Cultural trends that could shape movement marketing

I recently read what could be one of the most influential books of my life. Uprising by Scott Goodson, founder of StrawberryFrog, the world’s first cultural movement agency. One of my biggest learnings was that many of the so-called movements we see around us are not movements at all, but just highly product-focused campaigns. I’ve learnt that a true movement is about a higher purpose, something that dwarfs the brand and product. For instance, Small Business Saturday is about increasing opportunities for thousands of small business owners across America, and not merely about increasing usage of American Express. Likewise, the Campaign For Real Beauty is about empowering millions of women around the world to think more highly of themselves, and not just about moving Dove off the shelves.

A true movement is about plugging into a cultural trend that is shaping the world. As an example, StrawberryFrog’s True North movement embraced a cultural trend that rejects conformist definitions of success and celebrates individualistic interpretations of it. This trend was probably a result of the 2007-2009 economic collapse and the anger directed towards the stereotypical successful person in white shirt and black tie carrying a laptop to Wall Street. Another recent cultural trend is a belief that quality products need not just come from established brands. That has led to the Etsy movement in which folks like you and me sell handmade jewelry, art, and other creations through which we express ourselves.

Those are trends that have emerged in the last few years. But to identify what could be the drivers of movement marketing in the next few years, I started thinking about nascent cultural trends that are only just starting to simmer. Here are a few I’ve observed over the past few months.

1) Dystopia is suddenly cool.

The Walking Dead. Breaking Bad. The Hunger Games. Game of Thrones. What do these highly popular shows have in common? They are all about the macabre, the gory, the deranged, and the dystopian. We seem to be in an era where flowers and peacocks are boring whereas zombies and bloodshed are cool. Why has this happened? Is it because we’ve started sensing a perverse glamor in these things? Is this a sign of things to come for our popular culture?

I sense that it’s a matter of time before a counterculture emerges that promotes genuinely beautiful things and revives interest in them. Brands that are about beauty (not just in skincare but also in art and fashion) will spearhead this counterculture.

2) We enjoy having more questions than answers.

What the hell did I just see? That was my reaction upon watching the movie Cloud Atlas. It’s a complex sci-fi tale about interdependencies of people across centuries. After watching it, I was left with more questions than answers, and had to spend substantial time on the web and social media to decode what I had just seen. I was not the only one.

Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi had two different endings and everyone was left wondering which ending was real. I’ve discussed that with so many people, and I’ve come across a roughly equal number of people who believe in either ending. Prior to that, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island had a similar open ending. Then of course, there was Inception, widely described as a “mindfuck”. On TV, Lost was a phenomenon that led to a multitude of interpretations. Awake was another TV attempt where we were meant to wonder which of two parallel storylines was real, and this conundrum was not resolved even at the very end.

Why is there such a proliferation of “mindfuck” movies and series that leave us with more questions than answers? One reason could be that an ever-increasing number of movies and series are competing for an ever-dwindling slice of people’s attentions. So for its very survival, a movie or series needs to spawn a huge volume of conversation, long after the audience has left the cinema or switched off their TV. This ultra-competitiveness of the entertainment industry has coincided with the explosion of social media that facilitates this huge volume of conversation.

The implications for movement marketing are manifold. Firstly, the fact that consumers give more space to conflicting opinions means that marketers should also give more space to conflicting opinions. Any brand looking to create a movement should accept that there’s always a risk of a counter-movement, and embrace it if necessary. Secondly, brands need to note that people don’t mind chewing on vast chunks of information, because the collective wisdom of the web and social media will satisfy their appetite for information. Movement marketers need not spoonfeed the consumer with the information needed to take a stand. The consumer has evolved and should be respected as such.

3) Imperfect heroes are more attractive.

When The Dark Knight Rises released in July 2012, we saw a Batman who was considered the weakest ever. When Skyfall released in November 2012, we saw a James Bond who was rated the most fallible ever. There’s an unmistakable trend towards seeing the flaws in our heroes, instead of placing them on a pedestal of perfection. The human drama that surrounds an imperfect hero is now a major part of the plots, even when filmmakers attempt old-fashioned good versus evil stories. Even the time-honored monster-bashing kaiju vs mecha genre recently received an interpretation (Pacific Rim) that focused on the weaknesses of the hero. Only the good old Marvel heroes are still kinda perfect, but for how much longer?

