Virtually Together

In a second week of isolation, the Crowd DNA NYC team have been recording their experiences…

As the world is driven further into isolation, and terms like ‘quarantine’ and ‘social distancing’ become commonplace, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our lives just got a whole lot lonelier. At work, we no longer sit directly next to our colleagues. We no longer meet our friends for coffee, go to the movies together, or exercise in a room full of strangers. As for most brands, the in-store experience is indefinitely on hold. Yet despite our new found physical isolation, we’re finding interesting ways to connect.

At Crowd DNA New York, we wanted to explore how we’re now doing that connecting. Whether it’s shifting social gatherings online, virtually supporting local businesses or simply getting nearer to ourselves, we’re finding new ways to boost our sense of closeness in this physically isolated world.

Check out the video below.

How To Care

Crowd DNA New York’s Eden Lauffer and Lizzy Hussey interrogate the semiotic codes that brands are employing amid the Covid-19 crisis, as they reach out to let people know that they are there for them...

If you’re living on planet Earth and have email, chances are you’ve received a few (or tons) of missives informing you how various brands are reacting to Covid-19.

We’ve stretched our semiotic muscles, analyzing email marketing received over the last five days to uncover what these brands have been saying – and more importantly – how.

Readers of our semiotics content hopefully recall that normally we explore a relevant topic through the lens of one brand. But these are not usual times. What’s noteworthy at the moment is that most brands have felt compelled to communicate their response over the same medium. Looking at the different ways they’ve done so lets us unpack how verbal and visual cues affect the ways we culturally understand ‘responsibility’ and ‘care.’

Care as a formal reassurance

As crisis grips, the need for voices of confidence, clarity and unwavering strength become more important than ever.

One company we see leaning into this code is Target. A recent email from their CEO was filled with strong, guiding language like ‘committed,’ ‘determined,’ and ‘purpose.’ Cueing confidence and decisiveness, this language works to ensure Target’s customers feel protected and enables the brand to adopt the position of a responsible and trustworthy leader.

Further underscoring this sense of respect and formality is the email’s left-aligned text, which acts as a visual manifestation of order. And where the brand usually relies on lively, bright red visuals and images of smiling people, this email forewent heavy branding or imagery.

By visually deprioritizing the brand, Target is literally conveying that it takes a backseat to public safety and the national interest. The email closes with the CEO’s signature, a final signal of formality and personal responsibility, and one that indicates how some brands are semiotically behaving more like public institutions than commercial enterprises. This alignment with a national message, as almost a civic call to duty, engages the brand with the people they seek to comfort and bolster.

Brands such as Target address customers using formal, left aligned text; while the likes of Seamless instead convey a message reminiscent of a poem calling for unity
Brands such as Target address customers using formal, left aligned text; while the likes of Seamless instead convey a message reminiscent of a poem calling for unity

Care as community support

As we’ve retreated indoors, concern for small and local businesses has spurred social posts urging us, as neighbors, to get creative in our support. We’ve also seen brands such as Uber Eats adopt this code of community into their outreach.

Speaking with collective nouns like ‘our’ and ‘we,’ and choosing to write from their entire team (vs. an individual CEO) establishes a peer-to-peer tonality that emphasizes community, and positions Uber Eats as part of it.

This is supported by language choices like the header: ‘We’re in this together. Let’s support local restaurants,’ and the deliberately local-first tone, which highlights small business owners and workers, delivery personnel, and first responders in need. The subtle use of green throughout the note bolsters cues for growth and community renewal.

Though this is expressed differently, in aligning themselves with the community, Uber Eats is another example of a brand behaving like an institution rather than a commercial offering.

Care as a brief respite

While the previous two codes of care confront Covid-19 head-on, a few brands have taken a different approach.

Local fast-casual chain, Dig Inn, for instance, does not explicitly refer to Covid-19 once in its communication. Instead, its language – with the opening line ‘A lot of things are changing, but your lunch doesn’t have to be one of them’ – offers both support, but also respite from the constant flow of coverage; it reassures readers that some elements of normalcy and their routine can remain.

