"Traditional target group marketing has had its day"

As a separate unit for cultural marketing, Serviceplan Culture helps clients to really understand cultures and subcultures. Managing Director Franziska Gregor explains in an interview why this is so important today - and what role traditional target groups play.

You started the year with a dedicated unit for cultural marketing - why is this topic more important than ever right now?

It's no secret that the question of what makes a brand valuable and successful today has to be answered on many levels. One of them is: As a brand, do I speak the language of my customers? Please don't get me wrong: a large number of brands have recognized the potential of great storytelling and data-based communication. But are consumers really waiting for the next corporate story? Think of Gen Z, for example, who are tying storytelling very closely to their own needs and experiences. Are brands just listening, or are they really changing their language and marketing behavior in the long term? Isn't it much more important to take the step into cultures and subcultures to take place where trends are emerging? Cultural marketing is not new - and above all it is not a marketing buzzword. Cultural marketing must become an integral part of brands' advertising mix. And not just in the obvious B2C environment. Employer branding, NGOs or business-to-policy are exciting fields for cultural marketing. It is crucial that we are not talking about cultural campaigning or just one culture or subculture. Relevance arises when brand and culture enter into long-term partnerships.

Your aim is not only to reach subcultures better, but to really understand them. How does this approach differ from traditional target group marketing - is that obsolete today?

We did not set out to completely reinvent everything. That would be arrogant and not credible. Target group models are being considered in many areas of the advertising mix, especially in the digital space - and that's a good thing. After all, the realities of consumers' lives have long been diverse and can no longer be answered with simple demographic data. So you are reaching your limits. Think of the multitude of subreddits, how platforms such as Discord are structured, or how algorithms address users in a more personalized way than ever before. For example, technology researcher Amy Webb spoke of "Generation T" - for transformation - at SXSW in the USA, reigniting the debate about target groups from a generational perspective for advertisers. What we want to achieve is to create an understanding of the fact that trends are no longer dictated by mass media or brands, but arise in communities and subcultures. This can be a supposedly simple TikTok or Instagram reel, a community event or an online game that has not even begun to reach the mass market. So to answer your question specifically: classic target group marketing has had its day, yes.

You have your own tool that you use to identify the right measures. What is behind it and how does it work? What results does it deliver? How else are trends identified?

Cultural marketing must be measurable - otherwise it really remains just a buzzword, a simple marketing blah-blah without a real budget. Data and insights play a major role here. Just like the voice of culture itself. Because when it comes to finding the right match between culture/sub-culture and brand for a long-term partnership, we need both. Our approach at Serviceplan Culture therefore serves both equally. Basically, we help brands to identify the right culture or subculture - and then to decode it, activate it and make it usable for their own messages. And as part of the activation and a long-term partnership, we also make trends within the culture visible, but again measurable. So we are always questioning. We talk about a kind of CVP, a cultural value proposition for brands. A value that can also justify the use of budget and manage it holistically.

What is really a trend and what is just a short-term phenomenon - and how can we tell the difference?

This can and must certainly be answered from different perspectives. What we have to start with, however, is that trends are developing differently today than they did one or two years ago. They emerge in subcultures, in communities. And brands need to be able to react to them even faster, more dynamically and more agilely. A "culture as a service" tool, which we offer, may sound cumbersome at first, but it helps tremendously to assess relevance - for the level of impact, but also for the brand itself. Is it a zeitgeist or fashion trend that is perhaps only relevant for one fashion season? Is it a short-term hype on social media that suits me as a brand? Does it stem from technology, like what we are currently experiencing with AI, and will it trigger profound changes in our working lives? Does a trend have the potential to trigger socio-cultural movements, in particular to holistically change people's lifestyles and attitudes, value orientations, needs structures and desires? Or are we perhaps even talking about a so-called blockbuster trend with a major epochal character that shapes entire societies and generations? The degree of impact also determines whether we are talking about rather superficial activities or whether a brand intervenes deeply in its own product and transforms itself comprehensively.

How do you manage to really have your finger on the pulse of the times and get deep into the subcultures to know exactly what's trending? What are the biggest challenges here?

The challenge is in your question. Keeping your finger on the pulse is almost impossible. And it would be dubious to promise brands and partners exactly that. We answer this question with a data-driven approach that is also strongly rooted in culture - and we learn something new every day. We also see our role as a cultural marketing agency as an educational one - together with clients and brands, but also in close collaboration with the great partners within the Serviceplan Group. We don't just want to implement projects, we want to shape the image of cultural marketing in the European advertising market as a whole. And that includes understanding that cultural marketing is more than just hip-hop. And more than just putting a K-pop song on the next TikTok ad or having employees rap for employer branding.

With your own council, you staff the team for each customer in the way they need it for their culture. How exactly does this work and what are the advantages for customers?

Even though Niko, Sven and I are completely different as a leadership team, both culturally and in terms of skills, what unites us is that we are all three white and privileged. The fact that three white communicators - two of them male - are telling brands what culture is and how they can use it is a mistake in itself. Trends are not created by mass media and culture is not created at the desks of advertising agencies. With the founding of Serviceplan Culture, we have created an internationally growing Cultural Council. A kind of advisory body that is diverse in all its facets. We are not necessarily interested in big names, but in attitude, in knowledge and insights from communities, in honest feedback at eye level. For ourselves, for our agencies within the Serviceplan Group and for customers. Never about culture without culture. The Council is therefore a kind of product that is essential for us when working with brands and is integrated into the early project phase - not only as part of the analysis, but also in the activation itself. This is completely independent of whether we are talking about a comprehensive marketing campaign, an event or the use of social media.

Do you have any examples of campaigns that you have implemented that illustrate the cultural approach? What is different from other campaigns?

Our product approach is primarily strategic. We are therefore currently working with great brands to determine which culture or subculture suits them best and how they can activate it in the long term. This includes existing customers of the Serviceplan Group, but also new customers. Our "De/Coding Culture" approach is primarily about understanding culture or subculture holistically - values, norms, language, channels, influencers, trends. Learning how to navigate within these cultures. These are all codes that we literally decode for brands. This also goes hand in hand with the relevant difference: we don't want to achieve short-term on/off campaigning, but rather enable culturally sensitive marketing, with and for culture, with and for brands. For us at Serviceplan Culture, relevance - or rather substance - are standards that ultimately make the difference and prove the seriousness of a brand in the cultural marketing environment.

What do you think: How could communication change in the long term if a cultural approach is adopted by most companies?

First and foremost, it will be more closely tailored to the realities of consumers' lives. It's already great to see how cultural marketing is finding its way natively into consulting and not turning all processes, rules or measures upside down. But it can be the "head opener" to completely rethink target group thinking, content creator relations and creative measures. And I firmly believe that the learning factor should not be underestimated in a dynamic marketing world. If brands learn from the voice of culture, but also if the voice of culture understands brands and their goals, then a big step has been taken towards making cultural marketing a central component of the advertising mix.


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