1. “The medium is the message.”

- Marshall McLuhan 1967

The ideology and preoccupations of any era are characterised by the technology people communicate with at the time. That’s what the 1960s communication theorist Marshall McLuhan was getting at when he penned his famous line, ’the medium is the message’. The communication technology of an era reflects the cognitive organisation, and therefore social organisation, of the time. Essential media channels are extensions of the human mind – and the way they work changes the way we think about ourselves and our reality over time.

In the 1960s McLuhan’s thinking was focused around the budding broadcast medium that was television – how that channel was expressing, and building on, the western culture’s preoccupation with the visual; the burgeoning idea of a ‘global village’; communications driven by powerful institutions which objectified and instructed, and a corresponding  disillusionment in the consumer; and the growing obsession with ‘celebrity’ . 

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JFK at news media event. Photo by the FDR Presidential Library & Museum.

McLuhan pointed to the new media’s love of President Kennedy as an example. Kennedy was the first American President to be broadcast to, and admired by, the whole western world during his tenure. America and the world consumed his image as a narrative – an eloquent, clever, handsome young family man they could build hopeful stories around.

The story was an optimistic one; one that reflected the modernist, utopian dreams of that era – the end of America’s golden age.

And when his death was broadcast on television around the world the modernist dream stopped too, and western culture entered a long period of self examination – cynical, self-reflective and deconstructive post-modernism.  As all of that unfolded, New Zealand watched from a distant corner of the globe.

Television distracted, entertained and uncovered hidden truths about formerly trusted institutions and individuals – albeit from a world away, behind the lens.

Digital technology broke down the distance, slowly at first. Fifteen years ago no one could have predicted the power of the internet or the shift computers made into intuitive human-focused space, largely driven by Apple. Three out of four New Zealanders now own or have access to a smart phone (Roy Morgan, State of the Nation, 2016). We are, and always have been, early adopters of technology. So the digital revolution has had a massive effect on kiwi culture – it is a channel that has literally opened up a door for us to engage in world events, narratives and brands.

And this is down to the characteristics of the channel. The internet is open to all who want to engage with and connect to information, knowledge and like-minded communities across the world. This is not an instructive medium, as television was. This is an engaging medium that elevates the consumer above all things; the technology bending itself around the user.

2. The Digital Age: The ‘culture of me’ and branding

The ‘culture of me’ characterises the digital age. Fame literally starts at home. It is no longer the right of a powerful few, as in previous eras. Digital technology has bought power to the people.

Successful brands have responded. They now serve the consumer via personalisation and social engagement.

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Coca Cola’s personalised bottle campaign 2014, where bottles were labeled with names reflective of the country and market they were offered for sale in. Photo by Mike Mozart.

Multi-screening and Wifi means people can stream their own preferred content through their screens at homes, and on the move. They can connect with brands on their terms, in their own time. And many brands have responded – some act as hubs for communities to connect. This can be seen in the retail sector where the ‘experience’ is increasingly becoming as important as the purchase. Retail experience now encompasses both the physical and virtual worlds, and is totally centred around the buyer.

Digital has broken geo-national boundaries, making retail brands like Free People available to all who want to interact with them. It means global brands can act local, and local brands can act global.

3. Successful Kiwi brands act global and value transparency

Many New Zealand brands’ communities extend beyond the borders of our country. A lot of these have global markets – such as Ice Breaker, or Auckland-based fair-trade, organic cola company Karma Cola – its biggest market is in the UK, and it’s growing.  

Karma Cola have identified that brands are a vehicle for like-minded people to connect through; in their case they have based their brand identity on ‘sustainability’ and global social connectivity. Karma Cola is one of the growing global ‘citizen brands’ – challenger brands with a strong sense of social responsibility who support the rights of the consumer and the producers of the product – in this case the growers and communities who farm and trade the ingredients of their product in South America. “It’s about showing that something as simple as a fizzy drink can be a force for good.” says co-founder Simon Coley. It’s about getting involved.

Brands and entertainment industries have identified the consumer’s desire for ‘new experiences’ as being key to creating connection and loyalty. 

Consumers also look to the virtual world for entertainment, and to find their place in the ‘real’ world. Gaming has initiated huge channel evolution. It bases games in virtual worlds, many of which adhere to the physics of the real world. These virtual worlds provide a stage for consumers to play out and explore their identities, and their place in the world. They enable players to engage with other players from all over the world. But the dimensions of these world shape the experience and development of the players and their communities.  

