Punching a hole in the universe

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One of the ways the world’s most successful brands stay on top is not through innovation, but through repetition.

Day after day, year after year, popular brands produce marketing messages which seek to form indelible cultural associations with their products.

These messages are spread far and wide using all the firepower brands with big budgets can muster, from social media and billboard campaigns to magazine and television advertisements, and everything in-between.

Repeating the same consistent messages, rather than constantly chopping and changing, is one of the surest ways a brand can cut through the noise.

This is how Coca-Cola muscled their way into Christmas and how Kellogg’s took ownership of breakfast.

It is part of a process the writer Kevin Simler calls cultural imprinting. “Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings - which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.”

This only works, of course, if the meaning a brand conveys is broadly understood by others.

“For an ad to work by cultural imprinting, it’s not enough for it to be seen by a single person, or even by many people individually,” Simler explains. “It has to be broadcast publicly, in front of a large audience. I have to see the ad, but I also have to know (or suspect) that most of my friends have seen the ad too.”

Smaller companies do not have the luxury of being able to change the cultural landscape by running high profile ad campaigns, but they can develop compelling stories about what their business means - and stick to those messages.

As the co-founder of Basecamp, David Heinemeier Hansson, puts it, “If you want to leave a dent in the universe, you have to be willing to punch in the same place over and over and over and over again. For every person who’ve heard your point or story ad nauseum, there’s a thousand new ones who never even knew you existed. Keep repeating.”

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design