Why strategists should go for a drink in a Desi pub
Opinion: Strategy Leaders
Hearts & Science’s chief strategist explains how moving attention away from the mainstream is valuable for brands, and shares six strategies to build regional diversity.
With a population of 67.3 million people, there are about 40 regional dialects in the UK. By all accounts this is a pretty high number — certainly compared to the US which has a population of more than 334 million and only 20 regional dialects.
The reason behind this gulf is, in large part, due to the UK’s longer history of immigration, which has forged an extremely rich and diverse culture.
Indeed, the diversity in dialects is just one facet of our staggering cultural variance, something showcased recently by Grayson Perry in his docu-series Full English.
In it, Perry — a naturally gifted qualitative researcher — travels around England, meeting people from all walks of life to reveal the complexities of our culture, history and politics. His goal is to uncover what Englishness means today by observing our changing rituals, codes and behaviours.
As a strategist, what I find particularly interesting about the show is how people in different parts of the country have such different experiences and perspectives, and just how deep the disconnect can be between London and the rest of the country.
Yet, to the detriment of our craft, few of us have taken a journey similar to Perry’s — and even his tour was limited to just England, ignoring Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
There are some notable exceptions, however, and most recently Mark Hadfield stands out. Hadfield is the founder of Meet the 85%, a research and consultancy business that is named after a startling fact: 85% of the UK communications industry is based in London. Yet 85% of the UK population live outside the capital.
This is not all that surprising given London has, for at least two thousand years, been a worldwide centre of commerce, culture, and politics. Yet by basing so much of our industry in the capital, and by using its residents as a proxy for the entire country, marketers have hardwired a bias and blindspot into their operations.
This approach is dramatically flawed, hence why adland – aside from a few rare but astute voices – failed to predict Brexit.
Consequently, marketers who want to succeed in the UK need to better understand the lives of people outside of London, and factor in the unique experiences, attitudes, and needs of these communities. Not just to target them better, but to learn from them.
Indeed, if we’re serious about diversity in our communications, then we need to hunt the margins to glimpse the UK’s true cultural reality. These are not insights to be gleaned from behind a desk in London.
Look to the margins
Clearly one way to do this is to (routinely) conduct research and focus groups in different regions. This will help brands to understand the unique challenges and opportunities that people in different parts of the country face.
Another is more fundamental to our behaviours — and means reconsidering our decisions and beliefs about diversity; why do we think what we think? Why do we believe something to be true? Are we really embracing diversity, or merely perpetuating newer stereotypes and, if so, are we homogenising blandness?
It certainly bolsters the case for building diverse teams as much as asking those teams to get out and understand the lives of people in places far from the capital. Indeed, internal diversity ultimately manifests externally.
There is a sound business case for it too. For example, a 2018 study by the American Marketing Association (AMA) shows that 56% of ‘progressive’ ads, which accurately reflect cultural diversity without stereotyping, increase purchase intent by 42% and drive a 56% improvement in brand reputation.
A new way to break through
In her new book, From Marginal to Mainstream, Dr Helen Edwards also argues that brands should break free from their “mainstream inhibition” and turn their attention to the margins.
Edwards, an adjunct associate professor of marketing at London Business School who also sits on the board of the UK Effies, argues that legacy brands are struggling because markets are becoming so saturated. However, Edwards says, marginal behaviours, which are often strange, unusual, or even repulsive, can break through and take off.
“Marginal behaviours are often seen as strange or weird by the mainstream,” writes Edwards. “But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, strangeness can be a sign of innovation and creativity. Marginal behaviours are often driven by a desire to challenge the status quo, and they can offer new and exciting ways of doing things. If you’re looking for new growth opportunities, don’t be afraid to embrace the strange.”
Therefore, brands need to break free from the mainstream. This means identifying and understanding the niches, embracing the so-called strange, becoming a connector, becoming a catalyst, acting with authenticity.
By following these five principles, Edwards says, companies can unlock the potential of marginal behaviours and ideas to drive new growth. We just need to get out there and understand them better.
Consider, for example, the Desi pubs Perry visits in Full English — traditional pubs run by Asian landlords that serve curry and pints — thus marrying (and preserving) two cultural icons by creating an Anglo-Asian hybrid.
Indeed, there are many equally compelling cultural stories that marketers can learn from and be inspired by (another favourite of mine is the story of grime, which from council estate origins has fused garage, hip hop and jungle and hit the mainstream — from GrimeforCorbyn, t-shirts in H&M or Stormzy’s Glastonbury headline show).
Mass market messages, local flavours
We still need to be mindful that mass media messages should — by definition — still have mass appeal, so of course there is a balancing act to be struck.
There is also a sense we should be planning to do things differently in future. Like Desi pubs, we must begin thinking about hybrid models; creative assets for the mass market that can be repurposed to feed hyper-localism.
Here we can expect dynamic advertising and AI to lend a hand, much like this Cadbury’s India campaign which generated hundreds of uniquely local iterations of its hero asset to ensure targeted regionality.
The tech is now there to help ensure mass market messages can do more to appeal to localism and cultural diversity — and if we explore the UK more fully, we can grow brands outwards from the margins, that celebrate all that modern Britain truly stands for.
Six strategy tips for building regional diversity
1. Seek out the unfamiliar
As markets become saturated, making it harder for legacy brands to stand out, looking to unfamiliar – or even unusual – cultural behaviours can help break free from mainstream shackles and creative ideas.
2. Read Dr Helen Edwards
New evidence shows that companies can unlock the potential of marginal behaviours and ideas to drive new growth – by identifying and understanding niches, becoming a connector, becoming a catalyst, and acting with authenticity.
3. Understand cultural evolution
The UK’s immense diversity is creating new, often hybrid, cultures and behaviours. Like grime music, there is much to learn – and often a significant marketing opportunity.
4. Think about the tech
Dynamic advertising, machine learning and AI can add new levels of localism and cultural diversity to mass media. Prepare for new ways of working.
5. Burst the London bubble
By exploring more of the UK and celebrating culture beyond the capital, brands can grow outwards from the margins – and might even reach new audiences entirely – while offering the mainstream something new and unique.
6. Understand the business case
Progressive ads which accurately reflect cultural diversity without stereotyping increase purchase intent by 42% and drive a 56% improvement in brand reputation.
Simon Carr is chief strategy officer at Omnicom Group media agency Hearts & Science.
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