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Al MacCuish, Chairman of Sunshine and Jenna Barnet, CEO of Sunshine, on the power of cultural currency
‘Be the CEO your parents wanted you to marry’. This iconic strapline for the Bumble app is the perfect reminder of how culture is more than a buzzword. A red thread runs between how Bumble Founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd turned dating culture on its head and the company’s $7 billion dollar IPO. Making culture is far more than fluffy marketing window dressing, it is the lynchpin of modern brand building.
For while the industry has debated the point of purpose on a loop, Sunshine has consistently proved its creative worth. With initiatives such as Gucci's Chime for Change; Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction; BBC Earth's Real Happiness Project and Nike's Girl Effect; Sunshine has let the work do the talking.
Creating culture sits at the heart of Sunshine’s core principle: ‘Don’t interrupt the things people love, be the thing people love.’ As guiding propositions go it is unique in its clarity and consistency. For while many parts of the industry are in the business of talking about culture, Sunshine is in the business of making it.
Jenna Barnet, CEO of Sunshine, explains: “We are huge believers in non-interruptive entertainment. You don’t always want to hear about toothpaste in the midst of high drama.”
Barnet explains that this principle is at the heart of the company’s ethos. “The idea of brands making entertainment seemed so obvious to us. We weren’t in the business of product placement, the question was how are we going to make something,” she adds.
A decade on, the wider industry narrative is increasingly focused on culture. A trend which has perhaps become so broad the word itself has become meaningless.
Al MacCuish, Chairman of Sunshine, compares the ubiquity of the word culture with ‘digital’ in the way in which both brands and agencies have collected around a single word. “Eleven years ago no client was talking about culture,” he explains.
Yet as brands emerge from the Covid era, the shift towards culture is huge, according to MacCuish, with clients looking for better ways to navigate and connect into entertainment spaces. He notes that the core differentiation is that brands find ways to enter into culture that are ‘additive not interruptive.’
He believes that focusing on ‘emotional attention’ rather than just saliency is vital. “Historically we all want release and escape,” he explains. Pointing to that very human desire to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. A fundamental need which means that even within news media there is a huge role for arts and entertainment. It’s not simply that people want to be distracted, they want something to believe in. To lose themselves within.
The democratisation of creativity means that those sources - whether of inspiration or disinformation - are only ever growing. “The creators of culture are a new generation of creators,” explains MacCuish. He believes that when it comes to unleashing the true impact of brands, creators and culture, we are only just getting started.
Rather than falling into the binary and distracting debate of ‘purpose versus profit’, Barnet instead focuses on the simple truth that purpose drives emotion. Through this lens purpose is vital to cultural relevance. “We generally come to a purposeful outcome when we think about brands and culture because the most meaning creates the most value,” she explains.
MacCuish takes a typically nuanced view of the industry’s purpose debate. “The question is what is the opposite of purpose? Having no clear purpose,” he explains. A point that underlines that knowing what you stand for one hundred per cent of the time isn’t a distraction from the business of brand building, it is the fundamental core.
“Purpose is about the ability to understand a product and service, it is about what people say about you when you aren’t in the room. It is all very common sense. The work is to find ways to express that purpose with emotional integrity,” he adds.
He believes that the fatigue with purpose is often because that purpose is being expressed only in the medium of paid for advertising. Instead, brands need to look at how that purpose is expressed throughout a business; from its sustainability strategy to embracing really clear and simple language to explain its choices as a business to consumers. In the attention economy it is not just advertising which gets attention, it is the things you do not say.
It is almost unbearable the amount of information we have - and all that complexity and tension forces people to crave stereotypes because they help to bring order to a cacophony of chaos.Jenna Barnet, CEO of Sunshine
Generation Z might feel like the most-stereotyped generation in history but as MacCuish notes you can find stereotypes with every generation. The shift to purpose is instead a more fundamental shift rather than a knee-jerk response to generational changes. “The key is to get to the heart of what is driving a community and then avoid the stereotypes which surround them,” he explains.
Barnet believes that Generation Z often gets singled out because they were the first digital generation and consumption has become interactive, which in turn creates noise and chaos. She explains: “It is almost unbearable the amount of information we have - and all that complexity and tension forces people to crave stereotypes because they help to bring order to a cacophony of chaos.”
Yet rather than seeking the solace of stereotyping, Barnet advocates for creating core principles for a brand voice. Principles which can then be leaned on throughout challenging moments or backlash.
“It is art and not science and most brands understand that you can’t please everyone all of the time,” she explains. In practice, this means staying true to that voice even when there is backlash; such as Nike’s long-running partnership with Colin Kaepernick.
