video games. PewDiePie and his comrades riffed on this commentary, turning it into a potty-mouthed new form of sophomoric comedy.
Other gamers who film themselves, such as VanossGaming YouTube rank 19, The crowdculture was initially organized by specialized media platforms that disseminated this content and by insider fans who gathered around and critiqued it, hyping some efforts and dissing others.
PewDiePie became the star of this digital art world—just as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Patti Smith had done in urban art worlds back in the analog days. The main difference is that the power of crowdculture propelled him to global fame and influence in record time.
Gaming comedy is just one of hundreds of new genres that crowdculture has created. PewDiePie is times as popular, for a minuscule fraction of the cost. Or consider Red Bull, the most lauded branded-content success story. It has become a new-media hub producing extreme- and alternative-sports content. Indeed, Dude Perfect 81, 8 million subscribers , the brainchild of five college jocks from Texas who make videos of trick shots and goofy improvised athletic feats, does far better.
Coca-Cola offers another cautionary tale. The following year, Coca-Cola launched its first big bet, transforming the static corporate website into a digital magazine, Coca-Cola Journey.
It runs stories on virtually every pop culture topic—from sports and food to sustainability and travel. Journey has now been live for over three years, and it barely registers views.
It turns out that consumers have little interest in the content that brands churn out.More...