Culture is the new media... And brands are its memes

"Brands are no longer being built in the ad break but out on the streets, in the world, in culture."

It was another sunny week in the South of France as the global creative community gathered for the 66th Cannes Lions. Winding my way along the Croisette, I was struck by how the most important conversations were not being held at the hallowed Palais, but on the streets and beaches where creativity flows freely. It’s a perfect analogy for what is happening across the advertising world. Brands are no longer being built in the ad break but out on the streets, in the world, in culture.

Throughout the week, the speakers, conversations and award-winning work reflected one central idea – the notion that culture is the new media, and brands are its memes.

Culture arises from interactions between people and, in our hyperconnected world, culture actually functions as a medium. And what would culture be without its memes?
When using the word "meme," I am not using it colloquially (as in an Internet Meme) but rather the way Richard Dawkins intended when he coined the term in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, a meme is a unit of culture – an idea or behavior that leaps from one brain to the next, not unlike the way a gene moves from body to body. If culture is indeed the new medium, then it stands to reason that brands – those powerful proxies for information and experience – are some of its most fundamental memes. While I’ve been thinking about this idea for some time, the best of this year’s festival bore out this hypothesis.

Proctor & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard put out the call to action, as he spoke about P&G’s determination to find an alternative to advertising. 70% of people find advertising annoying, and P&G realizes that there needs to be a new and better way to connect. Fortunately, many of this year’s big winners shone a light on exactly what those new ways could be.

Among those winners, Nike’s multi-award winning campaign, "Dream Crazy," epitomizes the power of brands as memes. This campaign literally kicked off with a meme. It may not look like a meme in the traditional sense, but that is exactly what it was – an image annotated with a single statement that landed in culture like a grenade and set the world abuzz.

"Whopper Detour," another big winner, demonstrated how brand memes can both convince a massive audience of an idea and persuade them to take action. And despite being worlds apart in both form and function,  "Keeping Fortnite Fresh" for Wendy’s and "The Last Ever Issue" for, B&P Paribas, and Mastercard were powerful examples of ideas that use culture as their canvas without relying on any paid media to deliver their message. All of this work was ultimately honored with Grand Prix awards.

This is not to say that paid media doesn’t still play a critical role; it does. Masterfully executed campaigns like New York Times’ "The Truth Is Worth It" should serve as inspiration to fill the ad break with work that is exceptional instead of simply relying on a captive audience.

In the end, this approach to brand building can be summarized in a single soundbite that I heard in the darkened Lumiere Theatre. It was succinct and profound -- "Tell the stories that your audience wants to hear." This year’s Cannes winners recognize that culture is the new media and brands are memes that, when shaped correctly, have the ability to grow and spread - changing minds, changing behaviors, and changing the world.

Jason Xenopoulos is VMLY&R CEO of New York and CCO of North America.

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