People are misattributing that state of creative flow with being in an office.Al MacCuish, Chairman of Sunshine
Yet while these acts of brand advocacy cut through; are brands delusional in believing they can drive culture? “Leonardo da Vinci needed a sponsor. Human behaviour has always needed a corporate force to fund it. Ultimately you have to come up with the right reason for that sponsorship but it goes back centuries,” says Barnet.
MacCuish believes that human beings are constantly looking for meaning and symbols. “We are at an extraordinary point in the attention economy,” he states, adding: “If your house is on fire you are in the market for a fire extinguisher not a pair of sneakers.”
The challenge is that not every brand is a high interest brand in a high interest category. “The question for brands is which culture is it realistic for them to have a voice within.” adds MacCuish, “Levis was one hundred per cent part of youth culture in the eighties, but it comes back to the why factor. You have to be clear on who you are and what you are there to do.”
For Barnet being at the forefront of culture is a competitive advantage. “We have a really full toolbox, we know exactly how to do what we do. We have earned the stripes and the world has caught up to that and it's phenomenal.”
The evolution of creative craft is also a source of excitement for the team, in particular the rise of new visual languages. Yet, regardless of the cacophony of social media, the real skill still lies in creating a story that can transcend those snatched moments of attention and connect beyond short form messaging.
It is a shift which means that brands need to focus on their storytelling because that moment in time has to cut through to a meaningful connection. MacCuish points to the example of Bumble, a brand which has imprinted its impact on his life momentously (he met his wife on the app.) “It is one of my favourite brands of all time and there is such a genuine connection and authenticity,” he explains.
He is equally positive about AI, sharing it is top of the agenda in many conversations. “AI just needs a better publicist,” he quips, adding: “It was really poor at communicating its benefits as a tool for production. In development, it's already having a phenomenal impact.”
If your house is on fire you are in the market for a fire extinguisher not a pair of sneakers.Al MacCuish, Chairman of Sunshine
There is no question that forging those genuine connections with consumers isn’t easy. “You used to be able to buy pockets of audiences from traditional media brands and that was the only way to access that audience. Now that audience is self-editing and it’s shifting from a paid for approach,” explains Barnet
In essence, if brands can create their own content to be a magnet for those audiences, it is possible to still build those connections. It simply demands coming at a problem from a different perspective. “When you are standing at the shore you see the waves coming towards you, when in actual fact what you are seeing is the world turning,” she adds.
As she explains: “Audiences are moving but you can still have that ocean of people. You still need those aggregating points as we still have vast bodies of people who can aggregate around storytelling.”
It’s a refreshing change from the dominant narrative that the battle for attention is based on attention spans decreasing. For while formats change, whether magazine, cinema screen, podcasts or on demand, the fundamental human connection of storytelling endures. It is a shift which gives brands the power to do things differently. As Barnet explains: “We can bring a brand like Victoria’s Secret on this incredible cultural journey that was unimaginable in the age of network television and just look at the impact of Barbie.” From a branded podcast series to a heritage brand mainstreaming a cultural conversation on the impact of the patriarchy, there is no shortage of opportunities for growth.
Yet as we come to the end of a challenging year, the danger is market trepidation puts breakthrough ideas on ice. “We are all prisoners of our own experience, being open-minded is a mode,” explains MacCuish, who adds simply: “The enemy of creativity is fear.”
Describing Sunshine’s creative approach as ‘fearless not reckless’ he notes that they understand how to manage risk having been given a decade of doing things first. “You keep yourself creative and curious by doing things differently,” he explains.
Notably, he shares that half of the work Sunshine undertakes is entirely invisible. This involves working with leadership teams on big transformational projects. He explains: “You have to have professional empathy and interest in the challenges and complexities that clients have as you will rarely have everyone agree on a board.”
We are all prisoners of our own experience, being open-minded is a mode.Al MacCuish, Chairman of Sunshine
This means skills like active listening are vital. Notably, as a global company, Sunshine’s ability to listen is not predicated on being in the same office at the same time. “We have always worked together remotely, we are in LA and London, so many of our production partners are here [in LA],” says Barnet.
She continues: “To have a true global perspective we are remote. The idea that remoteness is a problem when we are all global businesses is a little bit of a headline, not a reality.”
For MacCuish there is none of the hand wringing about getting people into the office. Instead, he believes the focus of a creative company needs to be on getting flow. He explains: “You used to get that flow from spending time in an office. People are misattributing that state of creative flow with being in an office,” he explains.
“It comes back to intention, from day one we had to have the flow. If your intention is to be in good flow with your colleagues and partners you can do it,” he adds.
Sunshine has had over a decade to find its creative flow and while competitors might now flood the market the differentiator of culture being more than just a buzzword remains a competitive and creative advantage. Storytelling remains the most enduring, yet arguably still most under-utilised tool in marketing.
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