Context and Content: Communication lessons from African Drums and Harry Potter

African_drums
Yoruba ceremonial drums, Nigeria.  picture from here.

so the lovely Emily got for me a signed copy James Gleick's The Information for my birthday (thanks Emily) and whilst I'm only a couple of chapters in, its already proving to be a bit of a treasure trove.  the first chapter discusses the African Drums.  when 18th Century Europeans first heard the drums, they had no idea that they were conveying information.  yet the drumbeats contained detailed and what seemed to be superfluous information.

"Instead of "don't be afraid," they would say, "Bring your heart back down out of your mouth, your heart out of your mouth, get it back down from there" … the drums generated fountains of oratory"

the explanation for the elaboration is fascinating.

"in mapping the spoken language to the drum language, information was lost.  the drum talk was speech with a deficit … the drum language began with the spoken word and shed the consonants and vowels.  that was a lot to lose … consequently … a drummer would invariably add "a little phrase" to each short word.  Songe, the moon, is rendered as songe li tange la manga – "the moon looks down at the earth" … the extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context"

James Gleick, The Information, Chapter One

there's a beautiful parallel with the world and brands and communication.  the moments in which brands connect with people are fleeting and becoming more so.  there is a very narrow opportunity in which a marketer can convey information.  messages need context, and brands provide it.

so rather than someone hearing "we make cars" (the message) they hear "we make Jeeps" (the branded message).  this context takes the message from a simple "this is what we do" to a more richly imbued communication embodying all the associations someone recalls when they hear "Jeep's cars".

this context is crucial … "we make cars", becomes:

we make Jeeps

Jeep_ad

we make Toyotas

Toyota_ad

we make Hondas

Honda_ad

it's a useful thinking framework – to separate the context and the content.  marketers work in challenging times.  the potential opportunities to make meaningful connections with people have never been greater; but with opportunity has come complexity.  how are communications cutting-through?  how to create the most distinctiveness in market?  how and when to engage audiences through media beyond which that I buy?

separating context and content helps to address some of those challenges.

creation of context is the creation of brand meaning.  what does my brand stand for?  why does it exist?  what are the associations I want to create (or reinforce) when someone recalls my brand.  this is a long-term process, and it's contribution to a brand's business not always easily measurable.  but it's crucially important context – and the marketer is responsible for continuously creating it.

creation of content is the creation of the message.  we're having a sale this weekend.  new model now available.  we've improved our fuel efficiency.  the role of content is to influence and stimulate an action or a response.  these are shorter term, and the extent to which they permeate and become salient in market are very measurable.  they can also be spread with huge efficiency by media other than that which is bought.

separating these two elements helps navigate increasingly complex waters.  how can I – as marketer – create context for my brand?  a context unhindered by the need for immediate ROI in market.  what platforms (through owned media) can I create to hold and communicate this context?

…and how can I efficiently and effectively deploy my messages into market?  how can I inspire and encourage people to pass-on that message on my and their behalf?

the combination, like the African drums, are simple messages imbued with the richest of context … so that the content is un-mistakenly attributed to its brand.  the add the pieces together you first have to separate them.

which brings us, of course, to Harry Potter – and this week's announcement that the upcoming Deathly Hallows Part 2 won't be the end of the Potter franchise.

Potter as brand is now established.  seven books and eight movies have communicated the narrative and its characters, all of whom are now familiar memes in our culture.  like Star Wars before it, Potter – because of the human stories it tells – is now firmly embedded in the popular psyche.  but context and content have hereto been one and the same; the experience absolutely binding the two together.  books and movies as one-directional communication of story.  around this controlled narrative a user-generated culture arose, but it never penetrated back into nor influenced the context or content coming from JKR, Bloomsbury and Warner Bros.

that's about to change.  Potter is about to undergo a context content split.

Potter as a brand is now evolving to have two distinct streams.  the context will continue to be provided by JKR and co.  both the ideological: what are the rules and conventions of the Harry Potter universe?  and the physical: in the form of the Pottermore owned-media platform (which will also be the sales platform for HP eBooks).

but content will now, for the first time, be created by JKR and anyone else with the passion and energy to contribute.  the long-term building of the Potter brand co-existing but separate to the short-term creation of Potter content.

the evolution is already apparant … the above announcement inviting and teasing its audience to "follow the owl" – an ARG element signalling a shift in the Potter brand to one that is co-created, crowdscourced and owned by everyone.

we're all drummers now.

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