4 Dominant Trends in Marketing, Messaging, and Copywriting…

“Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.” ~ John Naisbitt

Caveat Emptor…

This article isn’t based on a series of case studies. Although statistics and case studies would likely make the content of this article more persuasive, it would also mean that I’d need to oversimplify to fit the statistics and therefore lose a bit of nuance.

At some point in the future, marketing/messaging will fully become a science. That will likely happen when machine learning gets good enough to account for a certain percentage of human psychological and cultural variables. It’s probably inevitable, but we’re not there yet.

Until that happens, your best bet is (a) to learn certain marketing fundamentals and (b) to pay attention to what’s different right now.

This article is solely about (b) what’s different right now…

Shifting Cultural Discourses…

Intuitively, we all know that cultural discourses change.

You don’t believe the same things as your parents or grandparents. But more importantly, you don’t live by the same stories/myths, and you don’t relate to other people in the same ways.

Your grandparents might have been instilled with strict social etiquette, like referring to their elders as “sir” or “ma’am”. Your parents might have tried to “fit in” in ways that you find silly or dumb.

It’s obvious that you think differently from “generations” before you.

It’s also clear that the stories you live by and the ways that you relate to other people ALSO control (or at least influence) how you act as a consumer. What’s required for you to trust someone? Do you need to know them personally like your great-grandparents likely did? Do you value loyalty in the same way your parents might have?

Business is simply a particular way of humans relating to each other. And because of that, the stories we tell about ourselves, others, and our relationships are paramount to how business relationships get formed, maintained, strengthened, and broken.

However, very few companies or marketers keep up with the changes they should be on top of.

The Last 30 Years…

Cultural narratives are always changing, and from what historical and anthropological evidence we have, it’s likely that cultural narratives have always shifted.

But over the past 30 or so years, they’ve started shifting incredibly fast. The most obvious reason is because digital technology can rapidly reach almost everybody in the world in an instant.

When you combine that with the fact that humans are a species that herd, it means that humans can be quickly influenced to shift from one narrative to another.

That’s not the only reason, of course. There are socio-economic forces at play, as well as any number of other factors.

But technological change isn’t slowing down, and it’s having a huge impact on how you need to interact with potential (or current) customers.

Trend #1: The Individual

Individualism has long been a hallmark of culture in the US. And particularly in the 80s and 90s, individualism was the guiding philosophy in how we tried to raise kids and even structure many of our laws.

But more than (maybe) ever, all of your marketing and copywriting MUST be focused on the individual…

There are 3 big reasons this is the case:

  1. Kids raised in the individualism of the 80s and 90s have now grown up to be individualistic consumers.
  2. Technology makes is more possible than ever to actually start delivering individual solutions.
  3. A series of factors (corporatization, increased movement away from families, big governments, globalization, the internet, etc.) have made people feel less “important” than ever.

#3 above is particularly important. A slew of technological advances over the past 150 years have removed most people from “traditional”’ settings like villages and communities. Over the past 30 years, those changes have accelerated. Most of our daily interactions are with relative strangers, and we increasingly interact with people only in their role as an “employee” or representative of an amorphous entity, like an airline, bank, or government.

The result is that people don’t feel like they know or trust the person with whom they’re interacting. And they also don’t feel important.

For your marketing, this means that you must focus on 2 things:

  1. You must do everything possible to make your customer feel like you’re providing them with individual solutions. This might mean a customized product or it might just mean more personalized customer service.
  2. You must personalize yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the owner(s) has to be personalized, but various aspects of your company (employees, past customers, etc.) must have individual faces, names, and stories.

Can you get by without these sorts of “individualization”?

You can, but we don’t live in a time where Coca Cola or Ford are entities that we implicitly trust. In fact, overall trust in institutions is going to stay low for a while longer, although it’ll eventually come back as it always has.

Much of this is mirrored by a populist movement in politics. From Trump to Brexit to numerous other countries around the world, citizens are attempting in various ways to tear down institutions.

How this plays out in your business and your marketing will vary a lot. In all likelihood, you need one or more people to be the face of your company/marketing. You could argue that this has always been a better way of marketing, but even if that were true (it’s not), having that individual is more important than it’s been in a long time.

Trend #2: Relaxed Conversation

People feel very “manipulated” right now. We could attribute this to a lot of things, although in some ways, it’s technically true. We all have tons of information, ads, and messages overwhelming us every day.

And our un-evolved brains are relatively defenseless against the slew of algorithms that have been designed to engage us in games, social media, television, and other tech wonders.

More than that, though, people are tired. They’re physically fatigued and emotionally drained. Again, there are many reasons for this, but most of them relate to a modern lifestyle (diet, sitting, weak social connections, etc.) that aren’t aligned with our biology.

