I’m very proud to share my first piece as a contributor to Forbes.com. It’s a particularly meaningful milestone to me because Forbes is such a respected publication. Over the last few years, I’ve watched as they’ve done a killer job of securing and amplifying great content that covers all areas of business. I’m thrilled to be able to add my voice to the conversation on how marketing and business is evolving.
The piece originally appeared on Monday, April 7, 2014. Read on and let me know what you think below in the comments section.
Business, especially marketing, takes contemporary culture for granted. It gets dismissed simply as the thing everyone’s talking about around the watercooler, but it’s bigger than what’s trendy today. Culture is the one thing that enables marketers to create greater engagement, relevance and grow their business. The failure to acknowledge the importance of culture to brand- and business-building is the same as deciding that you’re okay with being at a competitive disadvantage.
When I talk about “culture,” I mean the world happening outside the company’s walls. It’s the thing Wikipedia defines as the way of life for an entire society, including codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior and systems of belief. It’s how we make deep and lasting meaning.
But meanings change because culture changes. It surrounds us at all times.
Brands never speak directly to consumers or customers. It’s always through the medium of culture. Random House defines a medium as “an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on.” Culture is the medium through which all communications travels, and it’s what complicates marketers’ efforts. Just as water bends light, culture changes—sometimes slightly, sometimes to a great degree—the direction, impact and meaning of communication. The message can vary greatly depending on who’s sending and who’s receiving. That’s why slang in the wrong hands is cringe-worthy: Even though all of the words may be right, the other codes–context, tone, authenticity, mutual respect, a preexisting relationship, etc.—are not.
Culture contains many things–empathy, purpose, “cool”–that are hard to quantify, won’t fit into strategic plans, or don’t easily scale. But culture is where you find context and opportunities for engagement and business growth.
We know the best marketing is both art and science, but there’s long been an over-emphasis on the science. It’s not out of nowhere. In their book, Cultural Strategy, Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron point out “the extraordinary influence of economics, engineering, and psychology on management thinking.” What these disciplines have in common is an assumption: Ultimately, a complex world can be simplified, but to do that, it’s necessary to filter out cultural context and changes over time.