Branding is dead, long live Crowdculture

While many companies, both in the tech space and traditional companies, have invested billions in building their brand via social media, success stories are about as rare as a user acquisition company that does not promise better users for less money. While many companies have spent, and continue to spend, millions trying to tell stories and connect directly with their customers on social media, brands now seem less significant. An article in the Harvard Business Review, Branding in the Age of Social Media by Douglas Holt, shows that branding has been replaced by crowdculture. Holt writes that “Crowdculture changes the rules of branding—which techniques work and which do not.”

The history of branded content

Holt first points out that branded content is an outdated concept rather than an innovative marketing technique. Advertising campaigns like American Express’ Don’t Leave Home Without It (1975) and Nike’s Just Do It (1988) became part of popular culture by entertaining audiences. These campaigns worked because the entertainment media were oligopolies, limiting cultural competition. Only a few television networks and movie companies distributed content, so consumer marketing companies could buy their way to success by paying to place their brands in this tightly controlled cultural arena.

Technology has allowed people to opt out of ads, first with cable and satellite television then to DVRs and finally the Internet. For the first time, advertisers had to compete with real entertainment. Companies adjusted by creating entertainment content, such as BMW’s short movies for the Internet. These early (pre-social-media) digital efforts led companies to believe that if they delivered Hollywood-level creative, they could gather huge engaged audiences around their brands. Thus was born the great push toward branded content. But its champions did not think about, or at least discuss, new competition. This new competition was not from existing big media companies but from the crowd.

The birth of Crowdculture

Holt writes, “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: subcultures, which incubate new ideologies and practices, and art worlds, which break new ground in entertainment.”

First, social media has democratized and expanded subculture. Previously, people had to gather physically with limited ways to communicate on niche topics, maybe magazines or newsletters, or small meetings. Now there are now crowdcultures around virtually every topic: ice cream, bacon, poker, tarot reading, etc. Now these groups stretch the world, allowing people to interact and share ideas, products, practices, news and aesthetics, and most importantly bypass the mass-culture gatekeepers. Social media has made cultural innovators and early adopters the same.

Second, producing innovative popular entertainment requires a distinctive mode of organization, sociologists describe it as an art world. In art worlds, artists gather in collaborative competition, working together they learn from one another, play off ideas, and push each other. The collective efforts of participants generate creative breakthroughs. Before the rise of social media, the mass-culture entertainment industries would take these innovations and repurpose them (thus the moniker of something becoming commercial).

Crowdculture has turbocharged art worlds, vastly increasing the number of participants and the speed and quality of their interactions. Holt writes, “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. The net effect is a new mode of rapid cultural prototyping, in which you can get instant data on the market’s reception of ideas, have them critiqued, and then rework them so that the most resonant content quickly surfaces. In the process, new talent emerges and new genres form….These art-world Crowdcultures are the main reason why branded content has failed.”

Proof branded content is dead

Slide1If the theoretical arguments that branded content is no longer working do not convince you, let’s go to the data. Despite the billions spent on creating content, only three brands are in the YouTube Top 500. McDonald’s has 204,000 YouTube subscribers, PewDiePie has 41 million subscribers. Even Red Bull, considered the biggest branded content success stories with a $2 billion annual branded content budget, only has 4.9 million subscribers, way behind dozens of crowdculture start-ups with production budgets under $100,000. Dude Perfect, started by five Texas university athletes who make videos of trick shots and goofy athletic feats, has 8 million subscribers (3 million more than Red Bull).

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. When Facebook realized this, it began charging companies to get “sponsored” content into the feeds of people who were supposed to be their fans.

The alternative to content marketing

Given the emergence of Crowdculture, you can either abandon branded content or follow a strategy of what Holt calls “Cultural Branding.” There are five principals to cultural branding that can help your company succeed in social media.

  1. Map the cultural orthodoxy. 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, the cultural orthodoxy. Thus the first step is to understand what is currently considered “common sense.”
  2. Locate the cultural opportunity. Over time, cultural orthodoxy begins to lose traction as people understand alternatives. Before social media, the influence of these alternatives would have been marginal, as the mainstream controlled the conversation. Social media, however, allows the crowd to convert a niche conversation into mainstream beliefs. One example would be travel, where for generations people thought about certain destinations (Florida, London, the Bahamas) as the places to vacation. Then with people sharing pictures and stories of the Maldives, Patagonia, Seychelles, etc., the travel industry changed dramatically. Thus, people were not only open but looking for alternatives to traditional destinations.
  3. Target the crowdculture. Once you understand the cultural opportunity, target the crowdculture. If it is adventure travel, build an offering/company around it.
  4. Diffuse the new ideology. Rather than just create branded content, create entertainment that leverages the identified cultural opportunity. The entertainment does not need to be great, it needs to tap into the Crowdculture vein.
  5. Innovate continually, using cultural flashpoints. A brand can sustain its cultural relevance by playing off particularly intriguing or contentious issues that dominate social media conversations related to an ideology. That’s what Ben & Jerry’s does in championing its sustainable business philosophy. The company uses new-product introductions to show its ideology on a range of political issues.

By following the above five steps, you can create a product or company that taps into the Crowdculture. To brand effectively with social media, companies should target crowdcultures.

In pursuit of relevance, most brands chase after trends. But this is a commodity approach to branding as thousands are doing exactly the same thing with the same generic list of trends. Thus, consumers do not pay attention. By targeting novel ideologies flowing out of Crowdcultures, brands can assert a point of view that stands out in the overstuffed media environment. The key is rather than trying to force a story on a captive audience, you need to build a story and product that is consistent with the desires of the social media crowd.

Key takeaways


  • Most social media marketing is failing because of the outdated notion of creating branded content. Huge social advertisers, like Red Bull and Coke, fail to get a fraction of the mindshare of social media celebrities like PewDiePie.
  • Crowdculture brings together enthusiasts and advocates of certain beliefs and interests through social media, disintermediating traditional entertainment.
  • To brand effectively with social media, companies should target crowdcultures.
  • Most brands chase after trends but hundreds of companies are doing exactly the same. By targeting novel ideologies flowing out of Crowdcultures, brands can assert a point of view that stands out in the overstuffed environment.


The key to measuring the success of your social media marketing

Although most people realize the value of social media marketing (in addition to paid social media performance advertising), few understand the subtleties of understanding how to measure its effectiveness. The secret is to measure engagement.

The relationship era

I was recently at a dinner with Doug Levy, the author of Can’t Buy Me Like, and Doug eloquently made the point that marketing has made a fundamental shift from persuading people to buy to creating trust in your product, and that is what persuades people to buy from you. The most successful marketers are ones who have the greatest expertise in gaining authentic relationships. Among those who have worked with and endorse Doug’s ideas are the CEOs of Whole Foods, Panera Bread and Patagonia, real companies that are highly profitable. Continue reading “The key to measuring the success of your social media marketing”

%d bloggers like this: