Originally published on March 2, 2015 on Forbes.com.

I’ve argued before that understanding contemporary culture is a competitive advantage. However, it’s important to admit that, in and of itself, culture doesn’t directly solve business problems. So what does that mean for a brand manager? The first thing it means is that most brand managers don’t focus explicitly on it. In fact, most organizations sequester the understanding of contemporary culture in strategy, planning and insights. After all, brand managers are busy focusing on things like volume, lift, share and sales. Best not to bother them, right?

Sadly, this is a pervasive attitude. Based on an informal survey I ran last year among people involved in strategy and culture, few of them thought that brand managers should be responsible for monitoring and being fluent in culture. Whether this is an acknowledgement of the current responsibility load of brand managers or a sense that they’re unprepared to fully deal with it, I can’t say. At the very least it indicates a roadblock to fully leveraging culture: Brand managers are the ones who control budgets. If culture remains separated from brand managers and budgets, then we can only expect that the pulse of the outside world will stay at remove from those most responsible for helping the brand navigate the consumer landscape.

Therefore, it’s critical to introduce culture at a point when the brand manager can best utilize it. Perhaps that should be as part of the brand plan. Roughly, brand plans look like this:


Currently, culture isn’t seen as relevant because it doesn’t obviously have a home in this plan. But it can, especially if we focus on the areas where it can have the most impact: The Situation Analysis; Strategy; and, Tactics. That looks something like this:


The situation analysis

Culture is first and foremost about context, and that’s why the situation analysis is so important. The business context changes, very often unexpectedly. The cultural context evolves. What brands are trying to determine here are where they stand in relation to their consumers and their competitive set. What’s changing in “slow” culture vs “fast” culture? Put another way, what are those aspects of values, habits, customs, language, meaning-making, etc. that change slowly over time vs the “trendier” aspects that may be here today and gone tomorrow?

Therefore, in addition to the traditional SWOT analysis, a deeper look at cultural factors impacting the brand would include, but not be limited to, things like:

  • Strengths (what the brand currently “means“ to its target; cultural trends that fortify it and its position; key trends that align it with its target)
  • Opportunities (Shifting consumer attitudes/values that box brands out of consideration sets or open consideration sets to unexpected competitors; identification of brand purpose, i.e., any ”big problem” the brand solves for consumers)
  • Weaknesses (Areas where the brand is mis-aligned with culture; Trends that are pushing it away from its target)
  • Threats (Trends that open the door to more agile competitors; Perceptions/positioning that lowers demand)

Granted, some of these items might be covered in a traditional SWOT analysis. But, by putting them explicitly through the lens of culture, it makes these issues and opportunities visible and actionable in a way they typically aren’t.


Culture can add dimension to the strategy. As noted management thinker Roger Martin highlighted in his book with P&G’s AG Lafley, strategy is about two key things: Where to Play and How To Win. As Martin and Lafley note, the first dimension concerns choices of geographies, products, customer segments, channels and stages of production. Culture adds more nuance here by enhancing the understanding of customer segments and the appeal of products to certain segments. It can also help you understand channel perceptions–i.e., “Isn’t it only people over 50 who use X channel?”— which may force a rethink of how you deliver your product or service.

The How To Win axis takes into consideration the brand’s value proposition and its competitive advantage(s). While these are more about positioning and overall capabilities, culture can impact these areas by shifting the perceived or real value of those attributes. For example, if your company competes based on its customer experience, but the overall bar for customer experience is now higher, what does that mean for your brand? Is what used to be an advantage now just table stakes?


Being smart about culture helps ground your brand in the language and sensibility of the present. This kind of fluency can enable more effective outcomes around messaging, activation, and content development. But fluency isn’t enough: A brand manager must still be able to discern which levers are most appropriate for his or her brand. For example, glomming onto the latest slang, while “current”, might not be the best thing for brands, as Grey senior planner Simone Pratt pointed out in her presentation on #BrandBlackFace. In it, she showed showed examples of brands such as Taco Bell and Boxed Wholesale appropriating slang like “ on fleek” and “tho”. Yes, it’s current, but it’s not the right move for brands that had no previous grounding in black cultural signifiers. On the other hand, Pepsi, with its longstanding involvement in youth and black culture, might be better positioned to pull off such a move.

Building culture into the brand plan doesn’t replace a brand manager’s current activities or processes. Rather, the goal is a deeper understanding of what’s happening outside the walls of the company, where the brand(s) sit relative to that evolving landscape, and how brands can navigate across it.

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.