While the font is simple and the message concise, even the use of Dig Inn’s typically bold and bright images of their natural and vibrant food permits a sense of respite, cueing the pleasure and sensory stimulation that is lacking in more formal brand comms (eg Target, Uber Eats).

Rather than a letter from the CEO, Uber play to community, signing off from the team as a whole. Dig Inn's bright imagery and messaging evokes normalcy
Rather than a letter from the CEO, Uber play to community, signing off from the team as a whole. Dig Inn's bright imagery and messaging evokes normalcy

How to care

We all care. And demonstrating that care as a value is more important than ever right now. It’s admirable and vital that brands are ready and willing to take up their social roles and help the planet manage and recover from its current plight.

It’s also very important, as a brand, to be able to express a sense of responsibility and offer reassurance in a way that is both culturally relevant and effective. What this post underlines is that there are many ways to express this care, each with differing implications for how it positions you in the cultural landscape.


At Crowd DNA, we’re learning fast about how to work under current conditions. We’re adjusting our methods and already working on Covid-19-related briefs for clients in areas such as alcohol, media, retail, home and luxury. Check in with us if you’d like to find out more.

What does trust look like in a world of economic uncertainty? Crowd DNA semiotician, Bridget Dalton, explores the future of trust in the age of the digital bank...

It feels like a truism to say that banks must communicate trust. But in a financial world that has been churning since the crash of 2008 – alongside frequent innovation from ‘challenger’ banks responding to a new generation of consumers – the way that trust is communicated is very much anyone’s game.

Culturally, we’re moving away from trust narratives located in one well and/or long established place or person. Consumers are looking for new representations of trust that can accommodate change, impermanence and flux. So how can banking brands (traditionally a category for which stability is important) build trust in this context? 

In the second post of our Semiotics At Crowd series, we’re looking at Starling Bank. The digital banking service was founded in 2014 and offers personal, business, joint and euro accounts. From a semiotic standpoint, it also sheds interesting light on future-facing narratives of trust and fluidity in finance, as well as how brands can approach an ambition to grow older customer bases in fintech. Below, we’ve used Starling to explore three new codes of trust in the age of the digital bank.

1. Trust as fluid and always in motion

The murmuration of birds in Starling’s comms demonstrates a very clear shift when it comes to trust in finance. Compared to the permanence of bricks and mortar banking represented by long established institutions, trust is now in the nimble ability to react and change (think from bullion to bitcoin). The group of starlings appears to duck and dive at random, bolting through the landscape along an unpredictable course. But, the birds are also always in perfect formation; instinctive and fluid, efficient and elegant. There’s room for individual flight, but they are able to regroup at any moment. 

“Starling’s birds are a far cry from the guardianship of, say, Barclay’s eagle – static and watchful. Instead, they’re adaptable and able to respond to changing environments.”

Starling’s troop of birds are a far cry from the guardianship of, say, Barclay’s eagle – static and watchful. Instead, they are adaptable and able to respond to a changing environment. Coding money itself as fluid and changeable, as opposed to singular and steady. The starling comms represent thoughtful but fast freedom. By using the image of the birds in flight, Starling is suggesting that today trust is about enabling consumers to have confidence and range through intuitive structures, that are always ready to respond to the environment.

2. Trust as authority, balanced by youthful pleasure

Starling’s livery allows the brand to sit between the established formality of traditional banking and the bright, disruptive optimism of a challenger bank. From a semiotic point of view, Monzo’s neon orange card redefines our relationship with finance; the payment moment becomes enlivened, almost irreverent and youthful. Starling’s colour palette is a balance between the dark blue seriousness of traditional authority and the refreshing, swimming pool turquoise of light-hearted pleasure. 

The use of the blue colour wheel strongly evokes the soothing holism of wellness apps, such as Headspace and Calm, and codes trust as about reassurance, transparency and support. This balance allows Starling to effectively communicate trust to consumers across generational divides. The brand maintains a sense of dependability for older consumers, while also inviting the suggestion of excitement and difference for a younger audience.

