Corporations don’t get culture and, frankly, it frustrates me.

It’s 2013 and, for the most part, companies still think sponsoring recognized artists or established cultural institutions, or doing TV ads around a big movie partnerships count as effectively leveraging culture.  This borrowed equity game is just the tip of the iceberg.  Because the marketplace is so fragmented, much of what’s interesting remains unexplored.  All of which represents a lost opportunity to create meaningfulness and drive brand engagement.

The Other Brand Bubble

Brands have been able to exist in a kind of bubble, one removed from culture.  If you look at the history of the corporation, it’s one that asks its most valuable resource for understanding culture, its employees, to check everything that makes them interesting and unique at the door–for example, their interest in fashion, science fiction, stamp collecting, hip hop, etc.  It’s the implicit assumption that those interests have nothing to do with selling whatever widget the company makes, an idea cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken pointed out several years ago.  Also, as Percolate co-founder Noah Brier pointed out in a recent conversation, brands are also removed from culture by virtue of the fact that they outsource it to their agencies.  It’s then the agency’s job to make the culture fit into the corporation, but never the corporation’s responsibility to be flexible in terms of how it adapts to contemporary culture.

What About The Insights People?

But, you say, brands have consumer and shopper insights people.  They understand how the relationship between the brand and its consumers and shopper changes over time, right?  Yeah, they do.  But insights people don’t control marketing budgets.  Brand managers do.  And until brand managers get smarter about culture, not much will change.  More importantly, until the corporation completely revamps the way it thinks about the world outside its walls, companies will continue to do what they’re doing now.  That is, stumbling around the marketplace, occasionally striking gold with an idea that happens to resonate because it aligns the brand with what matters most to their consumers.  Unilever’s Dove is one exception to this rule, as evidenced by the Sketches update to its Real Beauty campaign.

Culture As Medium And Context

What’s needed is an understanding of what’s happening in areas outside of the corporation’s purview.  Why?  Because those are the early warning signals that change is coming.  Because culture is the very thing that gives brands meaning and context.  In fact, culture is both medium and context.  And, as cultural phenomena ebb and flow, they can impact your business.  Like the way that awareness of the harmful effects of sugar are eroding the appeal of carbonated soft drinks.

Outputs Going Forward

My goal is to help brands get better at leveraging culture honestly and authentically.  Some of the things you’ll see in this space going forward (along with what you’ve already seen):

  • Looking at the practice of culture, i.e., what are best practices in incorporating contemporary culture into a brand’s marketing efforts, as well as smart activations.
  • Who’s doing noteworthy work leading with culture, i.e., the companies and people.
  • Highlighting creators and curators on the front lines.
  • Commentary on cultural phenomena.
  • New meaning formation.  That is, what’s bubbling up culturally and/or what’s getting remixed, reconstructed or rethought in new ways.
  • Finally, a topic near and dear to my heart, the New Black Imagination.  This is about what’s new and next in global black culture that explodes simplistic assumptions about black creativity and cultural production.  Black culture is so much more than hip hop.  This last point represents a huge opportunity for brands to connect with younger generations and ensure their relevance for years to come.  Meet some of the creators and curators here.

Bridging The Divide

I may be wrong, but the cultural innovation people and the brand teams never seem to get together, and I’m not sure why.  They’re the trendspotters and futurists, who are hiding in plain sight, great sites like PSFK (for whom I write), CoolHunting, and JoshSpear, as just a few examples.  The thing is, because these sites are focused on next, they tend to find themselves working with the innovation areas in companies.  I’m not sure how much, if at all, this work impacts the frontline brand teams.  So this innovation stuff remains confined in a whole other part of the company.  See the problem?

My goal is to be a bridge between cultural innovation and brand, and how they can be tied together through effective activation.  After all, I know all three.

Will you find all of the answers here?  Of course not.  But I believe what you will find is a curated lens through which to look at culture and think more clearly about how you can leverage it to build your brands.

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.