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When Brands Become and Ideology (with Dr. Marcus Collins)

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James Brown (via Shutterstock)

by Dan Runcie

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This week’s Trapital memo is in collaboration with Primary Wave.

Remembering The Godfather of Soul

James Brown would have turned 90 on May 3.

His career as a singer, songwriter, performer, and business mogul is an inspiration for a generation of artists. As the most-sampled artist of all time, his impact is still felt through tracks from prominent artists, from Nas to Nicki Minaj.

James Brown’s career peaked during the tension of the civil rights era and he understood his audience. Moments like the night he saved Boston or the T.A.M.I. performance displayed the power of his music to captivate and influence his fans on and off the stage.

Brown also owned radio stations, record labels, and a production company. He was a true originator, especially when it came to educating the next generation. This was his definition of Black Power.

Want to take a trip down memory lane? Let’s revisit James Brown’s cultural legacy by checking out his playlists.

mistaking information for intimacy

Being “data-driven” is now table stakes for most companies. Your competitors likely have access to the same data and can turn on Google or Facebook ads to reach their desired audience. But getting intimate with data and the people that drive that underlying data are where the real advantages are at.

“We mistake information for intimacy and that’s the data paradox. We have more information about people than ever before, but we don’t know people very well.” – Dr. Marcus Collins

Data can be used to build awareness but doesn’t necessarily lead to intent or action. People are nuanced. Someone may wear Patagonia but that doesn’t mean they all ascribe to the same conservation values that the brand carries.

Someone may like Drake but that doesn’t mean they want to hear “other artists like Drake” that the streaming services recommend.

Understanding consumer behavior can be tricky, especially in a fragmented landscape that implies personalization at scale. Despite all the inputs and impressions, a recommendation from a friend or inspiration from an unlikely source can go a long way. Talking directly to customers and fans addresses that.

there are levels to this

One of Marcus’ themes is the level of brand strength:

Awareness —> Quality —> Leadership —> Trust —> Association —> Ideology

Brands that operate at the ideological level are the strongest. People use those brands to communicate their own identity.

This is why some people have copies of The New Yorker on their coffee tables. They often want to communicate that they are the type of intellectual who reads The New Yorker (regardless of whether they actually do).

Artists have some of the strongest ideological ties with consumers. This is why many people buy vinyls even though more than half don’t own a vinyl player. They put the vinyls on display in their homes because it’s a form of self-expression. When people talk about music as an under-monetized asset, this is what they’re getting at!

Consumer brands are most often associated with ideology, but enterprise and B2B brands can get there too. Companies will pay a premium for McKinsey’s consulting services because of what the firm’s brand signals both internally and externally.

Some industries have an uphill battle to attain ideology with consumers. I’ve interned at both airlines and cable companies and have seen the challenges firsthand. The brand associations with those companies aren’t always positive, and it’s not for lack of trying. The more a brand is perceived as a utility or commodity, the harder ideology is to reach.

But Marcus brought up a good example of General Electric. In 2015, GE ran a campaign titled What’s The Matter With Owen. The ads showed a new hire giddy about the work he’ll do at GE, but friends and family cared much more about a friend who works at a random startup. GE poked fun at itself, but also reinforced that “No one gets you, but GE does.”

A source close to GE reported that applications spiked 8x after the series of commercials aired. It helped push the legacy brand toward that ideology level of association.

the profession with the best market researchers

Marcus believes comedians are the best market researchers. Period. They people-watch obsessively, notice out-of-norm behaviors and share theories to explain why that is.

Comedians also tweak their material based on which city they visit and who they’re performing in front of. They do this more than most entertainers. Comics know that a joke that lands in Atlanta might not hit the same way in the north. They adapt, which informs their intimate insights and relationships with audiences.

They also see the real-time, in-person reactions to the material. It’s their job to study human responses and interact with the crowd.

In our chat, I mentioned Tyler Perry. He’s not a typical comedian, but humor is the backbone of what he does. He got his start traveling across the U.S. to perform his plays. He adapted jokes based on his region and built his grassroots campaign.

But even after Tyler’s movies and TV shows were successful, he continued to hit the road and do his plays. It wasn’t as scalable as his movies or TV shows, but this was his market research. For someone who is the literal definition of a multi-hyphenate—producer, director, screenwriter, showrunner, and actor—understanding his audience is essential.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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