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The Symbiotic Relationship Between Brands and Media

The Symbiotic Relationship Between Brands and Media

Kathryn Spitzberg Johnson

dark room with TV showing Netflix logo on screen

How brands can best capitalize on pop culture trends to stay relevant to consumers

When I recently asked a friend of mine what her 13-year-old daughter might want for a gift, she responded, “Pretty much anything that we liked in the 1980s is perfect.” From hair scrunchies to slap bracelets, it seems we should have saved our accessories over the past several decades. In fact, there are many brands experiencing a resurgence of their past popularity and familiarity. Some of this is due in part to the symbiotic relationship between brands and the media.

If you ask a teen where this ’80s craze came from, they typically have one answer: “Stranger Things.” Part of the appeal of the wildly popular Netflix series is the homage it pays to the decade of excess. Featuring brands, clothing and even slang that reminds many of us of our own youth, the show somehow makes our kids nostalgic for an era that existed far before they did. From Eggo waffles (which didn’t entirely disappear over the past few decades) to front-pleated pants (which thankfully did), there is a host of brands and products featured in the show. As parents exclaim, “I remember that!” kids are searching on their phone for where to buy it.

This symbiosis is manifesting itself in myriad ways in the “real world” as brands scramble to keep up with new demand that media has created. Partnerships between well-known brands and Stranger Things have popped up everywhere, including a sold-out special edition Schwinn bike featured on the series and a new style of Nike shoes featuring 1980s design elements. Other brands have jumped in on the Stranger Things phenomenon despite not having been featured on the show. Brands like Chia leveraged their popularity in the ’80s and popularity of the show to promote themselves. If you can’t have Dustin’s hair, you can grow it on your very own Chia.


Often mocked for its flamboyance and over-the-top everything, many left their Chia pets and the ’80s behind at a dead run. Products that were popular at the time lost their appeal, dragging with them baggage from an unfashionable era. The fact that big hair, crop tops and shoulder pads can be fashionable again just shows the undeniable power of the media to revive pieces of the past. “Old” brands and styles are experiencing a wonderful renaissance.

So how can brands capitalize on trends like this? There are a few things you can do to stay on top of the powerful influence that pop culture media has on consumer preference and behavior.

1. Broaden Your Outlook

Take a look at what’s rocking the cultural boat. You may not be a Stranger Things fan, but you should at least be aware of the show’s existence and popularity. Try to stay up to date on what’s popular, influential and happening in culture. Don’t limit yourself to just media. Take a look at all aspects of culture from popular shows on Netflix to who or what sent shockwaves across the floor at the Met Gala.

2. Ask Your Kids (Or Your Friend’s Kids)

What are they watching, playing or singing? Kids have their finger on the pulse of everything that is new (and new again). Ask them what’s popular among their friends and why. Why do they like it? What makes it interesting to them?

3. Leverage “Ranking” Resources

Use collected data and lists to give you a window into what’s happening. Amazon ranks the tops toys of the year. Google can tell you the most searched words. These rankings can give you an idea of what is having the most influence and holding the most attention.

Using these techniques can help give insight into what’s influencing how people think, feel and act. This knowledge, combined with the strengths of your brand, could help you find an interesting and exciting space to explore. Who knows? Maybe you could be the next Dustin Chia Pet.

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash.

Kathryn Spitzberg Johnson is a partner at Big Squirrel, a market research agency in Portland, Oregon.