It’s only fair for me to say that all of this–this whole exploration of cultural leadership–is Tim Stock’s fault.  The managing director and co-founder of consumer insights think tank scenarioDNA, Tim sent this tweet:

The one word that shot through my brain was, “Exactly!”  And, as you know, the result was my initial post on brands and cultural leadership.

But enough about me.  One of the cool things I’ve learned about Tim is that he and the team at scenarioDNA have developed a process called Culture Mapping, a proprietary and patent pending process that structures data around language coming out of small network clusters to predict the direction of cultural phenomena over time.

Also, check out scenarioDNA on Slideshare and you’ll see that they’re impressively prolific.  Anyway, here’s Tim’s take on cultural leadership, for which I’m grateful.

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

I do think that brands need to be much more aware of cultural zeitgeist. The trouble is the varying definitions of what brands see as effective impact. Brands have spent the last 50 years scripting the cultural narrative which has put their radar off a bit for how culture works in a highly networked world. To steal the words of Don Draper the most important idea in advertising was “new” – and the choices brands made were the calamine lotion to that itch. That model does not stand up to how people consume today. So when brands consider impact I often get the sense that they are misreading culture by casting their role in the story as lead players and missing the opportunity to be impactful in culturally authentic ways. I think the way brands need to see their relationship with culture is more synchronizing with it than driving it. Resist shifting the spotlight to the brand as the main event of it all. Finding the small (and sometimes bigger) ways to fit in as cultural narrative evolves by understanding what is working culturally for people. Honing in on the parts of the story that could work better and using resources unavailable to consumers to truly innovate and transform expectation.

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?

Selling more stuff can be a powerful thing if it means we are healthier and happier people for it. The hard part of cultural leadership is that it requires brand decision makers to ignore a lot of the the data that they are swimming in currently. We are lulled into thinking we know where the future is going by reading what people say today and looking at what sells today. The reality is that these are often echos of cultural beliefs cast in the past. Cultural leadership is about finding new language that has yet to take root. Tuning in on smaller signals that tell us where people want to be next. Signals that tell us what the role in that equation could be for us as brands. The leadership part of that is knowledge of the transformative potential in the existing and emerging capabilities of the company that can innovate and deliver on that so it does take root in authentic ways for people.

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

Hugely. Aversion to risk is why most attempts at cultural leadership come off as dressing on the brand’s existing marketing. Its the umbrella in the drink. Companies after all are in business of making money and staying in business, which has been considerably more challenging in recent times. It is why culture is used as a quick fix to declining relevance. A way of gunning the engine. Ironically this failure to frame the opportunity culture offers to brands authentically increases the risk and creates a downward spiral of diminishing returns. The brand doesn’t sync up to culture and the culture moves on.

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

I can’t think of a product that really stands out. A person comes to mind is [comedian] Louis C.K. Most of the great examples are ones where consumers are editing or reframing the product away from the brand.

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?

Stop inserting themselves like Spuds MacKenzie. Those days are over. Learn to read and pattern the signals in culture over time and develop real cultural intelligence.

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?

Brands need to become much more aware of how culture relates to elements within brand portfolios. Retire the assumptions about what the brand has meant to date and start looking at the way the brand works in affirming certain cultural truths. Each brand in a portfolio works in different ways in affirming different parts of culture. The opportunity is recognizing how that part of culture is changing and how perception and behavior are changing in relation to the attributes that particular brand delivers on. The strongest and most sustainable brands are those that can learn focus and discipline to stay synched to the cultural signals that will drive their growth. And avoid and ignore the loud signals that would appear to offer greater market share or category dominance. We have an abundance of dilution in product categories because everyone is reading the same loud cultural signals and jumping on with the same new stuff. It just becomes noise. And that is what the consumer is craving in leadership. Stop doing what is easy. Stop doing what everyone is doing. Lead me into new experiences. Transform my expectation.

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.