The following is an excerpt from the newly published book, Microcultures

Culture evolves over time. This we know to be true. Look no further than the changes in meaning we associate with everything from brands to products to images to ideas. Look at the person you were ten years ago and what you believed versus the person you are today. Age is not entirely responsible for changing your worldview or your perspective. It is also the world around you, which has shifted and evolved.

Our job as researchers, innovators, brand champions and lovers of insight is not only to understand this. Our job is to have the foresight to anticipate where culture is going. But this is harder than ever, as we live and work in a world where cultures are transitioning, mutating or being absorbed and reimagined at a rate that is faster than ever before. For proof, look no further than the recent shift in meanings driven by an incident involving the mistreatment of dairy cattle.

How Microcultures Drive Industry

On June 4, 2019, a three-minute video was released on YouTube and Facebook that quickly took the Internet by storm. The video, which showed graphic footage of dairy cows and newborn calves being cruelly mistreated, had been secretly recorded at the largest dairy farm in the US. Its name was Fair Oaks Farm. It was quickly identified that Fair Oaks was the flagship farm of Fairlife milk, an ultra-filtered milk product owned by the Coca-Cola Company.

A member of the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), a nonprofit animal rights group, had infiltrated Fair Oaks for three months and had secretly documented numerous incidents of animal abuse. Workers were caught in the act of punching, stabbing and stepping on calves as well as callously hurling them onto trucks or violently kicking them into cages. To reinforce the gravity of the situation, the video featured a voiceover from ARM founder Richard Couto, who explained that in the ten years of the organization’s undercover operations, “we have never seen such consistent constant abuse to a newborn baby animal.”[1]

Comparisons to concentration camps were made both by the video’s narrator and by commenters, who quickly shared the content across their favorite social platforms.

Within hours, the video had gathered millions of views. Within days, grocery stores across the US started pulling Fairlife milk off its shelves. The footage prompted protests across the country, with many animal rights groups calling for a complete industry boycott of the product.[2] Now, the company is facing several class action lawsuits.[3]

The morality of animal welfare aside, this cultural shift in the meanings created and shared by consumers demands our attention. For, if we turn back the clock and examine what the Fairlife culture stood for only days before the release of this footage, we will see a drastically different story of what the product meant in the mind of the consumer.

When Fairlife milk was first introduced to the US market in December 2014, it celebrated near-instant success. Within its first two years, the product was being sold at 76,000 outlets across the country, and its dollar sales grew by 79%.[4] The brand and product had successfully tapped into consumers’ rising concerns around the high sugar content in milk and the human body’s ability to digest dairy. Using a high filtration process, Fairlife delivers lactose-free milk that contains 50% more protein, 30% more calcium and 50% less sugar than traditionally produced cow’s milk. As a result, consumers accepted and believed in the motto that the company used for the brand.

It truly was, “Milk, only better.”[5]

As awareness of the product grew and more consumers learned about the benefits that the brand offered, Fairlife milk carved out a point of differentiation in the marketplace, where it challenged some of the conventional and tired tropes that were still attached to traditional milk. Fairlife was a more progressive and futuristic version of dairy—one that could respond to the consumer’s desire for taste and function while simultaneously resolving a lot of the health concerns that were creating anxiety.

Fairlife had tapped into a powerful and influential microculture that was changing the face of dairy. It was perfectly positioned for a group of consumers who prided themselves on spending more money on milk and other dairy products that offered better health, better nutrition, better digestion and—most importantly—tolerability (dairy that’s easier to digest).

This brand wasn’t just in the right place at the right time. It was in the hands of the right consumer, who was setting the tone and narrative for what the product represented and stood for. This was a movement in milk culture and it was putting tremendous pressure on the traditional dairy industry.

Then, the Fair Oaks Farm video surfaced. Everything that Fairlife represented changed overnight. The microculture that championed Fairlife milk for its nutrition and tolerability was replaced by another microculture, dedicated to animal welfare.

Why is this so critical?

Because microcultures are the forces in the present that shape the behavior of the mainstream in the future.

Let’s unpack this.

A microculture refers to the nuanced and particular sets of meanings that substantially sized groups of the most dominant consumers attribute to an idea, trend or topic at any given point in time. It then in turn gives direction to—and indicates the broader shifts that will happen in—the marketplace and impacts the mainstream (or macroculture).

A microculture is different from a niche group of consumers like the Innovators or the Early Adopters on the Everett Rogers diffusion-of-innovation curve that some of us may be familiar with.

Microcultures are created by large groups of people (numbering into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions) who are engaged in (the largely unconscious process of) justifying or rationalizing their behavior as they seek to amass symbolic capital. This is another way of saying that microcultures create new alibis and justifications that people use for making decisions in order to gain power, status, prestige and acceptance in a particular community or beyond.

