Advertisers — they’re just like us and don’t want to be solely advertisers, but part of culture

This article is part of a series exploring trends in marketing, media and media buying for 2024. More from the series →

If you talk to advertisers about the strategy behind whatever it is they’re doing now, you’ll often hear that they want their brands to be a part of culture and what they’re doing will help them get there. How they plan to get their brands to be a part of culture will vary, of course, but the gist is usually something like, they can’t rely on the tried and true tactics that worked for the traditional advertising models given consumption habits have changed. Instead, they need to break through the noise and truly connect with consumers.

It makes sense. Consumption habits are changing. Getting people to pay attention to traditional advertising is getting more difficult. Marketers are having to spend more time determining how to talk to consumers, especially younger consumers, who don’t want to hear from brands. So major marketers like Coca-Cola have transformed their advertising strategies to move away from “the interruption model to experience and engagement,” Pratik Thakar, Coca-Cola’s senior director of generative AI, previously told Digiday.

It seems that advertisers don’t want to be advertisers at all anymore. Or maybe it’s not that they don’t want to — apologies for the double negative, roll with it — but that they recognize they can’t simply be advertisers anymore. And rather than have their brand content peppered around something that people want to engage with only to have people be annoyed by the brand for interrupting that engagement, marketers want their brands to be producing the thing that people want to engage with now.

“We are often briefed by clients with things like ‘crashing culture’ as the goal,” said Trina Roffino, CEO of The Marketing Arm. “It’s not that clients are walking away from advertising entirely, it’s just become so much more difficult to have efficient ways to reach prospective consumers at the top of the funnel through the fragmented channels. Brands that are top of mind because of their role in culture, not just huge budgets, are the ones growing.”

Finding ways for brands to connect with culture in a real way requires a different kind of thinking than that for traditional advertising campaigns, according to agency execs, who say that working with influencers, creating user-generated content and keeping tabs on social conversations where it would make sense for the brand to get involved are all table stakes. Experiential — whether in-person at events like Formula 1, Coachella or Stagecoach, among others or via mixed reality efforts — is only becoming more important. It goes beyond those efforts, too.

“For brands to be a part of culture, they need to listen more,” said Kaylen McNamara, chief business officer, VaynerX. “The concept of a consumer journey is no longer predictable. Brands need to understand and identify opportunities where consumers are spending their time, and then, being nimble to create things in the context of that framework.”

To manage this shift, some marketers and agencies are taking to “culture sprints,” explained Arielle Carter, gvp of social content and engagement strategy at Razorfish. “Brands win by empowering nimble creator crews to tap into trending conversations before opportunities pass. To succeed, marketers must ditch slow, multi-layered approval processes, embrace lightning-fast decision-making, join the party, or risk a cheugy slow clap.” 

It’s not just about listening to consumers or being quick online. For advertisers to go beyond being advertisers, thinking about how to talk to consumers has to fundamentally change. “We need to reframe the way brands market by thinking about each individual brand as a content creation hub that fosters culture, inspires action and loyalty, and spurs inspiration to commerce at every turn,” said Kenny Gold, managing director, head of social, content and influencer at Deloitte Digital.

Gold added: “Additionally, this will help drive ‘discoverability’ which is the desired outcome of social first brands. Short-form video, audio, mixed reality, and the use of Generative AI to drive scale will all be key in the year to come.” 

How brands will show up as part of culture in a real way will depend on the brand and the cultural conversation. “Engaging in any type of longer-form, less interruptive content makes it feel to a consumer that you’re not taking their time away from what they’re trying to do, but more being additive to the experience,” said Paul Furia, head of content and creative packaging at Media by Mother.

All of that said, even as advertisers may recognize that traditional methods aren’t working as they once did and that requires change, few brands are able to truly be a part of culture. Rather than truly listening and engaging in ways that would allow their brands to be part of culture in some way, advertisers often make the mistake of “trying to invent what they think is cool or hip or part of culture,” said Mark Himmelsbach, co-founder of hybrid shop Episode Four. 

“Brands have such a good track record of interrupting people in doing things they want to say, ‘Give me attention,’” said Himmelsback. “When they say they want to be part of culture, they’re primarily taking the same approach of interrupting culture and asking people to pay attention to them.” 

To be part of culture, brands need to recognize that they can’t retain the control of traditional advertising and find ways to go with the flow to be truly part of the cultural conversation. That control is difficult for advertisers to give up, of course. 

“What brands are feeling potentially now is that consumers have so much more power to determine the direction of brands,” said Amber Chenevert, PHD, managing director of strategy and insights at VML. “How brands fit in the marketplace now [has changed compared to when] many of these folks even started their careers, so it’s kind of a new world for them.”

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