by Meg Asaro,
Culture has become quite the buzz word as of late. The word itself has been trending on Merriam-Webster as the third most popular on their site (06.26.14). Is it because culture is literally expanding in size or because it is one of those words that has different meanings and needs clarification? I believe the root cause is related to both.
The dictionary definition of culture is “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc. of a particular society, group, place or time.” That makes total sense but, as a brander, I see culture as the palpable environment in which brands gain or lose relevance and meaning. For my work, the definition needs be more specific and actionable, setting up a call and response between culture and consumer, with brand smack dab in the middle of that conversation.
Something along the lines of “culture is the fusing of opportunity and motivations through mass behavior.” Redefining culture in this way makes room for the ever-changing symbiotic relationship between consumer and culture, humans and their environment and allows brands to connect on a deeper level. Deconstructing the definition a bit for clarity, motivations refer to the consumer need and opportunity to the shifting white space that brands inhabit in order to best satisfy that need.
Only by connecting a human need to a brand truth can brands hope for solid traction. Think of a brand that moves you. For me, it is Target. Experiencing awesome design at affordable prices, with modernized version of songs from my past (“Unbelievable,” 1991 from their back-to-school clothes spot) totally yins my yang.
But, today, there is a big challenge looming. We live in a time of constant content bombardment. Perpetual information is bought and sold, repurposed, consumed and more and more, forgotten. Ray Kurzweil’s “accelerating intelligence” is here. It is not a cultural shift of tomorrow but a reality of today. Culture is accelerating and is now much more fractured, splintered and well, weak. As the connective tissue between brand and consumer, it is getting stretched so thin that it is becoming more difficult to know what is true, what to latch onto and ultimately, what to leverage. Basically, it is becoming harder to find true relevance as cultural relevance itself is becoming less potent.
I stumbled on cultural strategy as a profession by happenstance about 16 years ago when I worked as a cultural curator: someone who defines and re-appropriates cultural meat for brand strategy and, ultimately, expression. At the time, Naomi Klein came out with No Logo and stated, “Whoever produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products, wins the race.” Tracking cultural shifts back then was dare I say, easy. You could see them coming from Technohuman (the melding of technology and humanity) to S/he (gender bending) to Mass Class (the democratization of design – thanks Martha).
We talked of white space and penetrating gray matter because we could with culturally relevant image and design. Culture had gravitas and weight and we had water cooler moments to discuss and dissect. But progressively, these moments got fractured. Common cultural stories were told in smaller like-minded tribes. And those bigger cultural moments? They got uglier. The squeaky wheel tends to get the grease, or the loudest voice the mic, more appropriately. Examples that come to mind range from the Real Housewives juggernaut to Miley’s twerking to the unfortunate nature of the coverage of our beloved Robin Williams‘ death. We don’t need all the gory details but the school of thought that’s winning today says: sensationalism sells.
I look back at 1998 with rose-tinted glasses. We saw the future through brightly colored iMacs and Woody from “Toy Story.” But, we could also turn ourselves off and just be human, find some peace. Cyber reality was just that, another world to enter and leave. Today, we are never unplugged, the thought is foreign as our smartphones get smarter and our addiction grows. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is famously quoted as saying, “Every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” Because of this, I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed and overloaded. I worry that we are experiencing a cultural fracturing, and that perhaps a deep cavernous disconnection has begun.
So, in this world where overload is the new normal, what is a brand to do? How can brands connect with consumers and actually, really, still break through?
I have a few thoughts:
1. Be strong
It is brand’s role to act as a stabilizer in this cultural uncertainty. JC Penney illustrated what happens when a brand radically departs from what they know. They crumbled fast but thankfully are back on track, returning to their original logo and common industry practices.
2. Be true to your brand’s roots
Don’t act upon a cultural shift that is not true to the DNA of your brand. Remember Pepsi’s Refresh Project? It didn’t resonate because cause marketing was not core to the brand. Once they started embodying being “timely” to Coke’s “timeless”, did Pepsi gain traction. They now message “current” to go up against Coke’s “classic”, leveraging a rich history of using “of the moment” musicians to retain cultural relevancy.
3. Be ahead of the curve
Brands that follow by nature tend to get swallowed up in the abyss and don’t truly stand for something. Yesterday’s low fat is today’s whole grain.
4. Research culture relevant to your tribe
Continually monitor your core constituents, their behaviors and needs. With today’s cultural fracturing, staying close to those who love your brand allows you to stay at the heart of the conversation and respond with culturally relevant stories. Only then are we truly allowing brands to do their thang.
Read the full article here.