McCracken to marketers: Bang less, murmur more

Consumers are smarter, so don't be afraid to to be subtle

Consumers are smarter, so don’t be afraid to to be subtle


Anthropologist, author and culture guru Grant McCracken says consumers are becoming more and more sophisticated and capable of receiving more subtle messages from marketers.

It’s a shift from what he calls the “death of ‘bang the drum marketing’” to the “rise of murmur marketing” and one of the trends he shared during his keynote presentation at Pro Create in Toronto Tuesday morning.

Marketing, he says, was once executed as a single proposition loaded into a cannon and then fired over and over again “until the dimmest person in Canada got the value proposition, got the brand message.”

“Those days when brands say ‘trust me’ in this garish over exaggerated way have passed,” said McCracken, pointing to The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book written by “corporate activists” more than 10 years ago.

The book – a set of 95 theses put together for businesses operating within a newly-connected marketplace – proposes that branding should feel more like a conversation, a give-and-take between the consumer and the marketer.

“When you hammer away at [consumers] with a very obvious message, they bail out,” he said. “With murmur marketing, we’re seeing a new subtly and delicacy in messaging.”

McCracken uses a 2012 45-second commercial for Volkswagen Beetle to illustrate this point. The spot features “The Clapping Song” which was recorded by Shirley Ellis in 1965. At about the 10-second mark, a graffiti style image of the singer appears on a wall as the car drives by.

“In the old days it would have been a secret message within the advertising community,” said McCracken. “These days, because the consumer has a greater media literacy, almost everyone picks up that image, knows who it is and gives the brand credit for this kind of nuanced approach.”

Another example: the simple eyebrow raise between a woman and a kid checking out a bowl of “rollover” minutes at a garage sale in a 2009 AT&T commercial.

“That little flash between the red head and the neighbourhood kid sells phones,” said McCracken. “Her flash speaks volumes. It says, ‘Can you believe the injustice of the universe at this moment.’”

McCracken also talked about staging events and divided the topic into three categories, providing real-life examples for each.

Experiment at point of sale
American specialty retailer, J. Crew took over an old tavern located in a landmark townhouse in New York City. According to its website, J. Crew kept the wood bar in tact, and the outdoor sign.

“What’s great about it is, I don’t need to tell you, it looks like hell,” said McCracken. “Until very recently, a brand creating a new spot in Manhattan would have insisted on knocking this building down and creating a glorious new shiny place.”

Brand as an actor
In 2010, Gatorade launched its “Replay” campaign that involved tracking down the members of two rival high school football teams 15 years after their final senior game ended in a tie. The sports drink brand challenged them to a rematch. The multiplatform campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day won the Grand Prix Lion in the promotional and public relations competitions in Cannes.

“There was this event, it ended in frustration, it ended in a tie and nobody likes a tie… Now, instead of these perfect celebrity athletes, we’ve got these guys in their 30s struggling to get their pants to fit,” said McCracken. “Suddenly football becomes a human event… We can relate to people like this.”

Brand as a platform
Ford gave “culture creators” (or brand ambassadors) a Fiesta model for six months and gave them various tasks to perform, all of which were documented online. One of the creators, for instance, was told to drive until he runs out of gas.

“From a messaging point of view it makes no sense of all,” said McCracken. “From a meme point of view it’s totally compelling, it’s exactly the kind of thing people waste half a day watching on YouTube.”

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