Back in 2006, I wrote:

Soon, effective communications planning will not only hinge on the ability to determine the right message sent at the right time via the right vehicle, but also understanding the cultural medium through which the message must travel.

I think we’ve reached that point.

There’s no point restating what I wrote then.  I believe it’s very valid today.  Mine is hardly the only theory of culture out there.  For example, I’ve talked to some cultural strategists who think of culture as language.  Interesting, but I find that limiting: Where do things like values, social practices, behaviors, the arts, beliefs, etc. fit in if culture is simply conceived of as language?

What I realized was missing from my original post (lo those many years ago) was a better graphic representation for the concept.  So, I think the two visuals in this post will help clarify things.  First, there’s the graphic above, which simply reinforces that culture forms a context around brands and consumers.  It’s this medium through which brands and people communication with each other.

The challenge, of course, is exactly that: brands and people have to communicate via this medium, which acts as an intervening substance.  The short version of all this is that culture acts in such a way that it can  bend (disrupt) communications.  That looks a bit like this:


The good news is that this isn’t an insurmountable barrier to communications.  But brands have to be attuned to culture and understand how their messages can be interpreted on the receiving end, and adjust accordingly.  I wrote:

I think it’s going to come down to old-fashioned tools of anthropology and sociology: observing and understanding how people live, how they create meaning and why they do so.

Once this deep dive is complete, the important step will be the insight: Knowing all of this, how does this niche/subculture/area of interest link back to/impact the person’s relationship with the larger culture?

Context becomes paramount: What’s disturbing the medium and why?  Was it a big rock or pebble?  The pebble you don’t have to worry about.  The big rock, on the other hand, forces you to think: What is it, and how has the fact that it’s been thrown in changed the environment for me and my business?  Hip hop had much more of an impact on fashion (Levi’s, anyone?) than it did on software and IT.

This is food for thought.  There’s still a long way to go, I believe, to fully appreciating and understanding the ways that culture constantly impacts how brand messages are understood.  For now, you can read the original post here.

How do you guys think about culture?  Drop a comment below.

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.

  • Dom Garcia-Hall

    Hey Rob. The refraction thing is interesting. I wonder if its an opportunity too. Like, a certain angle of refraction is a good thing – we can harness a little of the cultural medium to give our work a boost. Finesse our aim etc…

    • Yeah, like playing with the disconnect. That probably works best when the intended audience is in on the “joke” or is somehow as sophisticated as the sender. That said, it seems like the goal is to manage the refraction so that your messages have the best opportunity to cut through the clutter. That comes from, as you say, finessing the aim and really understanding how the participant creates and manages meaning.

  • Refracting, but sometimes magnifying or perhaps clarifying. Culture as a lens is certainly an interesting metaphor, but a nuanced one. Warrants further discussion.