Cultural Relevance: Don’t Cannibalise, Capitalise Instead (Full interview)
This piece was originally done as an interview for the Stylus Trend Report.
Culture is quickly becoming the new product today, which makes it increasingly important for brands to ‘hit the mark’…
This is a full version of the interview with the Stylus Innovation + Advisory for the trend report No Offence: How Brands Can Speak the Language of Now. Covering an important subject for brands to tackle in their strategy today, this report discussed how properly engaging brands in the codes of culture can spark new kinds of relevance. We talked about the very concept of cultural relevance, the difference between elevating lived experiences and cannibalising on culture for profit, the lack of systemic understanding of culture in brand management, the need for brands to take back control over managing their meaning footprint (how they show up in the world) or how brands can create vibrant cultures to create their own vital contexts.
Stylus: Nike’s Nothing Beats a Londoner ad vs Puma’s House of Hustle event in London both navigated cultural context to varying degrees of success. One brand was venerated for its ad while the other was attacked for a promotion in poor faith and taste. Why one works and the other one doesn’t?
Nike’s ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ works because it’s truthful and authentic, rich in sentiment and resonates with the reality. The tonality of this story perfectly embodies the spirit of Londoners and the British mentality. It’s slightly subversive, full of references to what Londoners are struggling with on a daily basis, but in a fun and relatable way. It is narrated through a series of takedowns and one-ups that are so quintessentially British. It uses the cultural diversity of London as a backdrop to narrate the story truthfully because it’s the natural state of things, and not to make a point.
Puma’s ‘House of Hustle’, on the other hand, misstepped here because their take on culture wasn’t portrayed accurately but was parodied, which can be seen as offensive. Using the suffering of people synonymous with a by-product of the deepening divide in our modern society, profiting off of a culture that is not your own and taking it out of its context to use as a fun theme (a token) or a setting for your brand-endorsed party can be seen not only as distasteful but also as morally corrupted and parasitic as it’s cultural appropriation. It shows a poor judgement and a lack of empathy and self-reflection. Appropriating something that doesn’t belong to you and has a negative social connotation is a very uninspired strategy.
Brands should function as aspirational vehicles for maximising human potential, not as vultures feasting on the weak pray. There is nothing glamorous about poverty or drug dealing, certainly not for people who see these conditions as their everyday reality with a little to no way out.
“Navigating culture in a right way is less about the culture itself and more about common sense and respect.”
Navigating culture in a right way is less about the culture itself and more about common sense: behaving and reasoning like a human being, having a capacity for empathy, compassion and a good judgment. It’s about respect. That is the most fundamental difference here.
Stylus: What do you think are the key learning points in these two approaches?
A lot of brands today want to tap into the cultural zeitgeist to create cultural relevance as a mighty social currency. But because they lack the fundamental knowledge of how culture evolves and operates, they cannot navigate and decode its signals systemically. Therefore, they make these contextual lapses and culturally or racially insensitive moves. They’re not aware of their own context.
Furthermore, it’s not just about the culture but also about the emotional relevance to the brand. If you’re feeding off of a negative emotion, vulnerability or problematic angles of our time in a way that is mischievous, cheeky or parasitic, it’s obvious that the culture will strike back and people will not like it. After all, advertising was created to elevate the human spirit through the codes of aspiration and alleviating your pain of everyday life (even if for a commercial profit).
The post-modern mirroring of our own lapses, insecurities, imperfections and weak spots is not something that had its place in advertising historically, especially in a way that these things would be widely celebrated. Perfection and idealism were the dominant codes of the past. It’s uncomfortable for people to face the harsh truths about themselves, which dilutes the entire purpose of advertising showing brands in a positive light to elicit a positive emotion that increases brand-consumer bonding. The rawness and authenticity need to be ‘on culture’ to create a wider relevant context but also need to make a strong connection back to the brand and its values, otherwise, it might not make much sense to do strategically speaking.
Opening up important topics of today to stimulate a wider cultural conversation is a worthwhile goal for brands to pursue, but when doing this, brand owners should keep their brand’s essence in mind as a lens through which they look at the world to assess the degree of relevance and a potential harm.
The lesson here is not ‘don’t tap into the cultural codes to mine for meaning, you might hurt yourself’. The key lesson here is dual: Firstly, absolutely do use cultural insight to strengthen brand meaning because that’s where the richness of input is that can create a much higher degree of resonance than a brand defined strictly on the functional benefits of brand distinctiveness. Secondly, but when you do so, please do your homework first (ask a semiotician for help!) to navigate the cultural landscape in an informed way to avoid potential minefields that can harm your brand’s image and reputation and detract your consumer base and a loyal following in the long term.