3. Trust as independence, and as part of wellbeing

Bó, NatWest’s new digital arm, leads with the message: ‘Do money better’. While the language might be casual and jargon free it is still, at its heart, instructive and authoritarian. This type of disciplinarian command, even when it’s framed by modern, wellness aesthetics, connotes the former banking mode of establishing trust: we know best and you must do as we say.

Starling also employs the casual vernacular ‘feel good’ but takes a far softer, more emotional approach. Trust across multiple categories (eg fitness and wellbeing) is increasingly about establishing legitimacy through demonstrating authentic care for consumers. This is amplified in the eminently gentle: ‘You’re not bad with money. You’re just with the wrong bank’ strapline, which is a significant rearrangement of the relationship between a consumer and their financial services. The word ‘you’re’ combines direct address and the active verb to connote positive affirmation and agency. By explicitly locating the source of financial woes at the feet of the banks, Starling is able to offer financial rehabilitation to consumers and build trust through the idea that the bank, in fact, trusts the consumer. Within Starling’s comms we find holistic ideas around financial health and emotional wellbeing coalescing in one space.

“Starling is taking careful semiotic steps to redefine trust in the financial landscape, coding it as strongly linked to wellness, fluidity and peer-to-peer support.”

Overall, Starling is taking careful semiotic steps to redefine the meaning of trust in the financial landscape, coding it as strongly linked to wellness, fluidity and peer-to-peer support. The brand is achieving this without alienating older consumers by repurposing some established cues of financial trust within a more future-facing context. Starling is making some measured strides in the category coding of trust – but just like in life, in culture, and in semiotics, building trust takes time and work. 

Need help talking trust? Get in touch at: hello@crowdDNA.com

Come join our latest crack cultural insights team, as we look to grow in Australia...

We’re about seven months into our Sydney adventure and things are going well. We have a small but super-talented team of three (plus lots of support from our other offices); a growing track record for delivering exciting work across categories such as alcohol, finance, tech and media; LOTS of meeting in the diary; and highly regarded thought leadership material that we’re sharing, around themes such as gender and generational change.

What next? We’re looking for recruits to join us in a leafy Chippendale HQ, to meet our strong ambitions to grow the team. In particular, we’re seeking a director/associate director level hire.

Here’s the lowdown:

– You need to have the confidence and necessary experience to take the controls of large and sometimes complex projects; to be an informed, energised and trusted advisor to our clients

– We’re looking for strong evidence of experience in areas such as brand positioning, proposition development, growth strategies, trends exploration and innovation/transformation projects

– A clear ability to fuse cultural insight to sound strategic thinking

– You’ll bring with you skills such as desk and qual research, interacting with experts and influencers, developing frameworks and personas, and using diverse data sources (for instance, social media listening)

– Also of working on high quality proposals and project design – plus a demonstrable interest in devising strategies for bringing new clients on board and bolstering existing client relationships

– We’re looking for someone who can bring a real sense of craft to their work – from the outputs they produce and strategic recommendations they devise, to how they run workshops and articulate fresh ideas that have cultural-commercial relevance

– We want someone who’s enthusiastic about the idea of working alongside strategists, writers, film-makers and designers; collaborating both with those in our Sydney team and in our overseas offices

– Someone who is excited by the idea of having a senior voice in the business, helping to shape our future direction

About you: we envisage you’ll come equipped with strong experience in qual insight and/or strategy work – most likely agency-side. We are currently searching at both director and associate director level and, on finding a candidate who’s a great fit with our business, would then agree some adjustments to the job spec and expectations, based on experience.

This is a fantastic opportunity to join, in a senior capacity, an agency that gets to work on a huge number of incredibly thought-provoking and culturally-oriented projects for amazing brands; and to be a key contributor to how we continue to push the boundaries of what we’re about as a business. Please do get in touch, providing a covering letter and CV in the first instance.

We’re Hiring In Sydney!

Come join our latest crack cultural insights team...

We’re about seven months into our Sydney adventure and things are going really well. We have a small but super-talented team of three (plus lots of support from our other offices); a growing track record for delivering exciting work across categories such as alcohol, finance, tech and media; LOTS of meeting in the diary; and interesting thought leadership material that we’re sharing, around themes such as gender and generational change.

