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While companies have been conscious of what content they create, it has become even more important for them to create stuff that humanises a brand and matches the ethos of its target audience. Consumers notice every little detail in a piece of content as their culture affects how they think, react and process information. And so, knowing and understanding culture-specific aspects of your target audience will help you meet their expectations.

BuzzInContent’s second session of Content Conversations held on April 30 was also on the topic ‘Content & Culture’. The panellists Hamsini Shivakumar, Semiotician, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, Savita Pai, Chief Digital and Media Officer, Diageo India, Sajni Masturlal, Head of Content, Wakefit and Karthik Nagarajan, Chief Content Officer, Wavemaker India and Head of Content, GroupM India, discussed and debated how brands can leverage popular culture to create content.

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and narratives for their implicit and deeper meaning. Shivakumar talked about the importance of semiotics in the creation of content-led campaigns by brands. “Semiotics is relevant in the creation and evaluation of content. Typically, while evaluating, we think in the terms of consumer behaviour and various metrics, measurement and ROI. But there is another kind of evaluation—deeper learning—which the semiotic practitioners engage with. Semiotics as critique can be very useful,” she said.

Giving an example, she explained that brands want to compare their humour content with other kinds of humour content in terms of how is it constructed, what is it saying and how can the marketer make his content better, then they can use semiotics to understand it.

Shivakumar talked about how semiotics can be used before creating content, saying semioticians can decode past evidence to figure out what connects with consumers. Semioticians can look at content through the cultural lens. For example, brands can use semiotics to understanding the fan culture if it plans to use a celebrity in campaigns.

Nagarajan spoke about how agencies and brands are upping their game when it comes to understanding cultural nuances and it isn’t a silent territory anymore. “I firmly believe content is culture intervention. It’s at the base of every conversation we are having. Unless you are not able to understand the culture and what relates to the consumer, you won’t be able to make that intervention in a credible manner. Although, in the content industry, we don’t call it semiotics,” he said.

Diageo’s Pai explained how the brand looks at culture and content. She said Diageo works with a lot of cultural commentators and looks at studies to see how consumers are evolving. “We work with semiotics to know how a product should feel and look to a consumer today. Even how our brand Johny Walker’s Striding Man has evolved over the years and means something to the consumer today. We need to ensure how we become a part of the consumers’ life. Us saying something about our brand doesn’t make us culturally relevant,” she added.

Content will only work if it’s relatable to the people. Brands can gauge relatability only if they know their consumers well. One important factor that plays a role in helping brands create relevant content is the understanding of the consumers’ environment, their culture, what they aspire to achieve and what visually attracts them. Nowadays, even audio format would appeal to them but still, not many brands focus on this aspect of content marketing.

Mastural said that for Wakefit, creating relevant and shareable content has always been the key. The brand’s YouTube content is based on the pulse of society. “During the pandemic, we have been creating content around how people are feeling. For the new year, we created a video that summed up what most people felt during the whole year. Luckily, we don’t have a niche target audience and hence can appeal to the consumers on a generalist theme,” she said.

Shivakumar talked about how brands can go wrong while creating branded content. “Brands go wrong when they in their mind are not able to let go the sponsorship and advertising overhang. In such circumstances, they tend to overdo the visibility of the brand in whatever they produce. One would get to see brand packs everywhere in the background or the brand logo in every other frame. In bad content, the influencer will end up selling the product towards the end.”

She said that because advertising sells a product, one can’t be very realistic about the product’s role in people’s lives. Advertising will always have a slight positive and hopeful lens around it or everyday problems are shown exaggerated to look like a life-threatening problem. But in content, one has to be realistic and showcase grounded, real mirroring of culture.

“Good content marketers have in their minds shifted from being sellers to becoming publishers and to then actually thinking about their consumers as a human being who has a culture, lives in a social group with context. Content marketers should try to connect with the human being in their own cultural context and language,” Shivakumar said.

Nagarajan asked Shivakumar about certain brands that create cause-driven content one fine day without doing anything on the ground level. Though such content adds value, is it a good way to go around it? Doesn’t it look fake?

Shivakumar answered, “Participating in culture doesn’t mean you become a cause marketer or an activist. But if a brand does something like this, it might come across as fake. A brand has to consistently do both act and communication if it wants to present itself purpose-driven. If a brand is only doing communication, then it will make it look like an opportunist.”

While data and creativity have forever been talk of the town, explaining how brands can begin the journey of amalgamating the study of culture and semiotics in regular marketing practices, Pai of Diageo said, “It’s important to bring in consumer insights and then look at where your category and brand is. Eventually, the choices a brand makes with observing the consumer data, whether it’s research, comes down to what should be communicated to the consumer and the legitimacy of your brand and where they stand. There are a lot of motions out there where one feels to participate in culture, but the decision to participate should come after examining the consumer insights.”

While understanding the consumer is essential to create engaging content, Wakefit’s Masturlal talked about how they used the company’s culture as a marketing tool. She said, “As a company, Wakefit is very driven by innovation and research. We ensure the quality of our products. We bring out the same in our communication and content as well. Our product content delves into how we can simplify the science around creating the products for our consumers through content.”

Watch the full episode here: