Way back in 2000, Shaziya Khan, JWT Planning, Mumbai, won an Atticus award for her paper The Impact of Media on Identity, in which she wrote about Imagined Communities and argued that the task of media practitioners should be to build communities around a brand. Something that has become the order of the day today.
This is what her paper said back then…
The Impact of Media on Identity
The media shape identity. Those working in the media business understand its impact in familiar but somewhat superficial measures like reach and recall. However, from a deeper socio-cultural perspective the media are seen to have a more fundamental impact - shaping collective identity. When we understand that, we become better media practitioners.
The evidence proves that the media impact collective identity in two ways:
1) The media create 'imagined communities': the media shape a collective identity that enables people to imagine a connectedness on a broader than local scale, linking people who may never physically meet. This is because the media afford a sense of participation, a celebration of the instantaneous 'this-is-going-on' culture.
2) Due to the media, our imagining is bifocal i.e. global and local: Global media events ignore geographical and cultural boundaries. This has led to this age being called the age of hyper space in which media events create new geographies of the world and its inhabitants. While I would not go so far as McKenzie Wark, who argues 'we no longer have roots, we have aerials', I would conclude that due to the media our imagining is increasingly bifocal - global and local.What does the impact of media on collective identity imply for media practitioners? Given that media technology is shifting rapidly and media habits of people are changing rapidly, there is a call for a more holistic approach toward the hugely expanded choices available to media practitioners. To add value from the centre and synergise the impact of diverse activities used for brand building, I believe that understanding the impact of media on identity provides useful applications. And these apply to all media businesses, helping us to become wiser media practitioners.
Creating Imagined Communities
If we accept that the real power of the media is to create imagined communities - then there is a paradigm shift in how we work in the media business. Let’s take a hypothetical scenario from a ‘brand communication company’ working on Pond’s talcum powder for modern Indian women.
Paradigm shift # 1: redefining our jobs
The task of media businesses is not merely to 'reach' or target a selected community but in fact to create this imagined community. In political and cultural spheres, the media have been effectively harnessed to create imagined communities. In our businesses we sit, atop the same power that created revolutions, gave birth to nations and changed cultural tastes. Are we harnessing it? In fact, before we do that, do we even understand what it is capable of? There is no community 'out there', the community has always to be created. For example, the communication for Pond's talcum powder in India is not merely targeted to the modern Indian woman. The task of the communication is to create this imagined community of modern women.
Paradigm shift # 2: redefining our starting point
If our job is to create an imagined community, then the starting point is identifying what values bind this community together. There are legendary brands that have already demonstrated this successfully. And achieved near cult status in the process. For example, Harley Davidson, whose values are freedom, individuality and respect. Identifying its core values and living up to them, is the key to building an imagined community around a brand. Simple. This means we don't start with a neatly defined target audience (though a likely target group is profiled at some stage) but we start with and focus on the values the brand wants to stand for.
Relatedly, a) These can be known or acceptable values such as 'eco friendly' is today or these can be unknown and radical values such as 'equal rights' was a few centuries back.
b) These values are going to be best articulated by leaders of the imagined community who may be inside or outside the particular media business. Their involvement at the starting point enriches the process of creation.
Paradigm shift # 3: redefining our measures
The measure of how well we do our job is what degree of connectedness or comradeship we build among members of our imagined community. This implies that measures of media effectiveness have to include more qualitative parameters. Using only quantitative measures, simplifies rather than manages the complexity of measuring media impact and effectiveness. If a handful of photocopied pamphlets can cause a revolution, we certainly have reason to believe that it is quality of involvement with the media in addition to size of audience that evidences its real effectiveness. And we need to figure out how to capture this. What the internet has taught us is that 'intrusion marketing' is going to die. 'Permission marketing' is in. Consumers will be part of communities that they like to be part of. Capturing people's imagination is a tough thing to do and a tough thing to measure. But we need to find out ways to do that.
Creating Bifocal Imagining
Since the media increasingly engender bifocal (global and local) imagining among people, this implies that potentially almost everyone can be well read and well travelled... just from sitting in front of the computer or television screen. Bifocal imagining holds rich promise for all our diverse media businesses - it simultaneously makes our canvass richer and demands that it be so. Creating 'killer content', providing the 'e' factor and other similar arguments build a strong case for 'content being king'. Of course, richer, sassier, friendlier, punchier content is always better. The concept of bifocal imagining provides an insight into how we can deliver it. In design and copy, there would be a need for richer and faster cross border flows of ethnic signs, symbols and lingo making for a more cosmopolitan creative canvass. To give a small example, today, guru (a Hindi word) and spiel (a Jewish word) are some imports into spoken and written English. However, in the future, copy and design, books and screenplays will be much richer due to increased "export-import" (a gem of 'Indian English', which is in itself an art form!) of cultural artefacts made possible due to bifocal imagining. The process has already begun. To quote Manoj Night Shyamalan, the 28 year old South Indian writer and director of the film 'The Sixth Sense': "I don't make choices that are just America, or just Philadelphia where I live, it's more about what my grandma is going to think, what my friends in Hong Kong are going to think. It's all a global feeling, [...] it's nice to think about that because it is a world audience."
These are exciting times to work in the media business. It's a business of ideas and of the imagination. And, as we've seen it can really have a powerful impact. A sign at one of the world's highest natural bungee jumps (111 metres) on the Zambezi river says: 'If you're standing on the edge you're occupying too much space'. It's a sign for media practitioners as well. Are they creating imagined communities and bifocal imagining or are they just occupying space?