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

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.

New Narratives In Sydney

Thanks to all who made it along to our event with 72andSunny and Lion in Sydney yesterday, exploring how women are portrayed in culture and how brands can engage with modern Australian women through gender literacy...

You can read more about it in this Campaign piece, and we’ll have a follow-up report to share soon. But, meantime, here are some of the key themes in how to integrate new narratives of womanhood in comms work.

1. Interrogate your narrative

Avoid ‘woke washing’ by taking a hard look at your brand narrative, making sure your internal and external stories align, and committing to real change.

2. Learn to read gender meta-narratives

Gender expectations shape our identity and have a pervasive influence on society. Look beneath the hood and understand what is shaping your audiences’ cultural context, rather than just analysing surface behaviour.

3. Question your assumptions

Do women really want to be ‘smaller’? Is beer still a ‘man’s drink’? Recognise and challenge your own biases and assumptions that exist within your brand and/or category.

4. Train your female gaze

If the male gaze turns women into objects to be seen, the female gaze sees them as people – complex, multifaceted beings.

5. Consider your male narrative

As the narratives around women evolve, the way we depict masculinity needs to become more individual and fluid, too.

6. Consider if you need gender at all

In the new age of identity, is gender really relevant? Does your brand and/or category need to speak to an audience’s biology, or are their values and identity more important?

Semiotics At Crowd: Dipsea

How do you get your kicks? In the first in a regular series of culture decodes, Crowd DNA's Bridget Dalton examines changing representations of women’s pleasure, through the perspective of one brand in particular: audio streaming service Dipsea...

Pleasure is a universal aspiration, but how it’s represented is often culturally determined. For a long time brands have been signalling pleasure through formulaic cues (oozing chocolate cake, anyone?), so we thought we’d get past the repetition and use semiotics to decode the emergent ways that brands are communicating pleasure – through the perspective of one brand in particular: Dipsea.

In the West, a very brief history of pleasure reveals how it was traditionally defined by Christian ideas of good and evil. Bodily indulgence was framed as sinful, and therefore shameful. Following these morality lines, pleasure is still often viewed as overly sexual, secretive and naughty – ice cream is bad; perfume is mysterious; and sex is either a fuzzy, saccharine affair or the deep, dark functionality of Pornhub. 

Dipsea – an audio streaming service specialising in erotic short stories to empower women – looks beyond these traditional signifiers of sexual desire. The brand is working hard to renegotiate the cues of pleasure by emphasising self love and removing the all too frequent suggestion of female transgression. 

As we’ll see, the app actually shares its visual identity with much less kinky sources of pleasure – such as beauty apps, FMCG brands and liberal politics. This close semiotic relationship between an intimate brand and seemingly unrelated categories can tell us a lot about the new narratives of pleasure resonating with millennial generations. We explore three of these new codes of pleasure below.

Pleasure as tasteful and safe

Dipsea’s gender neutral block colours provide tastefully modern, carefully curated contrasts. In the context of pleasure in the #MeToo era, it’s interesting to observe how the uniform tone and lack of depth work to limit any sense of mystery or unknown; this is a very safe type of sensuality. The absence of shadow suggests the absence of menace and again codes pleasure as a secure space, not a risky romp to the dark side. This sense of safety represents an important shift away from the dark colours and hints of violence (fluffy handcuffs, Fifty Shades Of Grey) often associated with sex and sex products. 

Millennial pleasure – proud pinks and curated contrasts
Millennial pleasure – proud pinks and curated contrasts

Pleasure as important and trustworthy

Historically, serif typefaces and capital letters were to be found in sombre, authoritarian spaces such as banks and museums. Today, they’re commonly used by liberal institutions such as London’s Southbank Centre and The Guardian. More recently still, these font styles are also found in more indulgent spaces, such as personal care and television (eg Treatwell and Netflix’s The Politician). Dipsea’s use of the font follows this lineage and codes pleasure as deserving of respect and trust. It’s serious business and, rather than hidden and private, pleasure deserves a platform and can even be a source of pride.

Pleasure as fluid and complex

Finally, Dipsea’s use of secondary and tertiary colours arranged in amorphous shapes code pleasure as complex and natural. The way the organic shapes in the Dipsea app and comms flow over the edge of the images reinforces that desire is fluid and unbound. Here, discovery and exploration are possible beyond the standard perimeters of pleasure. This helps Dispea communicate another important shift: that pleasure can be found in experimentation and beyond the traditional binaries of gender and monogamy. 