Stylus: In brand communications, what differentiates elevating a lived experience from cannibalising it for consumption?
This is a great question. Believe it or not, this is not a question about culture per se, but rather about the intention with which you are using that particular cultural stimulus. It’s more about brand strategy (your POV — how you’re looking at it) rather than culture (what it is you’re actually looking at). Culture contains both good and bad elements because people have both good and bad qualities. The difference here is in whether the campaign is positively or negatively emotionally charged. These two forms of execution have opposite dynamics in terms of the meaning conveyed.
The first effect of elevating a lived experience has a divergent view of the culture (the far and wide) and offers a culturally rooted idea that expands people’s minds: inspires, educates, and promotes change and social growth. It’s relevant, yet positively charged. It’s also long-term as it offers a greater vision to be fulfilled over a longer time horizon.
A great example here would be the Adidas ‘Calling All Creators’ campaign where the brand has found its cultural resonance in embracing a potent idea of the power of creativity in collaboration with a worldwide community of Creators. This is a deeply positive campaign because it uses cultural insight and a deep human truth to inspire people and move them towards a better future direction.
It’s based on a powerful story of the inherent nature of humanity (so it’s universally true) and fits perfectly in our current cultural climate, where we see the rise in a collective spirit, co-creation, collaboration and creativity as primary drivers of the new sustainable economy for the 21st century. On the top of it, it adds a certain spiritual element because it’s also true on the soul level: We all are Creators. We all are here to create — new things in this world, our own destiny and utilising our human potential for the greater good of the mankind. It works perfectly on three narrative levels at once: universal human level, cultural level and spiritual level.
Elevating a lived experience is a positive human and authenticity-driven approach. It’s granular and nuanced. It’s thought-through. It’s culturally relevant. It’s truthful. It inspires. It offers a long-term vision. It has a big idea. Its energy is positive, motivational, visionary and expansive.
The second effect — cannibalizing on culture for profit — is the exact opposite of the former. Its energy is shrinking and not expansive, it doesn’t cultivate, elevate or inspire, but degrades, mocks and parasites on either a lack of understanding and vague feats of pretended relevance (e.g. the Pepsi Kendal Jenner ad and its fuzzy take of Unity with no distinctive meaning) or uses a rich cultural stimulus (such as diversity, humanity, creativity, identity, subcultures) but paints a picture that is not real and taken out of its context — is stereotyped, surreal, mean or untrue.
Cannibalizing on culture for profit is an unnuanced, flattened, vague and stereotyped approach lacking in both meaning and authenticity. It’s not thought-through but rather uses automatized mental shortcuts. It’s not truthful. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t inspire but rather disrespects. It doesn’t offer a vision and is done for a short-term profit. It’s not big-idea-driven. Its energy is negative, confusing, ambivalent, problematic and contractive.
Stylus: I really like the idea of a meaning footprint. Thinking of green donations on plane tickets that are meant to offset individuals’ carbon footprint: is there redemptive work brands can do to offset their negative meaning footprint?
Thank you, it is a concept I have developed to talk to brand owners about the need to systematically assess and measure the meanings they create and put in the world around them to increase brand integrity and meaningfulness of brand perception.
Meaning Footprint is the symbolic trail your company leaves behind when it communicates and acts in the world. Every brand or an organisation is a complex semiotic system — it produces a fog of meanings through the set of values, behaviours and activities it signifies and embodies in the world. When everything is intact, brands are healthy and can create meaningful relationships with their customers. But when this trail turns sour — due to a poor contextualisation within the culture and society or an inconsistent and fragmented identity, the brand can easily become toxic. This toxic meaning footprint can then be threatening to brand safety and reputation, and therefore to loyalty.
Luckily, this can be prevented by looking at brands as ecosystems of cultural meaning where one thing directly influences another. Brand managers, as well as marketing agencies, need to get educated about how culture and meaning work to create campaigns informed by their immediate contexts.
The lack of doing so creates confusion in the minds of consumers due to brand fragmentation further cluttered by an oversaturation of brands and products. P&G is a great example of not a brand, but an entire house of brands — with the biggest advertising spend in the world of $2bn annually. P&G is already starting to reshape the entire market landscape with an increased focus on retaining control over their brand management to decrease fragmentation of their brands. The proliferation of brand channels due to the rise of the omnichannel and the sheer number of agencies supplying content to feed these channels has made a coherent brand management nearly impossible. This is exactly what has tarnished the consistency of meaning footprints for the global brands, especially as they need to communicate in different markets around the world in different ways tied to the local variations of cultural sense.
We’ll see much more of these events happening in the near future which will restructure the market dynamics as other big global brand houses will feel the same need to take matters in their hands and build their own in-house agencies to maximise brand effectiveness and gain a full control over their meaning footprints. Meaning is what the brand value is tied to, after all. If you’re not helping to inflate it (which brand fragmentation does the exact opposite of), you’re decreasing it.
