Adapting to the inside culture – Virtue’s Ciaran Bonass

In moments of trying to matter, brands need to matter less, says Ciaran Bonass, executive director - AMEA at Virtue.

Ciaran Bonass Virtue

If you ask someone from outside our industry about the last advert they really loved, the chances are they would recall something ‘pre-fragmentation’ – before we were inundated with countless different media platforms all fighting for our eyeballs.

And for good reason. Attention continues to be our industry’s greatest currency, and brands are increasingly chasing new ways to be present in the lives of their audiences. But the impulse for brand visibility and the ongoing plight to be seen as relevant in culture has exacerbated an age-old problem in advertising: interruption. A tactic devised by an entire industry that is afraid of not being seen. A tactic that is increasingly working against them in today’s oversaturated media landscape.

In this age of fragmented media, brands looking to gain attention need to rethink this approach. Rather than building marketing in traditional ways and then trying to insert themselves into culture via interruption, the best brands are operating from inside culture.

But while most brands are eager to step into this new paradigm of marketing, few are ready to make the required changes.

As brands default to juggernauting their way into the lives of their audiences the desire to be seen is no longer exclusive to pre-rolls and ads. Instead, they insist on shoehorning themselves into experiences where it simply doesn’t make sense. This intrusive style of marketing is a relic from the disruption style of thinking that just leads to brands, perhaps unknowingly, over-saturating and interrupting what could have been a beautiful audience connection.

Working from inside culture

Young people are tired of being bombarded with “sameness” time and time again. They’ll continue to gravitate to places and stories where they can experience and enjoy the unusual and the unexpected. Instead of dictating the rules and setting terms of engagement, brands should be giving audiences the freedom to experience them as they wish and intertwine them with their need for self-discovery.

Brands should strive to enable this kind of discovery, not enforcing their own narrow scripts — at least if they are to connect meaningfully with their audiences.

So why do most brands still continue to follow the interruption style of marketing? Desperate for visibility, brand presence becomes paramount in the hope of gaining moments of real connection.

And even when they do try to work with culture, their insistence on tropes of visibility with logos, brand book restrictions and brand-washing still get in the way of what matters. Distinctive brand assets surely have their value, but why go through the trouble of creating something truly valuable and engaging if you interrupt it every other moment?

This is about a foundational shift in the relationship between brands and their customers.

Brands trip over themselves to be deemed “cool in culture.” And if we all agree it’s a constantly shifting landscape, why are brands so adamant that their presence needs to be perfectly formed in it? Brands looking to truly resonate will have to tap into their capacity for exploration. Audience affinity will only be won by connecting to shared values of experimentation and innovation and an equal sense of change and exploration—not by following the familiar forms of advertising and branding.

If cultural norms are being challenged to capture attention, marketing needs to move as fast as the audience does.

The reason why ads are skipped, blocked, scrolled, and avoided these days is that they feel too much like the brand speaking. It’s about them, and not the audience. Brands need to look for a more valued role inside culture rather than simply applying their parameters en masse in an effort to be seen. Stop living by the conventional branding approaches and marketing guidelines — those will only lead to closed brackets. The focus needs to be less on how the brand itself looks and more on what matters to the audience. In short, in moments of trying to matter, brands need to matter less.