4. The Digital Age: realistic illusion shapes new communities

Perhaps the biggest and most influential game currently on the internet is ‘Minecraft.’ The Minecraft ‘video’ game challenges its players to survive and create in its never-ending realistic illusionary worlds. These ‘worlds’ or ‘maps’, as participants refer to them, are co-created by the game’s developers and the people who play the game.  

The worlds can be completely new and fictional e.g. The Nether; or based on a story or movie e.g. Hunger Games or Hogwarts.  

They can be based on a real place e.g. New York; or they can be based on a representation of a real place e.g. painting of New York commissioned by the Tate Gallery London.

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3D virtual world or ‘map’ gamers enter and play in. Photo by the Post-Apocalyptic Research Institute.

It is a place where players engage with their ‘environment’ and others to survive, building and creating with chunky minecraft blocks. Of course, they can also simply explore, but at some stage they should expect to engage with native creatures that will test them in unusual ways, forcing them to experiment and learn how to respond.

Communities emerge from the resulting interaction between the gamers, the environment and any viewers of a game channel – who can comment and engage as well. The game becomes content. But the content is shaped completely by the freedom of the technology.

In this way, Minecraft breaks the boundaries of ‘games’ as we traditionally think of them: it’s constantly changing and is ‘owned’ by the players.

In fact, Minecraft allows players to take its format and make their own content from it as well – from which a new form of ‘celebrity’ and ‘channel’ has emerged: the ‘You Tuber’ – individual ‘gamers’ have created their own channels to engage with ‘fans’.

All of this content is thanks to the visual social platform, YouTube – which facilitates the content and channels. You Tubers make their money by splitting advertising (banners etc) fees 45/55% with YouTube.  

For many You Tubers, the opportunity lies far beyond adsense and revenue splits – instead it’s with the ability to build businesses and brands.

The resources and engaging experiences YouTube facilitates has allowed creators to build audiences they would be unable to do independent of the platform. The visibility, communication, and connection with audiences is invaluable. What remains to be seen is which players will develop a profitable model from these communities, and which ones will not.

These digital channels have also thrown out the traditional movie and television ‘entertainment’ rulebook. No one needs writers, editors, producers, and sales teams to build a content business.  

YouTube reveals that the majority of You Tubers are young people under 25 years old that have cultivated communities largely based on their personalities – using production equipment that anyone could pick up at their local shopping mall.

Global ‘Generation Z’ will account for 40% of all consumer by 2020.

5. ‘Generation Z’ filters faster and wants to positively impact the world

Raised on the internet and bombarded by marketing along with 24-hour news stories about global terrorism and climate change, this generation has a shorter attention span than a goldfish (6-8 seconds), according to researchers!. It’s estimated most have been exposed, on average, to over 200,000 advertising messages before they reach 15 years of age, so editing messages is second nature. 

However, when they find something worthy they will become highly committed and engaged. 60% want their jobs to have an impact on the world. 80% will buy a product that has a social or environmental impact. Karma Cola appeals to this generation’s interest in sustainability – it’s telling them it wants to make the world a better place.

They also feel social media is critical to their happiness – they need to feel connected to each other through the virtual world in order to feel human and happy.

They believe brands are guilty before proven innocent – so brands need to engage and be completely transparent without appearing to try too hard. Brands need to be invited in and ‘liked’.

6. The implications for Kiwi brands are the same as global brands

In the case of YouTube, brands only exist in this world of emerging media systems if You Tubers decide they have a place.

Minecraft recently decided against brand advertising within its worlds. It can only occur in more traditional banner form, or inside worlds if the game’s participants invite a brand in as a form of discussion, or because it is interesting in some way.

Gamers take pride in making virtual versions of things from the real world. They gain reputation and fame by their skill in doing this.

The digital age presents many challenges and opportunities to Kiwi brands from both a business and communications perspective. 

  1. Successful brands today need to engage in conversation with both global and local audiences in transparent, informed, relevant and genuinely concerned ways. They need to talk about how they do business, make their product, deal with staff and customers and position their brand.
  2. Understand that audiences are increasingly connected to communities that are not about geographical connection – but about shared views and ideas.
  3. Cut through mental filters with clear visual symbols and visual content that communicates their point of difference
  4. ‘Lift up’, involve and empower their audiences. Appeal to their need for social connection – ‘you can have an impact on things if you ‘like’ this’. ‘You can change things with us’.
  5. Take a view on social and environmental issues from their business and brand’s perspective – make, shape and create conversations. 

Next article in this series:
 Part 3: Archetypes and the cult of personality – storytelling in the digital age.

Bridgette Yates, Strategy & Planning

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