Brands Masterclas Changing The Game Culturally aware Ear to the Ground

Changing The Game: “If you’re not culturally aware, you’re walking out the door with a blindfold on”

October 11, 2022

Owen Laverty is the Chief Innovation Officer of Ear to the Ground, a global creative agency that helps brands be culturally aware. Our Content Manager, Alex Brinton sat down with Owen to talk about the 22/23 issue of their Fan Index ahead of its launch.

For those who don’t know what is it you do at Ear to the Ground?

Great first question.  I get asked this a lot.

We are a global creative agency specialising in sports, esports, and gaming. We articulate what we do as ‘building culturally powerful brands.’ Our output is pretty channel agnostic as a creative agency. We deliver marketing campaigns that live in everything from out of home and TV, more traditional spaces through to the myriad of candidate digital landscapes.

We are helping our clients build culturally powerful brands. The core challenge in doing that is the fact that culture is changing at a phenomenal speed, faster than ever before. The things that are relevant today could be gone in weeks. We’ve got a generation that has grown up picking pop stars, telling their favourite creators what content to make and using on-demand to choose whatever TV they want. Now, they’re constantly inputting on culture to affect the content and creativity we see today. 

To stay up to the minute, we’ve built something that we call Fan Intelligence, which is built on real-time listening and collaboration with 11,500 cultural tastemakers and culturally influential fans worldwide. The purpose of that is to close that gap. It brings the knowledge and passion of sports and esports fans into the brand decision-making that has been happening in isolation of them for far too long. Whether that’s feeding in from an insight perspective, bringing absolute gems on what’s happening on the ground in different markets in culture, or whether that’s collaborating and kind of road testing as we come up with strategy and creative to make sure they’re absolutely on point with what will connect with fans.

Why is it important for brands to be culturally aware?

I don’t think you can build a brand in this day and age without at least being culturally aware.

There’s a definition that to be culturally relevant is to be connected to the ideas, customs and behaviours important to fans at any point in time. If you’re not culturally aware, you’re walking out the door with a blindfold and your fingers in your ears, trying to sell sh*t.

The last few years have highlighted it more than ever; significant cultural events have greatly impacted how people identify with teams or organisations, with countries, with other people, and how they connect and consume content. So we think cultural relevance is more important than ever. It is having a massive impact on brands because these things are constantly changing.

Brands are trying to make global strategic decisions based on a landscape that is changing all the time, and that’s tough. So they need to have a model of working that keeps them tuned into what’s happening. And to stop them from feeling like disconnected suits in a boardroom.

If you asked any CMO in the world, do you want to be relevant? They want to be relevant. In some categories, it might not be as important to be culturally connected or at the forefront. But being at the forefront of what’s happening keeps you from losing. So we are seeing brands try to take this advantage of having a more significant impact on people’s lives by finding new ways to connect and become more relevant. 

Is there a case that certain brands are so strong they don’t need to worry so much about being culturally aware?

There is definitely an argument for that in the short term – 100 per cent. But can a brand stay big over a long period of time if it is not culturally aware and culturally relevant over a sustained period? These big brands like Coca-Cola or PlayStation it’s because they are culturally relevant and culturally aware that they are at the forefront. If you take away that element of what they do, can they sustain that volume of sales? Can they maintain that position in people’s lives? With one year of being out of touch, I would certainly argue that they can, but two, three, four or five years would be absolutely terminal for the brand. 

Being culturally aware and relevant within the context of your category is a way to win. And it’s a way to gain an edge over your competitors. 

Without giving away too many secrets, how do you select people to be part of your network?

Originally it was purely an insight tool. Now, as I’ve said, it factors into our insight, strategy, creative team, comms planning, and activations, it feeds in everywhere, but it originally came from the insight team. 

The insight and research team were building this network of external tastemakers and influential fans who had intelligence in specific areas. That team are brilliant at asking the right questions and uncovering gems of insight. But we also needed a great team to build a network of the right people and to ensure that network is happy and incentivised.

Now we have that in our internal Fan Intelligence Team, who we recruited from CRM & community management backgrounds. Their specific job is to constantly scout for new people to join the network and get them collaborating on the right projects at the right time. 

Their fundamental role is about finding, selecting and keeping that network active. They do social scraping and searching, but they also speak to people and ask for recommendations from other members to see who else might join.

We then review people’s input and score their engagement for the quality and impact of intelligence they give us from a work perspective.

How do you make sure your network is fresh and full of the right people, it must take some managing?

Once they’re in the network, we constantly review their input and engagement to ensure they give us and our clientsthe intelligence they need. So the network is an amorphous group, with people moving in and out over time.

What’s important to acknowledge is how our network of 11,500 comes to life for any client. For each brief, we build a subset that we call a collective. With New Balance football, for example, we’ve got the future football collective, a subset of the network in specific markets around the world. 

We select people by filtering the network based on the required client screener – be that location, demographics, sector expertise, their role in culture, etc. And then we look at some things like what their input has been like in the past.

So it’s this that keeps it fresh. On the one hand, it’s the team constantly reviewing the wider 11,500; on the other, it’s our clients accessing subsets, or collectives, based on their specific requirements to briefs.

Talk to us about some of the things you have been proudest of on your journey as a business?

Firstly would be just what we have been building. For the last two or three years, the business has grown in some of the most challenging circumstances, particularly in the landscape that we all work in, in sports and esports. The pandemic completely changed working environments and resulted in widespread societal change. 

The growth through that is fundamentally because we’ve been able to find and bring in the right people and implementa culture that gets the best out of them.

What have been some of the struggles you have faced as a business?

The balance between building our current clients and adding new ones has been an interesting challenge. We intentionally went from 26 clients in 2018 to six. We focused on the ones that we saw as long-term relationships. And the business has pretty much quadrupled in size since then.

Our clients have specific teams obsessed with that area of culture. That’s where we built the business, with our clients at the centre, by being experts who create amazing work. As a result, each client helps us be the best agency for them. 

But matching a strategy that focuses on your current clients, alongside talking to the industry and finding new ones to bring in, is a challenge most agencies face. We want to find the right clients, and we are all working on finding the right clients who can fill that roster, and that can grow. 

Looking forward, I know you can’t share too much but what exciting things are in the pipeline?

The next phase of development for the Fan Intelligence Network is exciting. Historically, we’ve built bespoke collectives for clients, so the entry point to the business is building a retained collective as our clients have. However, now we have pre-built collectives in different areas of culture that make it a lot easier for clients to come in and just dip in and try Fan Intelligence on a one-off basis. Those specific collectives include football, NFL, NBA, Metaverse, Web3, Olympics and many more.

It just makes us a lot more set up for new clients that come on board to trial Fan Intelligence with an initial pilot project or dip in the water and then see where it goes from there. 

Famously Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” When he refused to put his weight behind a democrat in the mayoral race in his home state. This is an example of a brand/person not wanting to get involved in politics. How do you think the relationship between brands and politics has changed over time?

After the phenomenal societal change over the past few years, alongside the ridiculous amount of hugely significant global events that have changed how people identify themselves and who and what they identify with, I think it’s completely changed. 

The role brands play in people’s lives is more prominent than ever; people express their personal identity through their choice of brands. 

Ear to the Ground will be unveiling the 22/23 Fan Index at the iSportConnect Brands Masterclass on October 19, sign up here:

Brands Masterclas Changing The Game Culturally aware Ear to the Ground