Emotion + Culture = Prosperity!

Adorable snowmen, woolly hats and scarves, and a heart-warming story of togetherness… this ad from China could be a typical Western Christmas-themed ad. But the fireworks might give you a clue that this Coca-Cola commercial is something a little different. And if you’re Chinese, you’ll know exactly what. The Year of the Rooster is upon us, and this Coke ad is a terrific example of how to mix universal emotion and specific cultural cues to brilliant effect.

Great celebrations demand great advertising, and the Chinese New Year is no exception. With billions of people celebrating, the event deserves more than the standard social media greetings most brands confine themselves to. It’s an ideal time for a big brand to invest in a big, emotional campaign which can build Fame, Feeling and Fluency. This is the opportunity Coca-Cola wants to take. Continue reading

Secrets Of The Viral Middlemen

A common criticism in popular culture is that as things move from fringe to mainstream popularity they get “diluted” or “watered down” to make them easier to sell. For instance, in the early 70s reggae record labels would record string parts to put on Jamaican hits to make UK audiences more interested. Does that hold true of viral culture, too?

I asked myself that question after reading this article by Farhad Manjoo about Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed – as you’re surely well aware – are the content factory behind hundreds of list articles, like “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity”, a combination of generosity, tolerance, sentiment and, inevitably, baby animals that’s racked up 1.6 million Facebook likes in a little over a week.

The question posed by Manjoo is simple: how does Buzzfeed do it? The answer, he says, is finding content curated by other people – mostly on Reddit – and passing it on. The online curation chain is full of aggregators and middlemen, so this shouldn’t really be surprising.

More interesting is how Buzzfeed owner Jonah Peretti talks about his methods. He points out the editorial decisions involved in curation, and discusses them in very familiar terms: “We’re making it into something that will delight and be understandable to the Facebook audience.”

So is this the same as putting strings on reggae hits? Internet memes and viral culture is a pop cultural form, so it makes sense that there’d be routes of transmission between ‘underground’ and ‘mainstream’. The only thing is, “dilution” isn’t exactly what Peretti is doing.

“It was almost more what we didn’t include that was the key to that post”, Manjoo quotes him as saying. “We didn’t include inside jokes and memes that most people don’t understand. We took it down to its emotional core.”

Kittens: MAINSTREAM. Memes: NOT.

If you’re one of the Redditors doing the unwitting legwork for Buzzfeed, you might see this as dilution (though according to Manjoo they don’t really seem to mind). But it’s just as much concentration – stripping away irrelevant material to hit a particular emotional button again and again.

And this may well be part of the secret to how spreadable these lists are. The work we’ve done at BrainJuicer on virality and emotion in advertising suggests that while the single key emotion associated with viral potential is surprise, the overall emotional intensity of a communication is crucial too. Something Buzzfeed’s technique of concentrated, clear emotional posts understands very well. If you want nuance, look elsewhere. If you want shares, on the other hand…

Tech’s Loss, Culture’s Gain

If you work in the research or marketing industries you’ll be familiar with the idea that we’re living in a time of unprecedented change. This change is continuous, disruptive, accelerating, and so on – and it’s driven by technology and specifically the Internet.

But is it real? In a provocative piece in The Atlantic, tech commentator Alexis Madrigal argues that consumer tech has been stagnant for a few years now. The wave of change was a genuine phenomenon. It lasted for about fifteen years – from the creation of the web to the launch of the iPhone. It saw the rise of Amazon, Google and Facebook and the rebirth of Apple. But it was a phase in history, says Madrigal, that seems to be over. The ideas that animated developers in the 80s and 90s have all been built, and no new dreams have come along to replace them.

“And you’ll be able to TAKE the bird… and PUT him… in a kind of SLINGSHOT.”

Let’s assume the piece is right. Does it matter? For one thing, researchers tend to be a few steps behind the absolute cutting edge – and usually with very good reason. We’re most often interested in what happens when innovations spread into the mass market, which is what’s happening at the moment. Smartphones may have been invented in 2007, but they’re only now becoming mainstream (and non-Western markets have a whole different tech innovation path anyway.)

But more importantly, tech’s loss is culture’s gain, and it’s culture that researchers and marketers should really be interested in, because what people do with technology is more important than what the technology is. A period of relative quiet in new technology is a period where people can truly get to grips with existing innovation and use it in new ways. And that’s what’s been happening.

Imagine a nostalgia clip show in 20 years time, looking back on the early 10s. It might talk about – among other things – Angry Birds, the Arab Spring, Anonymous, Pinterest, the Occupy Movement, Etsy, 50 Shades Of Grey, KONY 2012 and Justin Bieber – not all of these are products of digital culture but they are all closely intertwined with it. Love them or loathe them, the things that give popular culture its texture – that make our era distinctive – are very often inseparable from the web. Our current cultural moment is rich and strange enough without us needing new toys to play with.