We Are Family: The Changing Face of the Modern Family

By Dr. Joanne Lacey MEAT

Family is one of those expansive symbolic spaces that can paradoxically become rather limp if it isn’t handled with some nuance and precision. This is a thinking piece about the meaning of the modern family and how brands that serve modern families can transform the conversations that they have about and with families. It is inspired by MEAT’s work in creating significant brand transformations in and around the space of the family for a number of brands within GSK, Danone, Premier Foods and Stagecoach Theatre Schools.

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Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood filmed in 39 days over 12 years, is an insightful account, totally devoid of sentimentality of a young man’s journey from childhood to adulthood. It is an equally insightful account, totally devoid of sentimentality and judgement, of the changing shape of family; motherhood, fatherhood, sisterhood, brotherhood. Boyhood’s creative and narrative achievements are multiple and laudable, not the least of which is its representation of the idea of the family which is utterly believable in its tracing of the tangibly complex bonds and intimacies of family relationships. UK film critic Mark Kermode describes the film’s narrative point of view as placing the viewer inside the family, we don’t look at them, but rather we look with them, sharing in their hopes and dreams, encouraging us to do the same. What Linklater manages to create is an unidealistic idea of the family in which family is not a structure, but an evolving set of relationships. Family is something that happens. Linklater creates a modern family that in its happening feels utterly immediate, utterly relevant and utterly credible.

Whilst the narrative purpose of a brand is not the same thing as the narrative purpose of a film, both are engaged creatively in the business of idea creation and storytelling. In the brand world there is a striking absence of an idea of the family that captures the immediacy, intimacy and credibility of the family in Boyhood. As the world moves on and as the meaning and shape of the modern family evolves why is it that family brands, those brands that sell an idea of what family is, often continue to overly explicate and sentimentalise the family, creating multiplicities of perfected images that continue to elevate the nuclear family as the gold standard? One reason might be that they are not tracking the social changes around the family in their market. The other reason may well relate to the way that we humans (and that includes marketers) need to simplify and idealise the idea of the family as a kind of mythological deceit. The myths have a positive and powerful purpose, they exist to unconsciously repair the tension at the heart of the idea of the family; we want to make it perfect because we know, from our direct experience, that it is often not, and that knowing hurts.
Family brands are holding some powerful emotional equity. The idea of family is a prodigiously powerful one, and one that resonates the world over, calling forth some fundamental and congregating emotions. As humans we are hardwired with a deep desire to belong and to be loved. The idea of the family stands for our desire to be part of something that delivers unconditional and enduring love. Because of this deep human yearning we need to create fantasies of the family, spaces where everything is OK, everyone is loved and everyone belongs, cue the semiotics of the traditional nuclear ideal and happy smiling faces. As such, the idea of the family in the world of family brands operates as a reparative phantasy. Phantasies of the ph kind work unconsciously to repair almost unbearable emotional tensions.

The creation of the ‘Dirt is Good’ global positioning by MEAT’s co- founder, David Arkwright, in the family facing arena of laundry detergents is a strong case in point. In his subsequent book, ‘The Making of Dirt is Good’, David explicates the important fact that at the core of ‘Dirt is Good’ is an idea which the brand resolves. It resolves the tension which operates beyond, yet hugely pertinent to the world of laundry: – namely that as parents we seek to be ever more libertarian in how we raise our children and how we are as a family, as opposed to succumbing to disciplinarianism. Being a freer parent is the great symbol of progress, generation to generation, and what family does not aspire to that? The powerful single insight, ‘it is only when you are free to get dirty that you can truly experience life and grow’ contains a powerful reparative phantasy. This offers families across the globe something to reach for that encapsulates the great and immediate tension for families, that of parenting today as it is lived through children.

