How Manufacturers Are Constructed With Cultural Credibility
Sociologists refer to the group of people and organizations that create and market a cultural product such as a record album, film, shoe style or football game as a cultural production system (CPS). The structure of a CPS determines the types of products it creates. Factors such as the number and variety of competing systems influence the selection of products from which we choose at any given point in time. For example, an analysis of the country / western music industry has shown that the hit records it produces are similar when a few big companies dominate the industry, but when more labels are competing we see more diversity in musical styles .
A cultural production system has three main subsystems:
- A creative subsystem for generating new symbols and products
- A management subsystem for selecting, tangible, producing and managing the distribution of new symbols and products
- A communication subsystem that gives meaning to the new product and provides it with a symbolic set of attributes
An example of the three components of a cultural production system for a music publication is (1) a singer (e.g., Beyoncé, a creative subsystem); (2) a company (e.g. Columbia Records sells Beyoncé’s CDs, so it is a management subsystem); and (3) the advertising agencies and companies promoting the product as a communications subsystem (e.g., PepsiCo works with Beyoncé’s company Parkwood Entertainment to promote their music and their appearances in venues such as the Super Bowl and even in limited editions of arranging Pepsi soda cans).
As we know only too well, not all cultural products are successful. In fact, the vast majority never make it past the cutting room floor. In fact, it is literally impossible for every fashion label, new album, potato chip flavor, or lamp design to thrive. Consumers just don’t have the time, bandwidth, or money to buy everything that’s thrown at them (as some may valiantly try). They need agents in the system to work out the options for them so that the hyper-election tsunami doesn’t sweep over them. Think of this vast ocean of options flowing into a huge funnel – only a (relatively) small fraction of those options trickle out at the other end for buyers to think about.
The need for these gatekeepers shows why amateur bloggers, for example, have become such a force to be reckoned with in industries as diverse as clothing, tech, and wine. Contrary to what some observers claim, we still need “experts” to sift through the ocean of options for us. What has changed is that the potential pool of expertise is no longer limited to the people and institutions, such as “intellectual elites” and legacy publications like Vogue, which traditionally held power.
The goalkeepers and flavor makers
This is where marketing agents step in to create value. Many cultural goalkeepers or flavor makers have a huge say in the products we consider. They filter the overflow of information as it runs down the “funnel”. Gatekeepers include movie, restaurant, and car reviewers. Interior designers; Disc jockeys; Retail buyers; Magazine editors; and, increasingly, a fan base obsessively following and sharing the latest gossip, styles, TV and movie storylines, and other bits of popular culture. Sociologists call this group of agents the throughput sector.
But here’s a twist: Nowadays, many of the new gatekeepers are algorithms as AI (Artificial Intelligence) applications take center stage to sift through vast amounts of data and recommend decisions to us. For example, startups like Mezi and Hello Hipmunk learn customer preferences over time so they can tailor travel recommendations for picky vacationers.
The authentication kings
This fundamental change presents both traditional centers of excellence with a challenge and a new opportunity for newcomers. Nowadays, the certification has an enormous market value, ie the proof that one is actually entitled to comment on the “right” clothing styles, the best wines, the most modern technologies, etc. according to a standard.
An example of this struggle for credibility is the trend towards assigning micro-degrees (or nano-trees) in the technology sector. These credentials, offered by online education disruptors like Coursera and Udacity, result in older high-level agents getting stuck in the CPS. Micro degrees certify specialist knowledge of specific skills employers want without the price of an entire degree.
Similar “guild issues” in terms of consensus on who is an expert – and thus qualified to curate consumer choices – are as diverse as physical conditioning (e.g., the National Strength and Conditioning Association versus ” Upstarts ”like CrossFit), psychiatrists versus“ upstarts ”social workers, and even the right of Orthodox rabbis to certify who is Jewish to those in other branches of Judaism. There will be winners and losers for sure, but we can expect a growing demand for agents to provide these services – and opportunities await companies that recognize this need and seek to fill the gaps in this growing market.
The democratization of the internet, ironically, increases the need for professionals to select and curate worthy content. So it’s important to appreciate the role YOU play in the vast ecosystem of the marketplace. While no single designer, company, or advertising agency creates a popular culture, everyone plays a role and adds value to what end users wear, hear, read, eat, and drive. In almost every industry there are numerous opportunities for intermediaries to take on the role of curator. Consumers crave simplification and are willing to pay a premium for services that separate the wheat from the chaff.
End users also want to demonstrate that they are able to distinguish between a silk handbag and a boar’s ear. As a result, there is also a huge market for credentials services that provide nanotrees that focus on very specific skills. We are slowly moving away from the one-size-fits-all-degree model. The new version offers students of all types the ability to customize a resume with a collection of “badges” that signal mastery of very specific skills, be it computer coding, SEO or film editing.
Contribution to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of “Marketers, Tear Down These Walls!”.
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