The C word and its use in modern marketing

The C word I’m talking about here is ‘culture’ or rather cultural relevance. I feel like cultural relevance is something that’s talked about a lot, but, like culture itself, is very hard to define. So I’m going to attempt to make sense of what we mean when we talk about cultural relevance for brands and why is it valuable.

Often when we hear the word culture we think of it in a broad sense as referring to either the arts, e.g. theatre or fine art, or the societal customs or ideologies of a particular group of people. Both of those meanings are applicable to brands, but to truly understand what we mean we have to dig a bit deeper and get specific. I think of culture within advertising and marketing as a contextual layer that sits above our normal audience data, which helps us to truly understand who they are. In my opinion the traditional data we gather on audiences only gives us a fairly two dimensional view, so we need to examine the particular cultural territory that they exist within if we want to turn that into glorious 3D. Cultural territories are many and varied and can be absolutely anything as long as the people within it share a set of ideals. Think skate culture, luxury culture, sneaker culture, cryptocurrency culture – within each of these exists a shared set of values, trends, ways of behaving, even their own languages. If a brand wants to be truly relevant to their audience, they have to understand all of the nuances and how that fits with the brand ethos.

There was a time when brands didn’t have to worry about this so much, and some of the truly good advertising had the ability to actually create culture – think Marmite ‘Love it or Hate it’, or the Tango man. As audience change over time this is becoming less and less the case. That’s not to say that great advertising no longer exists, but audiences expect far more from brands these days which means they’re less easily swayed by a traditional ad campaigns. Brand loyalty is now much harder to secure because today’s consumers, by and large, expect the brands that they buy to be in tune with their own values. They want authenticity over the hard sell. For a brand to become culturally relevant we need to understand two things – the brand’s ethos and values, and the cultural spaces that the brand can authentically occupy. We then find opportunities where the brand and audience’s values overlap.

The work that we create for brands exists on a continuum where cultural relevance sits on one side and sales objectives sits on the other. The problem we have is that those two things are not compatible with each other i.e. the more you try and make something address a specific sales objective or target the less authentic it will seem, and therefore less culturally relevant. The moment someone gets a whiff of the hard sell the work loses its credibility. The same is true the other way round – if you expect creative that is designed to increase cultural relevance to also hit your sales targets then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Most of the time what ends up happening is that we try and hedge our bets, creating work that sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. But all that means is that it doesn’t do either job particularly effectively. For example, brand X makes a content series focussing on grass roots creatives within streetwear, but the need to make this content meet commercial objectives means that the content is full of brand messages and product placement. In this example the brand messages are muddied, because they are part of a wider narrative and the authenticity is undermined by the commercial aspects. No one wins. For culturally relevant content to really work the brand has to have the confidence to sit back.

The solution is to look at our marketing channels separately and play each to their strengths – use traditional advertising to address specific business objectives, but dedicate a portion of your budget to investing in culture. True cultural relevance takes time and sensitivity to get right, but consistently investing in it will always make a brand stronger in the long term.

About the author:

Tim is the Executive Creative Director for independent, integrated agency CreativeRace. Tim has over 12 years experience in the industry and started off his career in London working for agencies such as Mother, Wieden + Kennedy and VCCP. He has since gone on to head up creative for boutique agencies specialising in everything from brand strategy to social media, experiential and interiors, also serving as group creative director across multiple Diageo brands. Tim’s primary focus is developing creative strategies, campaigns concepts designed to more closely align brands with culture.