Families have become increasingly diverse, fragmented and atomised. In the West the average family is increasingly hard to define due to a number of societal shifts; from the rise of stay at home dads, to older first time mothers, civil partnerships, the “boomerang generation” of kids who don’t leave home, the rise of the post-divorce and separation ‘blended family’, and the rise of mixed race families. In other markets globally, albeit in different ways, changes in the social structure of the family are seen to be creating a crisis in the idea of the family because societies rely on the idea of the stable family for its moral and social cohesion. Mess with family and you are messing with the very fabric of society. Time starved parents don’t spend enough time with their children, increasingly empowered women are abandoning their domestic posts, grandparents are raising the children of overseas workers, obese children are part of poor family eating habits and are creating a generational healthcare crisis, technology is negatively impacting on family bonding. In China, traditional familial patterns of caring for elders are shifting, so much so that parent minding services are a growing sector and parents are suing their children for neglect of filial duty. Take all of this into account and the conventional idea of family starts to look conspicuously old fashioned.

There are brands who model a different idea of family, brands that transcend the anachronism of idealised and deceptively simple conceptions of the family. These are brands that have at their heart a deeply human idea of family as it is happening now. Like Linklater, they create a deeply human world in which we look with the family, we share their fears, and their hopes and dreams and because of that are perhaps encouraged to share our own.

Take Coke. Their 2011, ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’ campaign for the ‘Overseas Foreign Workers’ project, helped three overseas Filipino workers to go home to the Philippines to spend Christmas with their families. More than 11 million Filipinos work in foreign countries and many have been separated from their families for many years in order to ensure a better life for them. Back home are ‘the left behind’ generation of grandparents and children. The creative idea in the form of a short film is perfectly aligned to Coke’s ‘sharing happiness’ brand idea and it elevates that idea into the family space in a way that shows Coke to be tuned in to and responsive to the real and immediate social issues in their market and the emotional impact that it is having. It also quite beautifully segways into a globally congregating human need – to belong and to be loved. So whether directly affected by the impact of overseas working or not, at a human level, at the level of the human family, we can connect.

Take Birds Eye, a leading UK family food brand that had become demeaned as more of a frozen peas and fish fingers ‘fall back’ option for consumers rather than ‘first choice’. In 2014 Birds Eye unveiled a new master brand campaign ‘The food of Life’ which, with an ethnographic eye on the real, showed us the importance of the relationships that happen around food rather than focusing on the food itself. In so doing they ‘re-meaned’ their products as the fulcrum around which family happens and around which family relationships are nourished and sustained. In addition, they disrupted category conventions of showing us perfected images of nuclear family structures, and projected their brand close to the ‘really real’ of real life.

MEAT has developed a projective global insight tool which specialises in tracking the changing cultural life of ideas and the human values that they align to. Cultural Energies™ map the emergent attitudes, values, beliefs, behaviours and brand and cultural examples that evidence how and where an idea is evolving in a particular market. They draw on a network of global in-market cultural insight specialists to elicit the themes and the language that can help brands give new meaning to demeaned ideas. Cultural Energies™ is an integral part of the brandswebelievein™ building process, laying down the insight in one of the four brand pillars, the context pillar. We have deployed Cultural Energies™ to track the changing cultural idea of the family in different markets around the world, helping brands that sell to an idea of family communicate to family and families in a way that is utterly relevant, utterly believable and utterly credible.

Cultural Energies™ delivered the biting cultural insight that helped GSK reposition a stable of adult and children’s healthcare brands to meet the diverse needs of modern Asian families. It identified the critical tensions at play for families in the current and coming context, bringing contextual rigor to the subsequent elaboration of the driving Human Value of Family Security. As a powerful insight tool, it also excavated the changing meaning of mealtimes in a changing context of home and family. In identifying the emergent attitudes and behaviours in the home around family as a set of relationships rather than a structure, the work helped Premier Foods to give new meaning to the idea of convenience in the Cooking Sauces category, elevating it above the functional space of ‘quick and easy’ and into the powerful emotional equity in modern homes and modern mealtimes. Cultural Energies™ also mapped the space of ‘Modern Parenting’, looking into the coming cultural context of the vocation of ‘parenting’, that distinct and specific terminology to name what parents do. MEAT helped Stagecoach Theatre Arts resolve some of the key tensions facing modern ‘parenting’ and helped to position their brand as an indispensable resource for parents who want to help their children be happy and successful in life.

It is in the tangibly complex bonds and intimacies of family relationships that family happens. Cultural Energies™ can help brands to navigate these tides and find the deep waters in which to drop an emotional anchor.