Will Hyper-Fragmentation Bring the End of Shared Meaning?

Brand fame is still achievable in a new communications era

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This year marked a definitive turn in the U.S. media narrative, as time spent with online video overtook TV for the first time. Americans logged an average 3 hours and 11 minutes a day consuming online video, compared with 2 hours and 55 minutes watching television. The era of captivating mass audiences with communal media moments thus appears to be over.

Forty years ago, nearly 106 million Americans united for the M*A*S*H series finale, representing 59% of the adult population. The recent passing of Matt Perry struck a collective chord, perhaps nostalgia for a special type of parasocial relationship with TV icons woven into the collective consciousness of millions. User-generated content now accounts for 39% of all content consumed; meanwhile, nearly half of YouTube viewing takes place on television sets, more than any other individual TV outlet including Netflix.

We’re hurtling toward a kind of media singularity where all media melds into the digital domain and the term “digital” itself becomes meaningless. This landscape is often characterized as one of context collapse—a breakdown of communal meaning into multiple abstract fragments, forsaking shared experiences for insulated echo chambers. A sense of detachment looms, leaving us feeling alienated and adrift, with a loss of what the Germans call gemeinschaft, a sense of community and common ground.

For mass consumer brands, this is a big problem. Not merely in terms of reaching audiences, but in crafting the shared meaning that underpins the bedrock of their value.

People simply don’t have the time to assess thousands of brand choices every day. So what others say, use and buy has a huge impact on making these choices easier. Simply put, people like brands that they know other people like—a well-known beer brand, for example, is going to be a safer choice when buying for guests at a party versus a niche brand few have tried.

Meanwhile, hypertargeting threatens to scatter us further. Yes, it will be possible in the future to ask a machine to conjure a personalized, 10-part HBO miniseries about your favorite childhood toy solving mysteries in a Nordic noir style, but just because you can create individualized content doesn’t mean you should. 

Brands aren’t solo constructs; they have shared meaning across many minds. And building brands at a micro level is impossible—communicating to many utilizes “costly signaling,” with perceived high-expense media to show that the seller has a reputation worth investing in, while targeting one person outside of public scrutiny invites suspicion.

Fewer mass moments and the allure of personalized targeting are reflected in the marked decline in advertising effectiveness in IPA case studies observed in Binet and Field’s analysis since 2012. 

Fame is still the answer

Let’s not abandon hope prematurely. As the advertising great John Hegarty said: Principles remain, practices change.

Binet and Field define fame-driving activities as any activation that sparks conversation, whether in the digital realm or the comfort of one’s living room. Fame remains the key to unlocking incremental sales, profitability and sustaining price premium, among other business effects. Advertisers need both types of fame: overarching (being known by many) and resonating (being desired by many).

The internet amplifies the reach of those who ascend its ranks. Take Tube Girl: Sabrina Bahsoon’s video catapulted her overnight from the London Underground to the echelons of Paris Fashion Week and partnerships with MAC Cosmetics and Bentley.

Memes suggest a culture that desperately seeks shared community. Some are born from cultural moments mixing with the innate weirdness of the internet—see Kendall Roy’s transformation into social media’s favorite “babygirl,” or “He’s just Ken” fueled by the all-conquering Barbie phenomenon this summer. Others, such as the Anakin-Padme meme, are more slow-burn, accruing widespread meaning over time until they hit a critical mass where universal comprehension allows for subversion and playful riffing.

Internet culture has become mainstream culture—”As Seen on TV” has been replaced with #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt.

How to be internet famous

A key driver of fame is standing out from the sea of conformity. Algorithms reward arresting and distinctive content with eyeballs, and consumers reciprocate with their wallets further down the line.

In May 2022, 91% of those aged 18-25 in the U.S. agreed, “There is no such thing as mainstream pop culture anymore.” But the question was just a tiny bit leading. After all, we’re also told Gen Z “prefer brands with a sound ethical purpose” in a world where Shein exists.

It’s a paradox that culture among young people is both more complex and more homogenous than previous generations. The distinct cultural codes, music, dress and style of different subcultures—goth, punk, techno, grunge, emo, indie—have been replaced by a more fluid, multifaceted outlook, dipping in and out of different interests and passions like a cultural magpie. 

Young people arguably now exist in a more globalized, shared culture, with more common ground between them than is assumed. This means new ideas can be quickly shared across borders to millions of people. However, it is much harder to build mass reach and consensus across generations.

The key to relevance starts with listening but not simply reacting to every passing trend, which starts with using social listening tools to identify previously untapped contexts and conversations that align with what they have to say before making their move. Brands need to get strategic with what they do and don’t try to be a part of.

Culture mapping your audience’s interests is a good place to start investigating areas of potential. However, this also means brands need to get comfortable with appealing to one subculture at a time and scaling up their commitment quickly once they get a foothold with any particular interest group.

As the gatekeepers of culture, creators offer a valuable shortcut to get started. But brands need to tread carefully to establish their credentials in the space. Viewers know the score with paid promotions, and any partnership that feels off-key is damaging to both brand and creator.

Beyond authenticity, brands should signal the level of trust with creators to cement the brand meaning—for example, allowing them to play with their distinctive brand codes in refreshing new ways, demonstrating a level of integration far beyond mere product placement.

Keeping the brand before the public

Shared meaning and brand fame are still desirable, and achievable, in 2024. But it requires a shift from winning share of voice within an enclave to winning a share of mind in the broader culture. Each channel still boasts a unique strength: Out of home stands as the last truly broadcast bastion; cinema leverages its immersive scale; social media thrives on the sharing and remixing of culture. Online video, contrary to the naysayers, rivals television in eliciting the emotional resonance essential for enduring brand-building. 

TV will still be able to charge a considerable premium for the rare moments when it can recapture the shared glories of the past. This year’s record-breaking single-channel viewership of 115 million tuning into Super Bowl 57 is testament to the enduring allure of communal experiences. But the rewards for brands that can maintain visibility, embrace public-facing narratives, avoid the siren call of hyper-personalization and sustain cultural relevance are substantial.

Collective moments stand as islands of common ground in the vast oceans of content. The pursuit of these shared moments is paramount for the enduring health of mass-market brands.