Altogether, these three codes demonstrate how modern pleasure is coming out of the guilt-ridden, shadows of darkness into the light of empowered nuance. By decoding brands like Dispea at the forefront of cultural change, we can learn to speak the new language of intimacy, sex, and human connection. Pleasure is a human right for all of us, and semiotics helps us understand how to effectively communicate it in an ever-changing cultural context. 

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

Exciting New Work Alert!

As so much of our work can’t be shared, it’s great when we do get the chance to. Here’s some exciting projects for Twitter and HSBC

We’ve been working with Twitter in the US, merging machine learning, cultural exploration, semiotics and quant surveying, making sense of billions of tweets to identify trends (18 of them, within six core themes) that have a consistent upward trajectory. Check the work out (with downloadable PDFs aplenty) here.

And we’ve been working with HSBC on the Enrich List – aimed at their high net worth Jade customers – combining cultural analysis and interviews with our Kin network to understand motivational trends for those who have achieved a certain level of wealth; then finding 50 rewarding experiences for personal growth. You can find out more about the approach here. And you can check out the full Enrich List here.

Crowd Tracks: Alcohol

Thirsty? The first in a series of Crowd DNA social listening reports, Crowd Tracks serves up the frothiest alcohol trends from the last four months...

Crowd Tracks is our regular social listening dispatch, examining trends taking place at the intersection of brands and culture. First up, we get the drinks in, focusing on alcohol and uncovering some of the viral stories and category shifts that have encouraged the most engagement over the last four months.

Using social data, we’ve dug deep into global conversations to track trends and measure their impact over time, including pinpointing the brands that are making the most noise. 

Inside the first Crowd Tracks you’ll find: 

Viral stories from around the world, including the state sponsored Qingdao Beer Festival in China; the rise of craft beer in the Philippines; and a new vodka made with ingredients from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

– A brand leaderboard charting the organic conversation around Guinness, Heineken and Bud (who successfully tapped into the viral Area 51 story)

– We dive into the American summer phenomenon that was White Claw and the growth in hard seltzers (even for fraternity bros) 

– We also track the worldwide growth in alcohol-free living through the newly dubbed ‘sober curious’ trend, as well as the shift towards sustainable drinking, in which the environment takes centre stage for both consumers and brands 

Exploring Hard Claw in Crowd Tracks
Exploring Hard Claw in Crowd Tracks

You can download a full copy of the report here.

Social media at Crowd DNA

We deploy social media data in various ways at Crowd DNA; either as a stand-alone method (including producing one-off and periodical reports for our clients) or integrated alongside, for instance, semiotic, ethnographic and quantitative approaches). If you’d like to find out more about how we can use social media data to meet your business challenges, get in touch.

 

Come join Crowd DNA and 72andSunny in Sydney for New Narratives: Engaging With Modern Women, as we look at changing articulations of feminity...

Date: November 27

Time: 5.30pm

Location: Lion, Level 7, 68 York Street, Sydney, 2000

We’re very excited to confirm our debut event in Sydney – a partnership with the good folk at 72andSunny, in which, using an archetypes model, we’ll be getting into how to engage with modern women.

With 70% of Australian Gen Z women identifying as feminist and 33% feeling the #MeToo movement hasn’t gone far enough, there’s plenty to discuss. This session will explore the past, present and future of the female story  – from how certain brand archetypes have been used to reinforce gender codes; to then examining how these codes are being disrupted and reimagined.

Part presentation, part panel discussion, this will be an informal session looking at how brands can engage with modern Australian women through gender literacy.

You’ll get to hear from Crowd DNA’s Sydney director, Elyse Pigram and 72andSunny strategist Sarah Tan.

And we’re excited to confirm a wonderful line-up of panellists who’ll dig into the themes: Dr Kate Adams (Bondi Vet), Amy Darvill (brand director, craft beers, Lion), Taryn Williams (founder of theright.fit and WINK Models), Tara McKenty (creative director, Google); plus a few more in the pipeline.

Thanks also to our hosts, Lion (hint: there’ll be some beers at the wrap-up).

If you’d like to come along, please get in touch with Elyse Pigram.