Have you ever wondered why Zombies have become so popular on the pop culture landscape? It seems that everywhere you turn these days, you’re faced with shows about the Zombie Apocalypse; zombies looking to take over the world.
Zombies are human beings that have been taken over by a greedy, powerful, and insatiable hunger, stripping individuals of all talents and uniqueness. The only thing that remains is the drive to join other mindless zombies, relentlessly seeking to satisfy their hunger for human brains.
The Zombie Apocalypse takes these fears one-step further. They actually suggest not just the elimination of particular individuals, but a struggle in which all of humanity is deeply threatened, and the existence of the human race called into question.
From a popular culture point of view, zombies tend to emerge on the cultural landscape in the midst of anxieties around labor unrest, hyper-consumerism and fears about the loss of human individuality – and most all of our apocalyptic fears.
Why does this matter to brands? Brands have an opportunity to drive relevance, differentiation and persuasion by offering resolution to the cultural anxieties expressed through the stories of Zombie Apocalypse.
As the global economy shifts unpredictably, and opportunities for the young seem ever more elusive, the idea that an individual does not have a lot of control over her work and productivity (i.e. like a zombie) seems rather familiar; even all too common.
There is also an increasing pressure to demonstrate that you have the drive to do whatever it takes to get a job done. To work under the direction and control of others, to feed an insatiable, uncontrolled and ultimately destructive need does not seem that far fetched as an analogy.
Zombies represent our fears about what an evolving global economy demands from us and the destructive outcomes it may produce.
George Romero’s 1978 film ‘Dawn of the Dead’ helped introduce the modern zombie to contemporary audiences. In the film, waves of zombies besiege a shopping mall, a place called out in the postmodern West as ‘temples of mass consumption.‘ Romero’s zombies become a symbol for mindless consumerism run amok.
Across America, Canada and the UK, consumer household debt is hovering around 170% of annual net income. The consumption driving this level of financial risk is unprecedented in our history and is confounding economists that expect consumers to avoid risk at all costs. Governments are monitoring the situation carefully, ready to implement ‘cooling’ measures through regulatory changes.
Defying all explanation, consumers appear to be acting in ways that are entirely unpredictable – and for some, it is as worrying and an encroaching zombie hoard.
Contrast these ideas with the North American cultural imperative that everyone must discover and celebrate their individuality. What is important about the cultural imperative of individuality is that it showcases our belief that the best parts of ourselves emerge from our individuality and our uniqueness.
This cultural imperative butts up against the realities of our perception of a global economy and creates quite a cultural tension. Zombies are stripped of individuality and united by the same singular purpose – eating brains to conscript others.
The Zombie Apocalypse takes all of these discrete anxieties, combines them and then ‘World War Z’ elevates them to the next level. In movies like ‘World War Z’ characters are swept up in an onslaught beyond their control. There is no opting out. Every person is required to engage with the zombie struggle, even if it means they ultimately lose and become a zombie themselves.
Thus, those fighting the zombie masses are only doing so because they have no other option, just like the office worker who must engage and negotiate a global economy and play by its rules in order to keep his job. In order to survive either of these situations, an individual must recognize his own internal strengths, manage to nourish them, while continuing to effectively engage powerful and seemingly unstoppable forces that can be their undoing if he makes one wrong move.
Time and time again we hear from our clients that consumers are struggling to navigate the sea of hyper-consumption, compounded by a quest to feed their individuality against the need to appear productive, successful, and ready to do whatever it takes to succeed in our modern society.
When we decide to put a product that we love on our bagel in the morning and we believe it is nourishing our internal soul, but at the same time also believe it may physically slow us down and undermine our productivity, are we making ourselves more vulnerable to the zombie horde outside our window? Or are we shoring up our defenses and feeding our individual strengths?
Oftentimes we categorize the products we use as ones that feed our internal selves or ones that help ready us to take on the world, tending to only honor one or the other halves of the tension, with few offering solutions for its resolution. In turn, the consumer is left to manage or negotiate that cultural tension on her own.
When we hear consumers finding ways of either rationalizing their images to show us how productive they are, or exclaiming to us how they are not just like everyone else, we can tell how the product has been categorized in their world and more importantly, that the cultural tension remains unresolved.
Brands that can effectively resolve cultural tensions have the potential to achieve iconic cultural status and build breakout brands by offering us a way to face a demanding world while ensuring the best of us stays in tact.
Brands such as Nike, and Apple have done a terrific job of helping us ‘realize the best of our inner selves’ while tapping into our inner anxieties about remaining on top of our productive game. Brands such as Starbucks have taken a slightly different route, giving us a way to fuel our individuality, as well as literally fuel our bodies to keep going, and offering an important physical and metaphorical networking space along the way. Chipotle enables consumer to get ‘real food, fast’ and resolve their anxieties around an industrialized food system and losses of nutrition and food safety.
How can you be ready for whatever Apocalypse comes next?
While the Zombie is an entertaining way to highlight certain tensions consumers navigate through their lives, the real message here is that cultural shifts create tensions around consumers’ values. Cultural tensions create peculiar needs, which in turn create opportunities for peculiar products and services to align with or disrupt consumers’ values. Legacy brands are those that focus on a set of values at a time of tension, to create differentiation and relevance by offering a resolution that is attractive to the consumer.
Brands need to always be looking ahead to spot the cultural shifts, understand the tensions and relate them to your brand and target audience’s value set. Well, that and be armed with heavy blunt objects in case something tries to eat your brains.