The field of movement marketing can embrace this by celebrating the hero in all of us. It sounds like a cliche (I know you’re hearing Mariah Carey’s voice in your head), but the fact that even our biggest heroes are portrayed as imperfect means that there’s a hero in all of us, waiting to be brought out. There’s a multitude of public service causes just waiting to get the support of everyday heroes. The potential to create movements based on the idea of an everyday hero is immense.

4) Blasts from the past are welcomed with open arms.

I was kinda disturbed when Total Recall was remade last year. It was the first time a movie from my childhood was considered old enough to remake. Was I getting old, I wondered! Then I felt, maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s an increasing trend towards revisiting the past as a source of inspiration for today’s popular culture. In the months that followed Total Recall, there was Oz, G.I. Joe, The Great Gatsby, and the TV show Bates Motel. Several older movies had a 3D re-release, such as Titanic, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and Beauty And The Beast. Is it a lack of imagination that’s making directors and scriptwriters revisit the past? Or is it because the audience’s short attention spans mean that old classics have been forgotten and need to be revived?

There’s an opportunity for brands to plug into this revivalist trend, perhaps by delving into their own heritage and bringing back elements from bygone eras. Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s recent re-imagining of the classic Grey Poupon commercial is one example. Project Re: Brief in which brands like Coke and Avis put a new spin on their classic campaigns is another. I sense that this is just the start of a huge wave of revivalism.

5) There’s an unprecedented interest in cultures different from our own.

The Book Of Mormon is the Broadway phenomenon of the last few years. Among other things, it’s about a religion that has only recently exploded into public consciousness, partly because of Mitt Romney. The Mormons are the “new Jews” in a way, a religion that has stoked the curiosity of a predominantly Christian America. Being “different” is fashionable now, even if no one can really answer the question of “different from whom”. If you have some Greek in you, great. If you have some Cherokee in you, fantastic.

There’s also a concerted effort to include major non-white characters in movies and tv shows, and not because of some attempt at political correctness. Nearly every tv show has a major Indian character, played by popular stars like Kunal Nayyar (Raj of “The Big Bang Theory”) and Mindy Kaling (Kelly of “The Office” and Mindy of “The Mindy Project”). Last year saw the debut of a show called Shahs Of The Sunset, the first American show that had Iranians as central characters. Something similar is happening in movies, where major characters are drawn from a variety of ethnicities, and without even making a hullaballoo of it. These ethnic portrayals are no longer stereotypical. The Chinese man in a Hollywood movie is no longer the utility shopkeeper in the middle of the desert.

The implications for movement marketers are twofold. Firstly, for the first time in human history, we are living in a truly global mosaic. The concept of “globalista” (popularized by StrawberryFrog on behalf of Emirates Airlines) exemplifies this. People who were born in a country, grew up in another, and are working in a third. People who are equally open to all cultures and accept their influences wholeheartedly. Brands like Emirates Airlines are meant for such truly global citizens, and appealing to this sense of “globalness” is the way to go.

The alternate implication for movement marketers is that amidst the global mosaic, there’s also a reassertion of individual identities. This is not parochial. Neither does it conflict with the idea of being a global citizen. Just as an example, today’s Muslim wants to retain his sense of being Muslim and at the same time integrate with the global community. The rising field of Islamic marketing stands true to that. So does Hispanic marketing. A growing generation of Hispanic Americans are finding ways to be Hispanic and American at the same time without perceiving any conflict between the two. A Jewish American may call Israel “The Homeland” and yet fight a war for America. This reassertion of individual identities is a major force that’s occurring at precisely the same time that a global culture is emerging. This is not a contradiction. If you look at a mosaic, is it all one color and pattern? No, each section retains its own color and pattern. Yet, the mosaic is one whole.

There are many more such cultural trends we can spot if we just spend some time observing the world around us. Spotting these cultural trends is the first step towards creating a movement, but it’s just that. A first step. What follows next is possibly the most important step: Finding the right cultural trend for a brand to embrace. If marketers do not put enough thought into this step, their brand might simply jump onto a bandwagon and do something that has “me too” written all over it. In the worst case, the brand may be seen as exploitative and opportunistic.

To avoid these pitfalls, marketers need to dive deep into the DNA of a brand, what it stands for, and where it has a right to play. Coke for instance has a great right to play in any space that’s about happiness, togetherness, and sharing. Gillette on the other hand is about preparation and empowerment of men. Try swapping the two. See, it doesn’t make sense anymore. By maintaining a strong internal compass of what a brand is and isn’t, marketers will find the cultural sweet spot that gives us truly impactful movements. And the world will be a better place for it.