What next? We’re looking for recruits to join us in a leafy Chippendale HQ, to meet our strong ambitions to grow the team. More specific shout-outs to follow but, broadly, we’re keen to hear from people at all levels from exec to project managers to associate directors/directors. And particularly if you can point to an enthusiasm for cultural insight work and – certainly at the more senior end of this spectrum – to having worked on interesting projects in the market research and strategy space.

This is a broad shout-out, but to develop the conversation into something more specific, drop Elyse Pigram a line. We’d love to hear from you.

Is America ready to make fun of itself? Crowd DNA New York’s Eden Lauffer explores how this year’s Super Bowl ads are poking fun amid the turmoil...

With the Trump presidency in the US and Brexit anxiety in the UK, both locales are no stranger to turmoil. But as fires spread in Australia and China’s coronavirus lockdown continues, 2020 seems to have kicked off with a feeling of worldwide unrest. In the first few weeks of January alone, online memes have been crying World War III and the end of humanity as we know it (with a humorous twist, of course). It’s no surprise, then, that escapism has become a fully-fledged trend since the 2016 US election. Consumers retreat from the noise of politics into rent-a-nap centers, drag culture, astrology charts etc. 

Escapism takes a new form in this year’s Super Bowl ads. After all we’ve been through in just the first month of 2020 – the Harvey Weinstein trial, the impeachment case, the overwhelming number of presidential candidates – America is ready to start making fun of itself. And while funny, over the top ads are synonymous with the Super Bowl, this year, their tone is a different kind of escapist humor – it’s more tongue in cheek.  

Of those ads, we’ve identified three cultural trends that they fall into, namely: mocking millennials, poking fun at devices that listen to us, and lightly treading on political satire. 

Avocados From Mexico pokes fun at the millennial love of avocados.
Avocados From Mexico pokes fun at the millennial love of avocados.

Mocking Millennials, Again

If you’re a millennial (as I am), you may find millennial jokes tiring by now. But in this year’s ads, the media seems to be on our side with several brands playing on some of the typical ways people like to mock this generation. For example, millennials are often criticized for spending on unnecessary items such as avocados. In response, Avocados From Mexico stages a shopping network featuring absurd products for your avocado to use, such as a pool floaty or a bike helmet.

Another popular millennial jab revolves around a lax work ethic. In a similar vein, we see Cheetos and MC Hammer join forces to help one millennial escape his responsibilities using the excuse of ‘Cheeto fingers’. As millennials now make up a prominent percentage of our population, these blows nod to a somewhat thicker-skinned America.

Pringles jest about robot mind control forcing us to buy products.
Pringles jest about robot mind control forcing us to buy products.

Ears Everywhere

The idea that our devices are constantly listening is not a new one. As we continue to rely on technology and give up personal information, privacy becomes a more glaring concern. Even with this anxiety we continue using apps that may be leveraging our faces to strengthen facial recognition. A number of this year’s Super Bowl ads poke fun at our comfort with privacy invading devices. In Pringles’ and Bud Light Seltzer’s ads, Morty (of Rick & Morty) and Post Malone fall captive to mind control, respectively.

The commentary in the Pringles ad presents an extreme scenario of brands consuming our minds, encouraging us to buy new products. In the Bug Light spot, Post Malone’s brain is manned by a control center dictating which actions he should make when purchasing a drink. We complain about devices taking over, but still feed the problem. So at this point, perhaps it is best to just laugh at the continuing spiral of how much we rely on them.

Snickers asks the big questions. Is a world where moms send nudes one we want to live in?
Snickers asks the big questions. Is a world where moms send nudes one we want to live in?

Tip-Toeing On Political 

In post-2016 election Super Bowls, some brands took a political stance, alluding to their position on the Trump Administration actions like building a wall. However, this year’s ads transcend any political stance by instead mocking the general political climate in the US, including how non-Americans perceive the country’s unrest. In a jovial song, Americans band together to #FixtheWorld by feeding it a giant Snickers. The ad features babies named Kale, moms sending nudes, and influencers falling into an enormous hole. Budweiser approaches this same satire in a more subtle way, playing on negative American stereotypes. The narrative dismisses a ‘typical American’ for being loud, while the ad shows a group of protestors speaking out on a cause. While the 2016 election showed an America more divided than expected, there’s still common ground between us. The ability to laugh about the ridiculousness of things like babies named Kale bands together people on both sides.  