As for offsetting the negative, inconsistent or unclear meaning footprint, yes, of course, there are ways to offset this. This is exactly the work that I do at Meaning.Global and the primary reason why I created this consultancy to help brands do just that. You need to employ a holistic systemic approach to brands and culture and look at the symbolic trajectory of brand communication on a time-space continuum. We need to assess how the brand has communicated throughout the time up until now — that will give you an opportunity to see your brand in the context of both time (code evolution) and space (cultural contexts). In this sense, you can then see the peaks and lows of the brand’s performance as a matrix to help the brand repair its derailed image by accurately reflecting its essence in culture.
Stylus: How can brands demonstrate involvement in their own betterment without being accused of pandering? Can you think of a brand that has done some successfully?
Sure. The most recent Adidas campaign is an excellent example of this. You don’t need to pander to culture in order to be relevant. Instead, you need to find the sweet spot between the internal (brand) and external (cultural) relevance. The overlap is where meaning lives. Thanks to the ‘Creators’ angle, Adidas managed to jump their sales by 20% in 2017. With the 58% increase, the 2017 BrandZ report named Adidas the owner of the single largest annual increase in brand valuation. That is an amazing illustration of the power of meaning and cultural relevance directly feeding into the boost in brand valuation and equity.
“Meaning lives at the sweet spot between the internal (brand) and external (cultural) relevance.”
Apart from culture, some brands are just better than others at mirroring their brand DNA in a coherent manner. Brands that are strongly strategically defined are usually also those with a much more vibrant and consistent meaning footprint, which translates into a higher brand valuation. Look at Apple and its smooth translation of brand essence across all touchpoints: their physical product, retail spaces (through an impeccable coding architecture), brand communication, CX/UX and their website. Brands that are poorly strategically defined suffer from a much higher rate of fragmentation; their creative direction changes more often as well because they lack consumer resonance. This makes them shift their image more, which makes them even more innately fragmented, and therefore less valuable. It’s a vicious circle. Start with strategy and craft an authentic meaning. Then your chances of failing are much less probable.
Stylus: It’s really hard for brands to know what context their communications will be seen in, and whether in certain contexts they will cause offence — how can marketers mitigate against this without just resorting to bland generalisations?
Very true. The chances of you ever being able to mitigate external risk and control the context of the world around you are very slim. If you need this control, you’re in trouble because it’s an unrealistic expectation to have. That’s why brands shouldn’t try to fit into contexts but rather create their own strong cultures instead. Culture creates the context. If you have an authentic, strong and resonant culture built around your brand that inspires a loyal following, you’re in a position to create your own context, or at least actively re-create the shape and form of contexts in which your communications appear. It’s all about the strength of your brand, its vision, emotional charge, enthusiasm and usefulness.
“Culture creates context. So instead of trying to fit into the world around you, create your own culture. Be informed by the context, but use this knowledge to create your own world.”
The same exact thing is true with people. If you have a new job where the context isn’t known to you yet, you don’t wait to assess and fit into it because life is already happening and people are already perceiving you. What you do is to actively recreate it to your own advantage with the strength of your own personality, the demonstrated passion for the work you do, the enthusiasm you bring and the usefulness you have to others. Brands are exactly the same. Don’t wait to fit into somebody else’s context. Actively create your own with the strength and consistency of your brand. Then you can reset the initial context and build your own culture. Next thing you know, you’re unbeatable.
“Culture is a living dynamic organism and so is your brand.”
Also, one last piece of advice to brand managers: do not generalise, educate yourselves. Take the inside-out approach first: understand your brand really well; know what it stands for and what that means in the context of the world around you. Then take the opposite view from the outside in: develop a deep knowledge of the culture and understand that it’s systemic; it evolves in patterns that can be tracked via the dominant and weak/emergent signals throughout time. Culture is a living dynamic organism and so is your brand. Now you’re equipped to create your own context with your vibrant culture.
PhDr. Martina Olbertova is a brand meaning expert, global brand and cultural strategist, commercial semiotician and a doctor of media studies. She’s a Founder and chief executive of Meaning.Global, a new breed of strategic brand consultancy helping global brand owners and CMOs manage brand meaning. We rebuild brands from the inside out, rejuvenate meaning and create cultural relevance to increase value & growth. She’s also a new Contributing Author on brand meaning, brand management and cultural relevance to Branding Strategy Insider, the world’s most influential resource on brand strategy. Passionate about brand transformation, semiotics, cultural change, humanity, social progress and behavioural science. Based between London and Prague and helping brands find meaning around the globe.