Are The Golden Years Really Golden: Revised Edition

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But social media has changed everything. Social media binds together communities that once were geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace and intensity of collaboration.

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Now that these once-remote communities are densely networked, their cultural influence has become direct and substantial. These new crowdcultures come in two flavors: subcultures, which incubate new ideologies and practices, and art worlds, which break new ground in entertainment. Back in the day, these subculturalists had to gather physically and had very limited ways to communicate collectively: magazines and, later, primitive Usenet groups and meet-ups. 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.

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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.

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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.

The Rise of Crowdculture

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. Very few people want it in their feed. Most view it as clutter—as brand spam. On social media, what works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox.


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The problem companies face is structural, not creative. Big companies organize their marketing efforts as the antithesis of art worlds, in what I have termed brand bureaucracies. They excel at coordinating and executing complex marketing programs across multiple markets around the world. But this organizational model leads to mediocrity when it comes to cultural innovation. These celebrities are all garnering the superengaged community that pundits have long promised social media would deliver. What works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox. The idea that consumers could possibly want to talk about Corona or Coors in the same way that they debate the talents of Ronaldo and Messi is silly.

But a decade ago Nike abandoned its competitive-underdog ideology to go all in on branded content, using famous athletes to make entertaining sports films. Ballet star Misty Copeland—who grew up in poverty with a single parent—is an athletic, muscular dancer in a profession that celebrates waifish, reed-thin women. Under Armour made a video about how she rose above adversity the voice-over is from a rejection letter saying that her body was completely wrong for ballet , showing her dancing in a formfitting sports bra and pants that reveal her curvier physique.

Under Armour broke the frame by placing her in what was essentially an old Nike ad: a backstage video of Gisele in an intense kickboxing workout. The company announced the partnership ahead of filming. It immediately stirred up the crowdculture: Sports fans were cynical, Gisele fans were curious, fashionistas were puzzled, and feminists simply loved it. Under Armour succeeded because it innovated with ideology—using female celebrities to provocatively push against gender norms. Social media allows fans to create rich communities around entertainers, who interact directly with them in a barrage of tweets, pins, and posts.

Sports teams now hire social media ambassadors to reach out to fans in real time during games, and once the game is over, the players send along insider photos and hold locker-room chats.


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  4. Beyond the major platforms, new media sites like Vevo, SoundCloud, and Apple Music are spurring even more direct digital connections. While the rise of crowdculture diminishes the impact of branded content and sponsorships, it has greased the wheels for an alternative approach that I call cultural branding.

    The dramatic breakthrough of the fast-casual Mexican food chain Chipotle from to before recent outbreaks of foodborne illness demonstrates the power of this approach. Specifically, Chipotle succeeded by following these five principles:. In cultural branding, the brand promotes an innovative ideology that breaks with category conventions.

    To do that, it first needs to identify which conventions to leapfrog—what I call the cultural orthodoxy. Americans had come to believe that, through dazzling scientific discoveries margarine, instant coffee, Tang and standardized production processes, big companies, overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, would ensure bountiful, healthful, and tasty food.

    As time passes, disruptions in society cause an orthodoxy to lose traction.

    Consumers begin searching for alternatives, which opens up an opportunity for innovative brands to push forward a new ideology in their categories. Iconic brands are cultural innovators: They leapfrog the conventions of their categories to champion new ideologies that are meaningful to customers. As a result, they enjoy intense customer loyalty and superior sales and profits, and garner loads of free media coverage. In business, few achievements are more prized than creating an iconic brand. Yet the two dominant branding models are not designed to do the job. The first model, mindshare branding, is one that companies have long relied on.

    It treats a brand as a set of psychological associations benefits, emotions, personality. The second model, purpose branding, has become popular in the past decade. In it, a brand espouses values or ideals its customers share. Whiskies compete to be perceived as upscale and masculine. In the s the major brands sought to align themselves with the male ideal of the day: the sophisticated modern corporate executive.

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    Branding in the Age of Social Media

    How could it break through? Mindshare-branding experts would advise the company to convey, very consistently, the key brand associations: masculine, sophisticated, smooth-tasting, classic. Purpose-branding experts would encourage the firm to champion its core values. Instead, the firm tacitly pursued a cultural-branding approach. Because masculine ideals are shaped by society, they change over time. In the face of a nuclear threat, the corporate executive seemed too sedentary. The enormous popularity of Western films was one indication of this shift. Yet in the American imagination, the area was also one of the last authentic pockets of the frontier, where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone had gotten their start.

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    So when American men yearned to revive the ideology of the frontier, the whiskey offered great potential as a symbol. Conventional models would never build a strategy centered on such a downscale version of masculinity. But in cultural branding, inverting marginal ideologies is one of the tricks of the trade. The same transformation is unfolding in other countries dominated by industrial food ideology.

    Before social media, the influence of these works would have remained locked within this small fraction of society. Instead, crowdcultures grabbed the critiques and blew them up, pushing industrial food anxiety into the mainstream.


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    5. News about every major problem linked to industrial food production—processed foods loaded with sugar, carcinogenic preservatives, rBGH in milk, bisphenol A leaching from plastics, GMOs, and so on—began to circulate at internet speed. Parents worried endlessly about what they were feeding their kids.