In early 2017, many Americans wanted nothing more than to escape the turbulence of the United States. Advertising shied away from our new president and everything that came along with him. It helped us forget our troubles by transporting us to simpler times. Think, for example, of the silly humor of Bud Light’s ‘Dilly Dilly’ campaign. Today, as we’re in the depths of a trial aimed at impeaching the president, it feels as if the pressure has reached boiling point. These ads prove that we’re beginning to laugh at ourselves again; and as we prepare for another presidential term, this satirical American voice helps cut the tension. 

Marking the Lunar New Year this weekend, we’re releasing our full report on the major shifts shaping culture in China. Download Inside China to find out what TikTok has to do with Maoism, and how coffee cups can signal a low-key youth revolution...

Download the report here


China represents one of the most exciting opportunities for international brands – but also one of the hardest markets to crack. With a whiplash-inducing rate of change, keeping up to speed is a pretty big task.

Perceptions of China are often either outdated or contradictory. Is it capitalist or communist? Cutting edge or catching up? In our 2019 Rise event of the same name (repeated by popular demand!), we took a tour along the fault lines of these tensions to reach five key cultural shifts.

As the rate of progress burns through the baggage of societal rules and restrictions, Chinese youth are balancing individualism with an inherited tradition of collective toeing the line. In this report, we go into the products of this tension. There’s the wave of national pride putting a fresh spin on the label ‘Made In China’; the new currency of status that goes beyond the material; and the leap from consumption to high-volume creative output.

For brands looking to make an impact in this market, swotting up is key. Our Inside China report takes you through our five indentified cultural shifts, as well as a crash course in how brands can make the switch from playing catch-up to leading the way. Download it here.

Inspired by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec's Dear Data, Crowd DNA NYC had a go at charting their own week in transportation...

The ability to create and communicate stories is one of the evolutionary factors that has defined human development. By using stories to share ideas, humans have been able to build philosophies, belief systems and form entire communities around one collective goal.

Through creativity and invention we have been able to play with storytelling, using myriad ways to share our message and captivate our audience. In the cultural insights field, telling a story using data in a creative and engaging manner can be challenging.

It’s important to make the stories we tell with data as compelling and easy to understand as possible (just ask our Crowd Numbers team). In order to do this, we turn to different sources of inspiration. One creativity sparker is Dear Data, a TedTalk and book about two new friends who maintained a relationship via postcards charting a topic of the week.

Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec recorded 52 weeks in untraditional data charts – with topics ranging from compliments received to swearwords said. Inspired by these two penpals, our New York team decided to chart their own week of transportation. Without discussing how we’d interpret the task, we developed our own unique takes.

Here’s what we ended up with…

Eden spends much of her commute sandwiched between fellow 4/5 train riders, but uses books to transport herself away:

When commuting solo, you might find Hollie speeding over the Williamsburg Bridge on her bike. But when she’s joined by the fifth (and four-legged) member of the Crowd NYC team, Boboji, it’s a ride on the J train:

Tom commutes into the office from just across the water in Brooklyn. In summer, you’ll catch him zipping over the Manhattan Bridge on his Boosted Board, but with the cold of winter comes a return to the subway:

The office’s only Manhattan resident, Lizzy walks to work, making use of the time to catch up on podcasts and brush up on her speed-walking:

What did we learn from our experiment? The first standout is that there are clearly many different ways to represent the same data. Even what might seem like relatively boring data – travelling to and from work every day – can be shown in an interesting and dynamic way.

It also showed us the value in collecting additional data beyond the basics. For example, Lizzy’s chart shows how environmentally friendly each method of transport was; and Hollie maps when she was walking with her dog, versus with other people. These additional elements of context all come together to tell a more complete story in our week of transport.

So next time you’re going about a seemingly mundane task, exercise your creative muscles and think about the different factors surrounding a particular topic – and how this could be represented visually.