I’ve had many great insights bequeathed upon me from very intelligent people, but there’s one piece that always stood out. It came early on, when I was in school. A professor said if you want to be great in advertising and marketing, become a student of popular culture. He was right.
At first pass, this might sound superficial, but it’s not. When you study popular culture, you learn to understand what motivates people. Popular culture measures the zeitgeist of the masses.
Some call it the “wisdom of the crowd” — and sometimes, to be brutally honest, there is very little wisdom. Sometimes it is simply a common motivation and it be completely illogical but identifying it and understanding the force behind it can be valuable.
A marketing strategy is most effective when you take the time to create a story and message that taps into the mindset of your audience and delivers a message in a creative, emotional manner. Anyone can come up with a theme, acts and resolution — but if you know what is motivating the masses at that moment, you can create a message that works.
As an example, I spent the last two years talking about AI — but with the notion that users don’t really care about AI. They care about productivity. Users are not interested in the type of technology and how “special” it is. They are interested in the impact of that technology on their day-to-day work. Saving time in a distracted workplace is a common need for everyone, and therefore sets a good foundation for a message.
Insurance is another great example of popular culture storytelling. Look at State Farm, Progressive, Geico and the rest of the category. Insurance is the least “sexy” and potentially most boring category for marketing, but all these companies tap into humor and popular culture to resonate with customers. In some cases, they even create popular culture trends (for example, Geico’s Humpday Camel). They come up with a base message and couch it in humor and an innovative method of delivery so that it stands out. Progressive created the distinctive spokesperson Flo and has also run campaigns that look like sitcoms, that tap into social media distraction and more.
How do you study popular culture? From my perspective, there are a few things you can do. First, do not exclusively read business books. Read books by Chuck Klosterman. Read magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. Read People magazine. Surf around on TV and see what people are watching.
Inspiration comes from the least likely of places, but a student of popular culture can view these sources and connect the dots. Look at everything that’s going on in fashion, entertainment and in the news and sort out how these are connected and what implications they have on the audience you’re trying to speak to. I think you might be surprised how much fun it is to study these elements — and I’m certain you’ll be surprised how much better your marketing strategy will be.