Those of you who know me know that Twitter is my social medium of choice. I’ve just been able to connect with and be inspired (and provoked) by a lot of smart people.  Case in point: Peter Spear, who calls his work “brand listening”. What that means is that he’s an advocate for the voice of the consumer.  He’s plied his trade for brands across multiple categories, including several years working with the Pepsi brand portfolio.  As you may recall, Peter and I have already gone back and forth on the question of purpose-driven marketing vs. cultural leadership.

You can follow his insights here or, like me, follow him on Twitter.

In the meantime, here’s his response to the cultural leadership survey:

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

I don’t think it’s an ability, so much as a choice – and one that is likely to grow into an imperative. I agree with Tim Stock on the notion that leadership isn’t the challenge, but rather something closer to participation or, to steal his language, synchronization. Or better yet, I love how Grant McCracken describes a porous corporation that interacts with culture in reciprocal way (here, here and here).

I don’t know that we’ll see the day when brands become social activists in the way that this definition implies, but I do think we are going to begin to see irrelevance and awkward incongruities devastate some brands who have not found their way to stay attuned to the culture of their category.

I worry that this notion that brands can somehow become advocates within broader culture overlooks the fact that many of them aren’t doing a very good job right now of responding to the shifting cultures of their category.

Those brands that recognize that brand is not a separate activity one wraps around their business and aim at the mass culture, but rather the outcome of the way that they help their customers in their category are the ones that are going to be stick around long enough to have a chance to lead culturally or, better yet, will end up as leaders as a result.

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’m equating cultural leadership with a provocative category leadership and, as such, it’s absolutely essential to selling more stuff. The fact of the matter is, as you pointed out, this isn’t brand behavior as a luxury of established brands, but rather the fundamental responsibility of brand in making a proposition accessible and compelling to consumers.

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

I think in a marketplace that increasingly values brand behavior over brand communication, it begins to feel riskier than ever. You can always pull an ad if it doesn’t go over well, but brand actions – either in the form of new products that manifest the brand or in experiences – are much more difficult to retract and so require a new kind of creative bravery.

The old logic of marketing allowed for a kind of laissez-faire cultural philosophy that kept consumers and the culture of the category at a safe and blurry remove. I think the old logic of marketing is currently grateful for the promise of “Big Data” because it allows them to maintain their distance from culture, while awaiting the increase in impact without really having to re-evaluate the role they should be playing in the culture of their category.

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

I think if we define it very narrowly, only one brand comes to mind and that is Mozilla with Firefox. It’s absolutely ridiculous what they have been able to do. They strike me as the sublime hybrid of cause and commerce. What they’ve done is pretty simple to say, but extremely difficult to do: they committed to translating their vision of the future into a product that actually helps people.

But it’s easier or at least more natural for cause organizations to know what they want the future to look like. They’re born with it. It’s accepting the fact that manifesting it in the marketplace might further their ends that is the challenge. Corporations have the opposite challenge – they don’t naturally commit to a future, but constantly manifest things in the marketplace.

I would also look at VICE as a brand whose cultural intelligence and conviction has taken them from upstart outsider to what appears to be a standard bearer for an evolving (and desperate) journalism.

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?

I would stop trying to lead and start listening. This is self-serving, of course, but I think it’s ironic that only with the arrival of social media did brands start to talk about “listening” – again because data allows them to keep a safe distance from the actual culture.

So, to me it’s simple: get leadership out of the office and into people’s lives so they can understand the real role their brand is playing (if any) in people’s lives and begin to decode the various ways they can make a difference in people’s lives. I love how Michael Schrage is framing this question: decide who you want your customers to become.

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?

I’ll leave that to the data scientists.

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.