The new navigators of pop culture
Image by BagoGames on Flickr

In the age of digital media, “content is king”. However, what type of content are we talking about? Recognizable franchises occasionally flop at the box office, and independent films become viral hits. It is therefore useful to identify the best practices of pop culture. Indeed, the creative geniuses of our time wield several design principles: from reviving our childhood and daring to tackle sociopolitical issues to removing friction throughout the value chain.

Our observations

  • Pop culture is characterized by a nostalgia pendulum that resurfaces content from 25-30 years ago. This mechanism ties into generational dynamics: creators wish to revive content from their childhood, while a lucrative consumer-group entering adulthood has become nostalgic for the same content. Disney’s business highly driven by nostalgia as the company explicitly aims to revive our childhood. These generational dynamics also occur in fashion and music.
  • Sociopolitical themes are increasingly incorporated into pop culture. Whereas such themes (e.g. populism, diversity, equality) have always been part of art, this is typically considered to be risky by production companies. Indeed, in the movie industry, it is mostly lower budget or independent films (e.g. Get Out, Moonlight, Crazy Rich Asians) that dare to tackle these issues and turn into a success (both critical reception and box office take). However, many of these (indie) films are becoming much more popular than in the past (partly enabled by social media), and Disney has been producing blockbusters with sociopolitical messages for some years (e.g. Iron Man, Star Wars, Black Panther). This pop culture shift also impacts music and fashion. This week Nike sent a huge social message by turning Colin Kaepernick (the first African-American NFL player to kneel during the national anthem) into the face of its new campaign, despite Kaepernick being without a team since March 2017, calling him “one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation”.
  • In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson argues that pop culture aims to strike a balance between neophobia (fear for the ‘new’, a desire for the familiar) and neophilia (desire for something new). Neophobia manifests itself as recurring rhythms, such as musical rhythm and narrative structure (i.e. The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Perhaps more interestingly, neophilia manifests itself as people being attracted to products and ideas that are unusual (and originate from niche communities): George Lucas originally designed Star Wars for young boys interested in sci-fi, Marvel originates out of the comic book cult, and similarly, Facebook was created for Harvard undergraduates.
  • The creative powers behind popular content are increasingly relevant to consumers. In the film industry, moviegoers increasingly pay attention to websites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes to monitor critical reception and track the releases of their favorite directors and producers. Movie studios, TV networks and streaming services compete to attract top talent (far beyond just actors). As such, prior to watching, consumers pay more attention to who is behind the content than the story itself.
  • Several large companies are integrating the value chain of pop culture from talent to production and distribution. For instance, Amazon produces movies (Amazon Studios), distributes them (Amazon Prime Video), owns IMDB (which functions as advertisement), and is looking into buying movie theaters. Netflix is also rumored to be acquiring movie theaters, and Disney is launching a streaming service.

Connecting the dots

A new generation of pop culture leaders has adopted design principles for creating content that we could view as best practices. These design principles are adopted throughout the value chain: from content itself to production, distribution and integration of the value chain in which content is created.
At the level of content itself, the changing conditions of popular content are tied to generational dynamics. Far from randomly producing ‘remakes’, companies like Disney and Netflix cleverly play into our sense of nostalgia by reviving content (or elements thereof) from our childhoods. We are currently in a transition period of bringing back the 80’s (e.g. Stranger Things, Top Gun) to reviving the ‘90s (e.g. Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers). Furthermore, while studio’s historically shied away from controversial sociopolitical issues, the new navigators of pop culture are embracing them. For instance, Star Wars tackled populist uprisings and Black Panther explicitly addressed ethnic tensions within the U.S. In addition, neophilia has manifested itself in the rise of certain genres (e.g. superheroes, science fiction) to stories that open up entirely new perspectives on our world, such as Get Out (i.e. unintentional racial discrimination) and Crazy Rich Asians (i.e. the culture of East Asians). These conditions tie into each other: the millennial generation (i.e. their nostalgia) values meaningful consumption and authentic experiences, which includes content that dares to tackle sociopolitical issues and new perspectives that explore these values.

The millennial generation values meaningful consumption and authentic experiences, which includes content that dares to tackle sociopolitical issues and new perspectives that explore these values.

Beyond the design of content itself, there are design principles in production, distribution and value chain integration. Since digitalization has increased the relevance of creative powers behind popular culture, companies try to appeal to consumers by attracting highly valued creative talent (e.g. producers, directors). Moreover, besides companies like Netflix, Amazon and Disney both producing and distributing content, they are increasingly expanding into other parts of the value chain. Indeed, the appeal of content is supported by its frictionless distribution (possibly physical as well, i.e. movie theaters).
The rise of new navigators of popular culture suggests that the future could require different design principles. For instance, neophilia could increasingly extend towards non-Western products and ideas (e.g. Bollywood, Chinese production), while companies like Disney try to expand in the East. Meanwhile, as digitalization not only boosts corporate giants like Disney and Amazon, but also empowers creative individuals (e.g. vloggers, independent artists), pop culture could become far more bottom-up (i.e. recent viral hits of independent films). Finally, as users shift to new interfaces (e.g. mobile, VR), design principles of pop culture could change as dramatically as the shift from books to movies.


  • Data-driven content production (i.e. Netflix’ algorithms) is not necessarily valuable in a world in which popular content is designed based on (cultivated) theoretical best practices such as nostalgia, sociopolitical messages and neophilia.
  • Recognizable IP’s are no guarantee for success. For example, while the superheroes of Marvel and DC on average perform similarly at the box office, Marvel’s initial and prolonged success has enabled Disney to produce more movies and take far more risky decisions (e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant Man) that smashed the box office with better critical reception (compared to Warner Bros. DC). The design principles of the conditions of content imply that success lies in releasing at the right moment in the generational nostalgia cycle, sociopolitical messages, and generating a sense of neophilia (although there is also an uncultivated manner of adhering to these design principles). Examples are the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars and many sci-fi movies of recent years (e.g. Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival).
  • Niche offerings, instead of outright recognizable IP’s, will become more valuable for two reasons: in the digital abundance of content, there are more opportunities to establish dedicated products and ideas (as opposed to the infinite content of YouTube and Netflix with their personalized algorithms), and IP’s from substantial niche fanbases potentially grow into mainstream franchises.