The latest voice in the conversation around cultural leadership is Indy Neogy, the Culture, Change and Innovation Leader at Throughline, a London-based consultancy that helps its clients create resonant stories that empower a company’s leaders and drive business. He’s also the author of When Culture Matters: The 55-Minute Guide To Better Cross-Cultural Communication. I’m grateful to have gotten to know Indy over the last few months, and it’s very cool to have his perspective included here.
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?
I guess I agree with some others you talked to that it’s more about participation than leadership. Learning to influence is important too, but that’s one level up from participation and leadership is one level further on and it’s an action that’s not always available. There are specific moments when any particular enterprise or brand is in a position of relevance such that they can lead. They should be ready to seize the moment, but if it’s not the moment, they need to concentrate on participation/influence.
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?
If we were to refer to Dove for example, by leading at the critical moment you can gain something of a position in the “commanding heights” of relevance to customers. That sells soap etc.
By participating you get the chance to be more than a commodity and by influencing you particularly get a chance to pull the exchange of meaning towards your strengths. This isn’t as dramatic as leadership, but it’s still competitive advantage.
Q3: How does risk figure into the equation of a brand’s cultural leadership?
First of all, it’s a big risk not to participate/influence/lead because if you aren’t there, your competitor will be.
Second, if you aren’t genuinely in touch with and involved with culture out there, you can get it very wrong and the blowback can really hurt.
So you need to balance the risks, by participating authentically and getting help if you need it to really be in touch.
Q4: Is there a brand that comes to mind that’s leading a cultural conversation well?
I think it’s important to make a distinction between “leading the culture for profit” and “leading the culture for the benefit of all (or most).” There’s a temptation to concentrate on the feel good examples like Dove or Mozilla, but if we’re talking commerce it’s important to acknowledge less progressive but profitable successes if only to better understand what participation and leadership can look like.
To that end, with many caveats about the long term trajectory, I’d first name Victoria’s Secret. They have participated, influenced and led the conversation in the culture and they’ve reached the level where they are reference point in the culture for a range of aspects of femininity.
Caveats include concerns about how they seem to be abusing the position to extend the market towards children and how their most public positioning (e.g. on TV) objectifies women and promotes a particular body image. I think it’s fair to say that from a position of leading they are slipping towards losing touch.
Another example: Nike, particularly with Fuelband have started to lead on the sedentary modern lifestyle. What I like about this example is that it’s not just about comms, it’s about creating a product outside their original zone that taps into a cultural need.
A possible caveat here is that it so far largely reinforces Nike’s position as a “male/macho/competition” company – Fuelband has a female market, but you can see how they need something more if they want to lead the whole culture’s conversation on “activity.” But you can argue that every brand has a niche and they can’t always lead the whole culture – I think there’s a discussion to be had about how wide leadership can or should be.
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?
Ask their agency (because most brands rely on agencies) who is their cultural expert. And make sure that expert is giving an opinion on everything regularly. Too many campaigns go through with a lot of thought on “creativity” and “gut feel for success” and no thought about culture.
For most companies that’s the shortest route to making a difference. Longer term you need culture involved in your innovation process, otherwise your products will rarely fit the conversation. And to do that you need to bring/breed cultural expertise inside the organisation.
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?
First, cultural participation matters most in industries with relatively low technical differentiation. In those industries I think it maps pretty well to market share and profit margin – all else being equal.
(All else is never completely equal so we have to be careful – for example, bad operations management can eat up all the profit margin gained from good cultural participation.
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