To give a nod to the late Raymond Carver: What should we talk about when we talk about cultural leadership?

Of course, it’s easier to start by defining the inverse or what I’m NOT talking about. I’m not talking about organizational culture (although I suspect that I’ll need to come back to that at some point). I’m also not talking about developing world-class arts and cultural institutions.

My interest is this: How can brands achieve their business goals by leading and influencing the direction and shift of our collective sensibilities and our evolving understanding of how we make sense of our lives?

At its most basic level, leadership is about making a choice to chart a certain direction. That is, given the options of where we can go, here’s where we should go. From a cultural standpoint, it’s saying here’s what we should be talking about. Here are the new ways to frame the conversation, and we’ve expanded the frame because we need to have a bigger conversation, to make it more inclusive in ways that it’s currently not.

Apple certainly brought good design to the masses. Unilever’s Dove surfaced a global conversation about female beauty standards with its “Campaign for Real Beauty” (above).

One of the qualities of effective leaders, according to the late Peter Drucker, is that they are mission driven. What can/would/should a brand’s cultural mission be?

Of course, the problem with company “missions”–the kind exemplified by mission statements–is that they tend to be inwardly focused on corporate culture and product delivery. Cultural leadership suggests that a brand must incorporate an evolving understanding of its place in the world—and the cultural conversation—at large.  Somehow this feels like it’s an area beyond the realm of “consumer insights” teams.

Cultural leadership also seems to involve a brand taking some risk.  Which means that a brand doing a big celebrity endorsement doesn’t count for much on its own.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Risk is about exposure, about taking the chance that you won’t look cool, but that your actions and intentions are authentic. I suspect that consumers would respond more here and that said brand would have a higher probability of impacting whatever cultural conversation it’s trying to influence.

Cultural leadership may not be possible by committee.

There is something here that is related to the concept of “meaningfulness”. Havas Media recently released its Meaningful Brands survey, a new approach to what comprises brand value. It’s very much tied to the extent to which consumers see brands as contributing to their own personal wellbeing. One of the study’s finding is that if 70% of brands disappeared tomorrow, no one would miss them. This is not just an issue of personal relevancy, but also, I believe, of cultural relevancy.

Yes, “lifestyle” brands have an edge when it comes to impacting a cultural discussion. But, again, the Dove example shows that a product such as soap can influence a cultural conversation.

So, it’s possible. What I’m suggesting here is that it’s not just a case of capturing lightning in a bottle: Difficult though it is, brands can actively engage in cultural leadership.

The deeper question: How can they do it and do it effectively?

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.

  • Indy Neogy

    Lots of food for thought here Rob. Good post. I and some others have been working on the deeper question. We should have a chat some time.

    • Thanks, Indy. Would love to chat and hear more about “the deeper question.” Appreciate you taking the time to stop by. My contact info is on the “Contacts” page. Ping me on email. Looking forward!

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