Kicking off my series on cultural leadership is Y&R’s Rick Liebling, the agency’s Creative Culturalist.  It’s his job to be a resource both internally and to Y&R clients to help them understand new developments in culture, consumer behavior and new technology.  That said, he’s a great lead off as I open up this discussion to other smart people who are thinking about how, and if, brands can impact and influence the zeitgeist.

As a reminder, I’m defining cultural leadership as follows: The ability of a brand to impact the zeitgeist, especially in relation to a particular topic or issue and move it to the forefront of conversation.

Q1: Does this definition work for you? What would you add?

Yes, that sounds right. But oftentimes cultural leadership begins outside the zeitgeist, and only becomes part of it when culture catches up to what the brand is doing. I think the true innovators (Nike, Red Bull, Apple, Starbucks) stake out new territory with an insight that is so rock solid that when we see it, if feels like something we knew all along.

Q2: A more basic question: Does the concept of cultural leadership exist at cross-purposes to the main function of the enterprise, i.e., to sell more stuff?  Why or why not?

I think increasingly they must co-exist. As consumers, we have myriad choices, including DIY, on so many things. If a brand isn’t trying to position itself vis a vis cultural leadership, they are leaving a big opportunity on the table.  Everything, and everyone are so connected now, trying to be an industry leader, trying to gain market share, but not play in the cultural space seems like it would be a challenge at this point, at least for consumer facing brands.

Q3: How does risk figure into the equation of a brand’s cultural leadership?

This is probably the hardest part. Organizations, the vast majority at least, are incredibly risk averse. But yet in the current environment where so much is changing, so fast; where disruptive technologies seem to be at play for almost everyone, the riskiest position would seem to be maintaining the status quo. So, what exactly is risk? Is it ‘risky’ to make a dozen small bets? Is it risky to pivot your entire business model? Is it risky to whistle past the graveyard and keep on turning out the same thing for another year?

Q4: Is there a brand that comes to mind that’s leading a cultural conversation well?

This is tricky because you can get involved in some niche areas. A group like Rooster Teeth makes content around video game & Internet culture. Their YouTube page has 1.9 billion views. Much more broadly, I think TED leads a cultural conversation. In between you have someone like VICE. From a more traditional, non-media brand standpoint, I think it’s very difficult to for brands to figure out how to talk to everyone about something other than themselves.

Q5: On a 1-5 scale (1=completely suck, 5=rockin’ the house!) where do you think MOST brands are when it comes to leading culture?


Q6: What’s the 1 thing you’d suggest brands start doing right now if they’re serious about improving their cultural leadership abilities?

Hire a Creative Culturalist. 🙂  Seriously, throw out your company vision statement and articulate your ambition. I’m stealing this right from Umair Haque’s book, Betterness. If you want to be a cultural leader, it’s got to be about something larger than product innovation or shareholder value.

BONUS QUESTION (this is completely optional): Any thoughts on how cultural leadership might map to other indicators of business health such as equity, volume, profit or market share?

It’s a great question, and one that, honestly, I don’t feel qualified to answer. I will again though, recommend reading Haque’s Betterness which speaks to what the role and ultimate purpose of a brand can be.

Keep up with Rick by following him on Twitter.

Inspired to add your voice to the mix? Then click here to fill out the questionnaire.  I’ll review and serve up the best answers.

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.

  • Rob, thanks for giving me the honor of kicking off what should be a fascinating conversation. I look forward to reading future entries in the series.

    • No, thank you! Appreciate your jumping in in typical “first mover” fashion. Yeah, this should yield some provocative perspectives. Stay tuned!