Your audience is cooler than you

C2 team

You can forgive Frank Cooper III if his first reaction to being asked about Pepsi’s infamous 2017 Kendall Jenner ad is a forceful “I wasn’t there!” Frank, the Senior Managing Director and Global CMO for investment powerhouse BlackRock, spent five years as the CMO for Global Consumer Engagement at PepsiCo.

He is rightfully horrified.

The ad saw Jenner taking part in a Black Lives Matter–style march and solving America’s racial divide by offering a police officer a can of carbonated sugar. The tone-deafness of the ad drew massive backlash on social media, forcing the company to retreat in embarrassment.

As DJ Khaled would say, “Congratulations, you played yourself.”


The lesson: if you have no idea who DJ Khaled is, you probably shouldn’t be the driving force behind marketing campaigns geared towards a pop-culture-obsessed audience.


You need to be in it to get it

It’s not just a matter of authenticity but of understanding the nuances of a culture, and the danger of playing in culture is that you actually have to be an active member to get it.

“I don’t care what kind of culture you’re in,” says Frank. “Do you understand where your audience, target, consumer or investor is operating? Do you understand the stories, symbols, rituals and the advocates in it? If you don’t understand that, you have a world of hurt coming at you.”

Shared identity, collective experiences and intersubjectivity are what culture is all about, he adds, but to really be in it, you can’t just be an observer, passively sponsoring an experience — you must be contributing to it, “and that is a massive shift for most brands.”

Watch: Influencer Fred Bastien interviews Frank Cooper III at C2 Montréal 2018


No more fake it ’til you make it

Every marketing misstep today could be the subject of 100 think pieces tomorrow, and it’s easy for brands to underestimate the creative threshold one must cross for one’s content to compete. We’re now living in a world where people don’t care who the source is, they care about whether or not it connects with them, says Frank. For this reason, brands must all become creatives on some level to compete for people’s time, energy and attention — “the most precious currencies” — and deliver something of value to them.

He sees the role of today’s marketer as twofold: to drive profitable growth at the company, and to help determine a company’s soul: who they are, who they’re selling to, who they’re connecting with and how to make these things central.

Marketing, in the Mad Men sense of the word, is over — the audience now sees through all illusions. While finding new ways to connect is challenging, it also opens up a world of possibilities once you understand what you truly stand for.

Be yourself – even if “yourself” is a little weird

For lessons in keeping it real, look no further than MailChimp’s attention-grabbing “Did you mean MailChimp?” campaign, which centred around playful mispronunciations of the company’s name (e.g., MaleCrimp, NailChamp, WhaleSynth and FailChips). And MailChimp prefaced their Cannes-award-winning campaign with the erection of a billboard that simply read, “Being yourself makes all the difference.”

“That’s a message to our customers who are out there building millions of brands: a message of differentiation,” explains MailChimp Chief Marketing Officer Tom Klein. “We were essentially modelling the behaviour of being yourself. So we were being ourselves. And it was a little weird.”

Indeed. At one point they even made a dog out of kale.


Involve your tribe

Today’s marketing rules also extend way beyond ad campaigns. “Marketing is in all parts of the organization, increasingly serving as the catalytic driver to ensure that we are on strategy,” says Emma Carrasco, Chief Marketing and Engagement Officer, and Senior Vice President of Global Strategy, at the National Geographic Society.

“I cannot do my job as a marketer unless we collectively, as an organization, institution and enterprise, have a very clear North Star.” 

For the National Geographic Society, it’s been about ensuring they stay true to the legacy of their brand, which built its media muscle exploring the world through storytelling, while also being responsive to an audience that has moved from being passive observers of their work to actually becoming part of what National Geographic does.

National Geographic in action

  • The Your Shot photo community is comprised of 950K very active crowdsourced photographers helping the legacy media company tell stories collaboratively.
  • 55M people read the magazine each month, they have a total reach of 480M, and 88M people follow @natgeo on Instagram.

More than 1M kids participate annually in the National Geographic Bee.

It’s a move towards what’s meaningful, as Heather Mann, Chief Marketing Officer for The Guardian U.S., puts it. “Consumers want brands to stand for something — they don’t want it to be a passive exchange.”

Having in-depth knowledge of who you’re talking to can be the difference between being the next kale-inspired viral campaign or a gigantic misstep that inspires a thousand bloggers. The old adage about knowing your audience is fine, but to truly speak to them you can’t just know them — you have to understand them, contribute to culture and let them contribute, too.

Fail that, and you’ll leave your audience suddenly craving a Coke.


Illustrations: Lauren Tamaki


Read more from the “Back to business” special:

Skill them all: Here’s how to gear up for the future of work

Does your company really need AI? Ask yourself these 3 questions

Train your brain to spot the next big industry shift

6 steps to get your business walking the diversity talk

What’s your problem? 3 easy steps for creative business problem solving


The C2 Montréal Minutes: Actionable insights for creative business leaders

This article is excerpted from the upcoming Transformative Collisions: The C2 Montréal 2018 Minutes, available for your reading pleasure this fall at

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