Why the Culture of Proximity Is an Unprecedented Opportunity for Brands

 

In 2019, brands are no longer simply brands. They are participants and shapers of culture. And brands that do this best—and earn consumers’ trust along the way—are brands that succeed. 

That is the result of Viacom Velocity’s study on the Culture of Proximity, which the branded content studio’s Senior Director of Culture & Insights Mary Kate Callen shared during her keynote speech at Brand Innovators’ SXSW event.

“Brands need to learn the new operating system of culture to succeed and break through,” Callen said

“Brands need to learn the new operating system of culture to succeed and break through,” Callen said

“When we set out to studying culture, we realized that it felt like it all was happening too fast,” Callen said. “Every day, a new person becomes famous overnight, a slang word comes and goes before you can decide to use it—so brands need to learn the new operating system of culture to succeed and break through.” 

Viacom Velocity discovered that the differences between brands, fans, celebrities, and creators have blurred and become intertwined because of the way the internet has transformed the definition of proximity, hierarchy, and relationships.  

In this new environment, what used to be four distinct forms of culture have blended together. Close Culture is what’s created and shared by our immediate circle of friends and family. Mass Culture is what’s shared and consumed by everyone—historically, Mass Culture has been projected one-way, impacting other smaller cultures without reciprocation. Crowd Culture is what we create together, and has the most significant impact on mass culture. And finally, Deep Culture represents subcultures drawn together by a shared experience. 

The great news about proximity is that this is what we all wanted as marketers; to close the distance between our consumers and our brands
— Mary Kate Callen

“The great news about proximity is that this is what we all wanted as marketers; to close the distance between our consumers and our brands,” said Callen. She added that we now live in an era where brands are under a “glass box effect” that offers consumers a 360-view of the brand—and all what it stands for—at any time.  

Callen went on to explain that while historically brands messages to their audiences had been aspirational, now they are “reflective.” “Brands used to show us what we wanted to be. Now, it’s about reflecting the human experience.” 

And no other traits of this human experience are more relevant than authenticity and vulnerability. “We respect authenticity, even if we don’t agree with the statement,” Called said. “And it has a real bottom line effect because consumers are twice as likely to buy your products and services if they think you’re authentic.”   

When it comes to vulnerability, 70% of consumers are more likely to use authentic brands if they own up to a mistake publicly. Callen recalled National Geographic, which apologized for fetishizing cultures in the past and promised to do a better job going forward. 

Callen says that 70% of consumers are more likely to use authentic brands if they own up to a mistake publicly

Callen says that 70% of consumers are more likely to use authentic brands if they own up to a mistake publicly

“But authenticity is just not defined by words,” she warned. “Being intimate with your consumers goes hand in hand with your values and showing true connections through your understanding of truly who you are as a brand—and showing that to the world.”  

This is what it’s ultimately helping brands capitalize on declining trust for traditional institutions such as politicians, government, and the media. “It gives brands a unique opportunity: consumers are twice as likely to trust a brand over a traditional institution, and four times as possible when compared with politicians.  

“And it’s driving more and more brands to think about how they connect with their audience regarding social issues,” explained Callen. She also shared that two out of three consumers say that it’s important that brands play a role in social issues. “It’s becoming not a nice to have, but a must have for the bottom line.”

Even if you think you’re not part of the culture, in five minutes something could happen that would bring your brand into the cultural conversation, and you need to know how to react very quickly
— Mary Kate Callen

Viacom Velocity’s senior director of Culture & Insights concluded that intimacy and values are useless if they don’t drive action. “Three out of four consumers want brands to create content that creates awareness and mobilizes the crowd,” she said. 

“If you don’t want to show your values, at least know what they are,” warned Callen. “Because, even if you think you’re not part of the culture, in five minutes something could happen that would bring your brand into the cultural conversation, and you need to know how to react very quickly to engage that conversation and weather the storm.”

Watch Viacom Velocity’s The Culture of Proximity below: