In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly walks into the Cafe 80s to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and orders himself a Pepsi. He is presented with a striking version of the drink — the Pepsi Perfect — that came in a plastic bottle with a built-in straw.
On October 21st, 2015, the day McFly arrived at the future in the movie, Pepsi released a real-life version of Pepsi Perfect to the delight of long-time fans of the movie.
Pepsi wasn’t the only brand to signal the date that became known as Back to the Future Day; however, it did stand out from other brands that just tweeted or posted something about it.
Now, why would brands want to celebrate Back to the Future Day at all?
It’s about the unwavering presence of pop culture in our lives and how incorporating it into a marketing strategy can do wonders for brands.
Pop Culture and Marketing: a Better Love Story Than Twilight
Leveraging pop culture phenomena in marketing isn’t necessarily new. We can go back as far as the 1950s to find an example — the Marlboro Man, a cowboy-inspired character created by the cigarette brand during the golden age of American Western movies.
Back then, a more limited number of cultural elements were unanimously popular to be relevant for brands. Plus, the way brands used these references depended on the media available at the time, so they mostly appeared on advertising campaigns.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, anything from a movie or TV show to a meme or particular type of food can quickly become a pop culture icon. And while pop culture references can still be used in advertising and make appearances in traditional media, they are put to the best use in their marketing strategies.
But don’t just take my word for it. Between 2013 and 2016, Kanye proposed to Kim, Taylor Swift released 1989, Hamilton debuted on Broadway, Jon Snow died, Beyoncé surprise-dropped Lemonade, and Leo FINALLY got his Oscar for winning a fight against a bear. Oh yeah, and nearly a third of the most successful marketing campaigns included some form of pop culture reference.
Let’s break down why this is so beneficial.
Content Visibility & Traffic
Jumping in on the pop culture bandwagon is a great way for companies to gain content visibility and, thus, increase traffic to their social networks and other online platforms.
Here’s an example. In May 2021, the much anticipated Friends Reunion finally aired on HBO Max, and companies across different business areas took the chance to talk about it.
It’s unlikely that KitKat directly benefited from Friends: The Reunion. Still, during a time window last year, it was all millions of people all over the world were talking about online. By being a part of the conversation, KitKat increased its chances of capturing those people’s attention.
Using pop culture references can help a brand feel more relatable to the end customer. Pop culture icons only become so because there is a shared experience surrounding them. By being part of the experience, brands show customers they have something in common with them, which helps build a stronger connection which, in turn, increases loyalty.
Customers aren’t just that; they’re human beings with specific tastes, preferences, likes, and dislikes, so they will naturally steer towards brands that better reflect their personality.
Adidas, for example, relied on a connection to hip hop culture to market the Superstar model. For hip hop enthusiasts and artists alike, it became a matter of not just buying a new pair of sneakers, but of buying the pair that speaks to who they are.
Understanding & Speaking to Your Customers
If by now you’re convinced that harnessing the power of pop culture in your marketing strategy is the way to go, you need to know who your (target) customers are. Gathering data about their preferences, topics of interest, and lifestyles is key to making references they’ll understand and appreciate.
When I first saw that Le Creuset was coming out with a Harry Potter collection at the time of the Return to Hogwarts reunion, I was like, “What?”
But it makes sense. The Millenials who grew up reading the books and watching the movies are now of kitchen-ware-buying-age, so they will likely be more inclined to buy a cast iron pan if it comes in their Hogwarts House colors.
Even though Boomers still outspend Millennials, the latter spend more time online and consider social media an essential part of their lives — more than any other generation, even younger ones. This makes them much more likely to engage with brands on social media that are talking about topics they like, increasing the chances of turning them into customers.
Humanizing Your Brand
In the age of social media, consumers are no longer happy with having a mere transactional relationship with brands; instead, they’re looking for something more meaningful, with sixty-four percent of customers expecting brands to connect with them through social networks.
This means that brands need to showcase a more human side to them in order to meet that expectation. Using social channels just to sell their products isn’t going to cut it.
Tapping into pop culture through movie or TV show references, memes, or language is a great way to come across as a human and not as a business.
Netflix, for example, does this really well both on Instagram and Twitter, where posts and tweets sound like they’re coming from someone who’s just as excited about a show or its characters as customers are.
