A Family Affair

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50 years ago, family was a simple proposition: mum, dad, two kids – maybe three, maybe more. In 2018, things aren’t so simple – a modern family can be many things. Single parent? Sure. Same sex parents? Absolutely. Families of divorce? Definitely. Stephen Kelly discovers that to succeed today, brands need to represent the modern family realistically.    

There used to be only one kind of family – or at least according to marketing there was. One father. One mother. One child, probably a boy. Possibly another child, probably a girl. Always straight. Usually white. Happily married. Nuclear. Think the sparkling all-American image of a young mother and father at the beach, making Kodak memories with their children in a glossy 1949 magazine advert. Or the Oxo family of 1960s Britain, which followed happy homemaker Katie as she balanced looking after a baby with cooking “a meal with man-appeal” for her husband Philip. Visions – according to both advertising, and society – of what the ideal family is, and should be.

But times have changed, and so has the idea – and reality – of the family. Divorce, for example, is now a relatively unremarkable part of life, with both British and American rates having climbed since the 1960s, reaching their peak in the ’90s. And although this year saw the lowest levels of divorce since 1973, it’s been posited that that’s only because fewer couples are getting married. And of those that are, or not, some are same sex couples, some have adopted, some are led by a single parent, or are composed of different faiths and ethnicities. The nuclear unit is still the most common type of family demographically (69% in America), but the notion of a ‘typical’ family feels fairly outdated. And as such, marketing and advertising has had to adapt.

The times they are a changin’

“It’s changing dramatically,” says UCL consumer psychologist Dimitrios Tsivrikos. “Key players in sectors such as fast moving consumer goods are endorsing typologies that families might actually be experiencing – something that we haven’t really seen before. I think they have been quite hesitant in terms of doing that, because they don’t want to lose their main clientele. Let’s not forget that advertising serves a purpose first of all with identification. So it doesn’t really brainwash us to buy something, but we can actually identify with someone and feel, ‘Okay, that’s their lifestyle, that’s what I’m trying to imitate, perhaps that’s something I can actually fit into.’ However, times are changing, and I think it would be irresponsible to portray society in such a one-dimensional way.”

Key players are endorsing typologies that families might actually be experiencing – something that we haven’t really seen before. Times are changing, and it’s irresponsible to portray society in a one-dimensional way.
— Dimitrios Tsivrikos, UCL

Some brands, if not all, have sought to embrace the realities of the modern family – even those as downbeat as divorce. Ford made a short film exploring the topic in 2016, showing the role that their car plays in ferrying a child between his separated parents. Food company Honey Maid launched a campaign in 2014 called ‘This Is Wholesome’, which celebrated all kinds of family units, including those who live in ‘blended’ families with step-relatives. Perhaps the most well-known one however is Ikea’s 2016 ‘Where Life Happens’ campaign, a series of ads showing how Ikea serves every kind of family. One of its most moving instalments was Every Other Week, which showed a child visiting his father for the first time since separation, only to find that his dad has made his second bedroom identical to the one he has at home.

Speaking of the campaign at the time, creative agency Åkestam Holst said that, “‘Where Life Happens’ dramatizes various aspects of Ikea's genuine presence in peoples' everyday life. Ikea is right there where life happens, whatever happens—and is not afraid to show it like it is. Living in two homes with divorced parents is a reality for many children in Sweden. Ikea can ease this situation and perhaps also ease some bad conscience among single parents and help acknowledge the children."

Risky business

Such campaigns are risky, of course. The subject matter can be depressing, after all, and isn’t advertising meant to be uplifting and aspirational? But if executed right, tapping into the raw and naked truth of peoples' lives can allow a brand to relate to a smaller pool of consumers in a more resonating way.

For instance, single mothers are a key demographic for American food producers Oscar Mayer. Hence their 2013 campaign, which was led by the straight-talking Grandpa Frank, who looks after his grandkids while his daughter is at work. Although this ability to target a variety of smaller demographics cannot be taken for granted – it must have a strong unifying message.

The aforementioned Oxo family of the ’60s, and their more grounded successors in the ’80s-onwards, fell victim to changing times – the collapse of the nuclear family branded the adverts irrelevant by 1999. The company tried to relaunch the campaign in 2009, igniting an X-Factor-style search for a new Oxo family, which invited members of the public to send in videos of their own meal times. But without a strong thematic core, and a perception that it was just jumping on a gimmicky reality TV bandwagon, the campaign fell flat.

If executed right, tapping into the raw and naked truth of people’s lives can allow a brand to relate to a smaller pool of consumers in a more resonating way.

“If we think historically, we want brands to make the right people identify with them,” says Tsivrikos. “But there are two key pieces there that will be challenging. For a brand, they want to be liked by a greater body of customers, and they also want to be relevant. Relevance and likability is not an easy thing.

“Technologically, there are ways for you to actually target a particular relevant category,” he continues. “The entire idea of Instagram and Facebook is all about clever segmentation. So as a brand, you can target the nuclear family, the gay family, the single mum. That’s easy. The difficult thing is the likability component, which is to be liked by as many people as possible. So narratives and the stories as to how they perceive a brand are quite important.”

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Sticking to your guns

There are, perhaps dishearteningly, other risks involved when it comes to portraying different types of non-nuclear families – especially now, in a time in which conservative and progressive values are so wildly polarized.

This is especially true for campaigns featuring same sex couples, which seem to provoke a particularly intense reaction from critics and bigots. Last year, McCains launched a campaign called ‘We Are Family’, which, like Ikea’s ‘Where Life Happens’, sought to portray all the different kinds of families which enjoy their products. One 60-second TV advert starred real-life fathers Lee and Mat Samuels-Camozz, along with their baby. Following its premiere, the pair were subjected to homophobic abuse through social media. It was a reaction from a vocal minority that McCains said they had found “disappointing”.

“Brands can take a massive hit in that they will have to defend who they are and defend what they want to do,” says Tsivrikos. “So we are still going to see a number of consumers fighting back against diversity, but brands have to prevail. They have to push through and show that there are different ways people can live their lives.”

A good example of this comes from Honey Maid’s previously mentioned ‘This Is Wholesome’ campaign, which also featured a same sex family. In response to the inevitable backlash, the brand stood its ground and released a follow-up spot which turned hateful online comments into art. Its message? The only thing that that really matters when it comes to family is love. 

Brands can take a massive hit in that they will have to defend who they are and defend what they want to do. A number of consumers will fight back against diversity, but brands have to prevail. They have to push through and show that there are different ways people can live their lives.
— Dimitrios Tsivrikos, UCL

As for the future, Tsivrikos believes that the need for brands to cater to non-nuclear families is “one of the biggest issues we are having at the moment. Brands have slowly woken up to the idea that they don’t just sell to nuclear families only, they actually have a very promising, very prosperous clientele that doesn’t fit the norm.” And this is amplified by technology.

“Consumers are becoming a lot more aware and they are demanding to be seen,” he continues. “I’ve been doing a great deal of focus groups with kids when it comes to toys, for example, and it is so fascinating to see young kids of color going into stores and looking for dolls that are close to their own skin color. In the United States, an African American child no longer wants a blonde Barbie. They want something that’s actually close to them. I think that’s a fantastic thing.

“Obviously, I’m not saying a certain Barbie should only be for white or black kids, but we should have both a white and a black one for a child to actually see representation. And I think that’s a starting point – allowing people choice, whoever they are.”


Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly is a freelance journalist specializing in popular culture. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the i, Radio Times, WIRED, Total Film, Entertainment Weekly and many others.

You can follow him on Twitter.


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