The result of all of this is that you can’t have the same type of conversation with your customers that you could have 30 years ago (or even 10 years ago, really). In particular, the conversation must feel more genuine, authentic, and conversational (meant only with a bit of irony).

We all have a mental picture of a “used-car salesman” style of selling that is pushy and overt. In general, that was never a good way to sell.

The difference now, though, is that even very positive emotions like excitement and anticipation are not emotions that you can typically lead with.

If you want to see evidence of this, scroll through all of the most popular netflix shows. 9 out of 10 shows are driven by an underlying melancholy. Even superheroes like Batman and Superman – which from the 50s through 80s were playful – are now complicated and conflicted.

Your company’s messaging certainly doesn’t need to be melancholy or morose. However, it does need to be increasingly understated and “conversational”. You’ve got to engage your audience where they’re at, and that means also engaging them at the same energy level, which is relatively low right now.

It also means being more relaxed. Along with Trend #1 – a bigger focus on the individual – your messaging must feel like a 1-to-1 conversation that they’d have with their friend or family member. This applies to emails, texts, sales copy, ads, and of course, conversations.

Some companies are terrible at this. Airlines like United come to mind, where responses to PR crises continually sound like they were drafted by lawyers from 1,000 miles away. On the other hand, AirBNB – despite various criticisms – has built a customer service experience that routinely delivers conversations and interactions that make its customers feel valued and relaxed.

Trend #3: Nostalgia and Fear

Change is always a little bit scary to humans. But the speed of change in the early 20th century is absolutely daunting.

Shawn Coyne – a well-known editor – has noted that this is the reason that fiction books based around hard science are no longer popular. In the 80s and 90s, books like Jurassic Park were exciting and adventurous. But today, books based around “hard science” are simply too much for people who are already overwhelmed at the change occurring right now in their lives.

What’s much more popular are books based around fear and nostalgia. Some examples are fantastical (like The Walking Dead), but others seem closer to home (like the dystopian world of Ready Player One).

And nostalgia is a simple extension of this fear – a wish for a return to a safer and “better” world. Trump’s slogan of Make America Great Again is a particularly powerful example.

You can use this trend in a variety of ways. Personally, I don’t love stoking fear – just my own ethical preference. However, you also shouldn’t ignore the fear and uncertainty that your customers are feeling. At the very least, you must acknowledge that fear, show them that you understand it, and then promise that you can make it a little bit better in some way.

You MUST reassure your audience more than you needed to even 10 or 20 years ago.

Facebook is an example of a company that has not yet caught onto this trend. Breach of privacy is currently a huge fear for large segments of the population, and although Facebook has made conciliatory gestures, it has yet to display an understanding of the depth of this fear. On the other hand, right-wing media outlets like Breitbart or Big League Politics routinely display mastery of relating to the fears and nostalgia of their readers.

Trend #4: Quest for Meaning

To be fair, humans have probably always sought out meaning – both in their lives and in their circumstances.

But over the past 150 or so years, technologies from transportation to communication have thrown us far outside of our “traditional” lives. And it’s not that this is a “bad” thing, per se. However, it is unnerving to individuals who are evolved to rely on group myths and stories to tell them what the meaning of their lives should be.

Joseph Campbell discussed this topic at length when discussing the loss of cultural myths to guide individuals. But it’s gone way beyond what he could have imagined.

Today, most people are searching – either knowingly or unwittingly – for someone or something to give them meaning.

From a marketing and messaging perspective, that’s now your job. And it’s not an easy task.

Traditionally, meaning would come from a few places, but primarily (a) how an individual fit into and contributed to the group/community and (b) the stories/myths that were passed down through the community. Individuals would use those stories/myths for perspective on their lives, and they would relate to the community through those myths.

From a marketing/messaging perspective, you must now create or re-create meaning for your customers. That can be done through existing stories and communities, such as vegan communities and crusades for animal welfare. Or you can do it through new communities and myths. Kylie Jenner is a decent (if controversial) example of the latter, having built her community around relatively new visions of beauty and self.

This last trend is tough, and very few companies have been able to take full advantage, but the opportunity is growing in this respect.

A Partial Glimpse

Like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, there is much to see below the surface of these trends. In particular, all 4 trends are really driven by an evolutionary mismatch between the pace of change in our lives and our brains.

More than that, there are secondary trends, some of which are already well-known. For instance, it’s no secret that audio and video are virtually indispensable as marketing channels. What’s overlooked are the reasons why – because of the individuality and conversations that those mediums engender.

These trends also affect much more than your marketing, copywriting, and messaging. They affect the ways we relate to each other socially and politically. And in some instances, they present enormous challenges. However, that uncertainty is also the source of great opportunity if you get ahead of these trends.