Not-So-Secret Pop Culture & Marketing Formulas
Given pop culture’s current scope, marketing actions and campaigns have no shortage of material or inspiration to choose from. They can make references to virtually anything from the world around us.
That being said, certain formulas have proven to work time and time again, and brands often turn to them when they want to add a pop culture element to their marketing strategy.
Joining the Hype
Every now and then, something pops up — a movie, TV show, new celebrity couple — that people just won’t stop talking about.
I’ve already mentioned the Friends and Harry Potter reunions that stirred a lot of hype among their fanbases. However, the best recent example of the hype surrounding a pop culture element is Squid Game.
The Netflix show was a near-overnight success all over the world. And with it becoming a viral hit, there was a huge audience looking for anything Squid Game-related.
What was deemed the Squid Game Effect presented a great opportunity for brands to jump in on the trend and incorporate it into their social media strategy. Here are a few examples:
There’s a lot to be said about Squid Games and lessons we all can learn from it, but one thing we know for sure is that it proves how tapping into cultural obsessions can help brands amplify their reach and audience.
Memes have been around since 1976 when Richard Dawkins coined the term in his book “The Selfish Gene” as “units of cultural transmission.” He originally meant things like ways of dressing, customs, or art, but today’s memes can be anything from a photo of an animal or a song to a phrase or sentence.
Thanks to the internet, some memes are not just destined to become viral, but new memes keep appearing. This gives brands yet another great shot at engaging with customers by resorting to the type of content they consume and enjoy.
In 2019, Spotify went all-in on meme culture, incorporating the popular “me/also me” meme into not only their social media strategy but also offline campaigns.
Memes like this one tend to move away from the internet and creep into the way we speak, so it’s refreshing, as customers, to see a business talk as we do.
All Sorts of Holidays
We all know holidays like Christmas or Halloween are prolific times for marketers to launch themed campaigns.
But there are other unofficial holidays celebrated a bit all over the world that also present fun marketing opportunities, such as National Pizza Day, National Coffee Day, or National Donut Day. Any food-related event, really.
And you don’t even need to be in the business to jump in on the celebrations. In 2020, on National Coffee Day in the US, brands like Hulu and Lego — who have nothing to do with coffee — took to the occasion to post about it on social media.
Again, it’s about taking part in conversations your audience might have and adding something to them.
Lessons for B2B Marketing
I know — we’ve been looking at examples of B2C brands up until this point.
And yes, they might have it easier when it comes to experimenting with pop culture in their marketing or sales strategies because first, their communication style with customers is tendentially more relaxed and open to humor, and second because they can go as far as Pepsi or Le Creuset and come out with a product (line) in response to a pop culture trend.
In B2B, especially in SaaS, you’re not going to, say, launch a new CRM in Valyrian to please the Game of Thrones fans among your customers.
Still, that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to shy away from pop culture altogether. Quite the contrary! As long as it makes sense together with your business and brand personality, you should totally go for it.
Semrush, for one, is a great example of how a B2B marketing strategy can perfectly well tap into pop culture phenomena.
They dove right into the Squid Game trend and shared their own spin references to the show.
The reasons this works so well in B2B are the same as in B2C.
Content becomes more widely visible and easier to engage with than if it remains purely business or sales-focussed. Your brand will feel more human, which in turn can tighten even business relationships and increase the chances of a one-time customer turning into a loyal one. Finally, if customers are more involved with your brand and your content, you’ll be building a closer community. And if there is one thing we were reminded of just this week amidst the Taylor Swift/Damon Albarn drama, it’s that a strong community will always have your back.
Keeping Up With The Kard... Trends
Succeeding at incorporating pop culture into your marketing strategy means doing so in a way that still makes sense for your business and brand.
It also means you’ll need to keep up with what’s currently trending. You’ll need to become familiar with the latest buzzwords, binge-worthy TV shows, and trending topics on all social media channels, yes, including TikTok.
And be ready to be quick on your feet. A lot of pop culture phenomena happen overnight and can just as speedily go back into oblivion. You don’t see us talk about Squid Game much anymore, do you? If you want to truly leverage the power of pop culture, be prepared to react to trends in real or near real-time.
It sounds daunting, but in this day and age, all the cool kids are doing it.