Why Cultural Relevance Is Human Relevance

By Evan Husted, Associate Strategist, gyro

Years after headlines boldly proclaimed that “brands are no longer in control,” they continue to act as though they are. Month after month, we are treated to campaigns that urge people to post their “favorite picture,” “create a video,” “share a story” or even “build a robot that looks like our brand.” Improving the relationship between business and culture is an admirable pursuit; however, as long as brands dictate and dominate the conversation, it remains inauthentic and devoid of meaning.

It’s only natural that marketers attempt to control their customers and brands, especially if they don’t understand or accept why change is even needed. We have been taught that the devil is in the details. We decode DNA as a way of understanding complex behavior. We learn letters to understand vocabulary, atoms to see the mechanics of the universe and someone’s background to know the person.

As physicist Albert-László Barabási wrote: “Reductionism was the driving force behind much of the twentieth century’s scientific research. To comprehend nature, it tells us, we must decipher its components.” Reductionist thinking lives on in how we manage our brands, understand people and even participate in culture.

The trouble is that this mode of thinking is best suited for the laboratory. In the controlled environment of the past, we could think logically and take our time to understand how things worked; however, reductionist thinking relies on a conscious, rational mind, which has difficulty dealing with dynamic complexity.

Unfortunately, today’s digital landscape has created a much more complex environment, dictated by endless links to remote ideas that interact on the same plain as brands. Out of those interactions, something new is created. This is an emergent system. Under the conditions of an emergent system, it is impossible to accurately predict what will come next. If you can’t predict what will come next, then it’s especially impractical to continue trying to control culture.

In 2014, IKEA lawyers stumbled upon a blog that passionately taught and celebrated “IKEA Hacking.” At first glance, IKEA looked at the blog from an old-world, reductionist point of view; it was another piece to catalog and control. IKEA fought the blog the only way it knew how: with lawsuits. Instead of embracing the unsolicited content and passion exhibited by these brand evangelists, the corporation attacked them. Finally, an executive got wind of what had transpired and quickly withdrew all legal action. He realized that the company had an opportunity to support, rather than dissect, and let the emergent system work its magic.

In the Internet age, brands are often amazed and frightened to find consumers using or interacting with their product in a novel way. They either pivot to capitalize on the phenomenon or try to control it. While both are risky, it may be even riskier to stifle a chance to achieve authentic cultural meaning.

Our best chance at achieving cultural relevance starts with three simple steps. They won’t ensure success; but they are crucial, if brands want to provide relevant and authentic value in people’s lives.

1. Find where and how your brand lives in culture. Watch it. Understand why it’s taken this form.
2. Once you find it, don’t shut it down. Lean into it.
3. Create it yourself, but not through campaigns that ask people to do the heavy lifting. Build platforms and experiences that allow people to use the brand as a springboard, to interpret as they please.

We should adopt a similar philosophy to the one that Peter Sims set forth in his book Little Bets. Marketing should be more agile and seek to grow its understanding of culture, through even more interactions. While emergent systems may be nearly impossible to predict, we can learn a lot from what we don’t know. Brands can do this by seeding culture with lots of little ideas. Ideas are able to fail quickly or take off.

In a system that is constantly moving and changing, we have a chance to continually learn and adapt brands to the unexpected. We may not be able to predict the outcome; but by loosening our control, brands will live more naturally in culture, as the little bets pay off.


Evan Husted — Associate Strategist, gyro

Evan Husted is fascinated by culture. He loves the good, the bad, and especially the kind that lies dormant before suddenly gaining popularity. As an Associate Strategist at gyro Denver, he gets to learn about new subcultures, brands and categories almost daily. It’s not uncommon for these dips to become plunges that fuel him long after a project ends. Before joining the gyro team, Evan worked on research projects and campaigns for Denny’s, Best Western, Folgers Coffee, National Park Service, and Above the Influence. Evan earned his Master’s Degree from VCU Brandcenter, where he studied Strategic Advertising.

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