Microcultures are powerful because they share a consistent set of beliefs and values that challenge the conventional or mainstream category or movement. In the process of developing, the microculture comes to designate specific forms of symbolic capital. For example, the initial microculture that surrounded the Fair Life brand was shaped based on the symbolic capital that came with challenging norms around conventional dairy. There was cachet in supporting a new, healthier and more tolerable version of milk.

But when the Fair Oaks Farm video went public, it resulted in the growth of another microculture—one anchored to the morality of animal welfare—that had, until then, sat on the sidelines. With its definition promptly tied to a new form of symbolic capital (social prestige is now gained by caring for the animals that provide us with our nourishment and by holding corporate culture accountable for its actions), this microculture instantly reconfigured the meanings associated not just with the Fairlife brand but also with the dairy category in its entirety. This now prominent microculture competes with the older microculture of tolerability and health and creates a new form of symbolic capital (caring for animals) that now sits in tension with the old form.

This book introduces the concept of consumer microcultures for two reasons: first to explain the dynamism of today’s marketplace (caused by the proliferation of digital technologies and new forms of communication, discussed below) and second to show how the marketplace consists of numerous and interrelated fields of opportunity for companies big and small. By delving into the powerful notion of microcultures, this book tells businesses how they can make sense of new trends and identify revenue opportunities early so they can successfully innovate in the marketplace.

In order to understand the concept of microcultures, it is necessary to take a few steps back to first consider the marketplace as a whole, which is made up of macrocultures (established norms maintained and espoused by mainstream consumers) and microcultures (emerging ideas created and popularized by “lead consumers,” or those who create culture). These microcultures typically compete with each other for the legitimization of their preferred forms of symbolic capital and drive a potential shift in the overall marketplace as a result. Consequently, when companies ignore microcultures or fail to track their emergence, influence, trajectory and growth, they leave themselves vulnerable to the competition and miss opportunities for business growth.

This is why research, insight and foresight are increasingly important among the Fortune 1000. Thanks to technological advancements and global shifts in economic power (and population), not to mention the increasingly critical, intelligent and evolving consumer, there is tremendous disruption in the marketplace. Insight can no longer rest on its laurels or make billion-dollar bets on focus group verbatims from dangerously low sample sets. Instead, research and insight teams are pressed to deliver more accurate predictions based on data-driven studies with shorter turnaround times and smaller budgets.

This is the future of the market research industry: embracing new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to make observational research on demand.

The companies that will thrive will be the ones that employ researchers who embrace new technologies to streamline and automate old practices, learn more from data collection and analysis and refocus the team’s time to concentrate on higher-level problem-solving and prototyping.

Identifying, sizing, decoding and eventually tailoring solutions to microcultures will be key to helping research achieve the accurate yet fast answers the C-Suite requires to make their innovation bets. And, as you will learn in this book, these practices will help your organization uncover the detail needed to quickly and succinctly deliver ethnographic insights. Our argument is that when it comes to identifying the up-and-coming shift that will drive change in the market, the microculture of today will evolve to become the macroculture of tomorrow. This sets the tone for how we can anticipate where the remainder of an industry is going next. The focus over the next few chapters is going to be on understanding, recognizing and valuing these microcultures so that we can better identify revenue opportunities that have growth potential.

To learn more visit https://www.microculturesbook.com/.

 

[1] Animal Recovery Mission, “The Biggest Undercover Dairy Investigation in History - Fair Oaks Farms and Coca Cola,” Facebook video, accessed June 25, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=366221877572310.

[2] Michelle Gant, “Fairlife Dairy Products Pulled from Store Shelves amid Animal Abuse Controversy,”

Today, June 7, 2019, https://www.today.com/food/fairlife-dairy-products-pulled-store-shelves-amid-animal-cruelty-controversy-t155783.

[3] Elaine Watson, “Fairlife, Coca-Cola, Hit with Second Wave of Lawsuits over Animal Abuse Allegations,” FoodNavigator-USA, June 20, 2019, https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2019/06/20/Fairlife-Coca-Cola-hit-with-second-wave-of-lawsuits-over-animal-abuse-allegations.

[4] Elaine Watson, “Fairlife Ultra-Filtered Milk Sales Surged 79% in 2016; Core Power and Yup! to Be Brought under Fairlife Brand Umbrella,” FoodNavigator-USA, September 12, 2017, https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2017/09/12/fairlife-ultra-filtered-milk-sales-surged-79-in-2016.

[5] Watson, “Fairlife Ultra-Filtered Milk Sales Surged 79% in 2016.”