Evaluating A Brand’s Impact on Culture
By Dino Demopoulos
Here’s a simple model for evaluating a brand’s impact on culture, mapped along a continuum.
It’s not perfect, no model is, but it’s handy for quickly evaluating how a brand or campaign is doing relative to its cultural impact (positively and negatively). Let’s dig into it.
On the one hand, we have the brands that mess it up. Let’s not sugar-coat it, they Sh*t The Bed. They either undervalue the importance of culture, or misread their role within it. Maybe they’re just naively and innocently out-of-touch, not knowing better. Or not. Each one has to be evaluated case by case. One thing we know for sure though: when they get it wrong, it’s a cringe-fest felt far and wide.
The worst-case scenario for brands that finds themselves on this end is that they’ve intentionally appropriated culture without any intention of contributing to it. It’s never been a good idea to appropriate culture for commercial gain, and while this was a much more common practice in marketing not too long ago, the days of arrogantly objectifying or appropriating culture are numbered. Social media has made it a given that when a brand messes up, they will hear about it. Individuals and communities are calling brands out all the time; there’s no place to hide. The price of backlash and the risk associated with pissing off cultural communities is high enough now that brands and marketers are treading more carefully.
The “Sh*t The Bed” end of the continuum is a tough spot for a brand to find itself, and the list of brands that fall into this camp continues to grow in proportion to the growing outrage of the many groups (minorities, gender, class) who will not take it anymore. Brands can’t get away with it as easily.
Let’s call this end of the continuum “Sh*t The Bed”.
On the other end of the spectrum sit the brands that Create culture. They create new behaviours and ways of doing things. We love these brands because they don’t interrupt or annoy us. They make a positive contribution to our lives. There aren’t too many brands that achieve this but think of Red Bull and its role in music and sports culture, AMEX and its contribution to small business culture, or Patagonia and its leadership in the culture of sustainability. We’ll call this end Create.
It should go without saying that a lot of contemporary brands that are successfully shaping culture, do so without a traditional approach to marketing. Some barely advertise at all. Brands like AirBnB created new cultural behaviours long before they started to advertise.
There is a role for marketing to play in helping to create culture. To do so, however, the industry will have to step up and get more in tune with culture (a topic for another post).
Between “Sh*t the Bed” and “Create” there are two other key points to call out.
The first is where the majority of brands actually sit: Apathy. Despite marketer’s efforts and billions of dollars invested in marketing, the cold hard reality is that most people don’t care about most brands. The majority of brands are culturally off the radar. Not necessarily offending or polarizing anyone; they’re just neutral and irrelevant. I wanted to include an example here, but is that even necessary? Just think of any number of bland, generic work that makes no impact whatsoever, and is nothing more than a temporary blip on the radar.
Research tells us that people don’t think about brands all that much, and a lot of the effort of marketers and their agencies to get them to care is grounded in outdated notions of what works in advertising. Clients continue to ask for rational work that bores everyone to death, even though we know better than ever that it’s ineffective in influencing behaviour. It isn’t entirely marketers fault though; a lot of agencies are either not committed or not equipped to do better (more on that below).
The digital rush hasn’t necessarily helped either, too often over-steering in favour of short-term results over longer-term business and brand-building efforts. Given this myopic focus, we’re not overly confident that many brands facing overwhelming apathy will overcome consumer apathy by doing the same thing over and over again. The world and culture move on, while the brand slips into irrelevance.
Then there is the point on the continuum for brands In-Tune with culture. We should give these brands a lot of credit. They take the time to understand culture and the world outside their walls. They do a great job of reflecting what’s going on the real world, putting a creative lens on an issue or behaviour. Only a small percentage of brands do this well. Most creative work and marketing falls in the Apathy bucket. The creative work that does a great job of reflecting culture earns a lot of industry accolades and generates conversation beyond marketing circles. It impacts the real world.
That’s what ad agencies historically have done best: beautiful, impactful storytelling that captures the zeitgeist. Great advertising (even “traditional” advertising) has done this for decades. Digital tools, technology and media have provided more opportunity for brands in tune with culture to do this well. But they’ve only succeeded to the extent with which they’ve got culture first, then applied relevant tools and tactics (not the other way around — digital isn’t the silver bullet answer).
We’d argue that as the advertising creative community (traditional, digital and everything in between) becomes increasingly insular and disconnected from the nuances of contemporary culture, the ability of advertising to do this well is diminishing. Focusing less on awards and stunts and more on real behaviours and the real world would be a good start. Culture is shifting in so many interesting ways, and brands/marketers need to at least keep up.
In addition, creative departments need to open up to be more diverse and in touch with culture. In addition, knowing that brand-building today is about more than just messages and communication, reflecting culture with creative storytelling is just one piece of the puzzle, even when it’s done well.
We use this simple model as a quick way to map where brand strategy or work sits. We see a couple of important factors to keep in mind:
- More and more brands are finding themselves in the “Sh*t the Bed” zone. There is less margin of error for cultural appropriation and misrepresentation for commercial gain.
- Consumer apathy has also grown, a function of consumer control, commodification of maturing categories and a re-thinking of consumerism itself. People will continue to care less and less about the majority of brands.
- Finally, the creative advertising community is also facing headwinds and finding it harder than ever to legitimately claim to be a leading voice in culture (and certainly far from being the leading voice in culture. And while it’s harder than ever for them to get it right, the flip-side is that getting it wrong lands them in the dreaded “Sh*t the Bed” zone.
Getting in touch with culture or creating culture has always been difficult, and brands that get it right gain a competitive advantage. Doing so is harder than ever, and the cost of mis-firing is apathy at best, backlash in the worst case scenario. And for the brands that appreciate the importance of a cultural approach, they have a greater opportunity to reflect or create culture than ever before.
We’d love to hear from you, and value your take on this. We believe that this topic will become increasingly important for brands, marketers and start-ups to wrap their head around. Closing the gap between business and culture is a huge challenge, and we’re curious to hear different points of view on it, so please comment, share or reach out.
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