Really thrilled at the interest level in this topic of brands and cultural leadership.  Lots of smart people are sharing some great perspectives.

Adding to the conversation is Dr. Jonathan Wilson, a senior lecturer in advertising and communications management at the University of Greenwich, London, UK.  In addition to branding and brand management, his research and scholarly interests include cross-culture, multiculturalism, cultural hybridization, ethnocentrism, and sub-cultures; stakeholder analysis and social networks; and Islamic, Muslim and Halal marketing/branding/consumer behavior, to name a few.  In fact, he is also the editor of the Journal of Islamic Marketing, an international journal examining the new wave of marketing to Muslim minority and majority markets.

Again, 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?

Sure, the definition works.

But I would tweak it to say “”The ability of a brand and its stakeholders to impact the Zeitgeist tribally…””

Stakeholders should be mentioned because brands attempt in many ways to become humanoids – with identities and personalities, which they seek to enact within communities, forming relationships and friendships, of sorts. For can you truly separate a brand from the oxygen of its intricate social networks, context, narratives and stories?

Tribal because when looking at the definition of a tribe; tribes are close-knit and loyal social divisions in a traditional society, consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.

Now the brand may not be the out and out leader, but its logo, term, visibility and in some cases verbability gift it leadership attributes. So, if not the leader, it is likely to form some sort of ingredient or co-branding relationship with an individual or cause.

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?

Cultural leadership for me is not about selling more stuff, or even seeking power.

Power, legitimacy, urgency and ownership, which are key variables in stakeholder analysis, could now be argued as being self-defined, most crucially – especially with the significance of the Internet and Social media.

Hail the dawning of a more Eastern, feminine, softer and sociocultural approach to branding. I am an advocate of anthropological economics and the idea of reciprocity. Putting others first and fulfilling their needs is the pathway to self-fulfillment. Welcome to globalization and a world of cultural complexity.

There is a fine line between an enterprise rooted in selling more stuff, and social entrepreneurship, which if we are talking about cultural leadership is a key issue.

If we explore more anthropological perspectives further: Ember and Ember (2007)  suggest that the everyday usage of the term culture refers to a desirable quality, which is acquired. However in contrast, Linton (1936, 1945) argues that culture is the total way of life, rather than those parts, which are regarded by society as being higher and most desirable. Similarly, Usunier (2000) views culture as a collective fingerprint, where:
•        Culture is the domain of pure quality
•        Culture is a set of coherent elements
•        Culture is entirely qualitative
•        There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ elements of a particular group
•        And therefore can be no globally superior or inferior cultures

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

Strong leaders in my view have to take calculated risks and that applies equally to brands.

These risks should be strategic, intelligence-based, collaborative, intuitive, and ideally with an element of spirituality or spirit.

They should mediate between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and evolution and revolution.

They should stand up, with integrity, authenticity and good intention.

Having said all of this, it’s worth remembering that some of the critical success factors will be organic, and hence perishable.

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

This is a tough question…

The top universities and rock bands spring to mind as being good examples.

In the same vein, Punk and Hip hop groups have no doubt lead cultural conversations well and their fingerprints continue to affect – however perhaps because they are so rooted in political and social factors, they struggle to maintain their positions over the long-term.

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?

To serve is to lead.

Culture and Branding make us human. Leadership is an inevitability. So do you want to be a leader, or a follower?

Without culture, can there be any such thing as branding? Without branding, does culture survive? In the widest sense, we are all producers, consumers, branders and marketers of culture.

At the time of writing this, the cherry blossom blooming outside of my window gives me inspiration. Like culture, cherry blossom epitomizes both transience and symbolic transcendence, governed by environmental factors – with the petals symbolizing the connected and overlapping levels at which culture exists. Furthermore, in Asian culture, the cherry blossom marries power (most notably by the samurai), and femininity.

So, my message and allegory is simple: C.H.E.R.R.Y. – Culture Has Environmental Reliance Relevance & Yield. Culture will blossom in the right conditions – it is hardy, whilst also being delicate. However, it begins to have value beyond its functionality and the potential to spread and grow when it is owned, cultivated and used.

The most significant aspects of culture are tacit – and therefore are understood best by those who are the most active in a collaborative process. Culture is a living breathing language, both verbal and non-verbal; and is symbolic – it is preserved whilst being rooted in the here and now. It joins participants together and presents anchors of understanding.

Organisations should see where different levels of culture conflict, join, cancel each other out, enhance, and govern activities. This is an organic, human and communal process. Just like the samurai revered cherry blossom, culture can be the symbol of power, victory, inspiration and feminine beauty. But, whilst every cherry blossom may look similar, they are different, occupy a different space, and are short lived – so too is culture.

So, embrace culture… seek it out wherever you can… nurture it… admire its beauty… share your experiences… keep its memories alive… and plant its seeds – so that it will blossom again when the seasons change.

But most importantly, put yourself at the heart of the issue – and ratified leadership will follow, in time.

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?

Cultural leadership should be judged primarily according to mindshare. Then the other indicators listed can be explored as by-products and secondary objectives.

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.