Saturday, I posted about the idea of LA as a cultural hub, a piece I developed based on a series of tweets from product manager and designer Rebekah Cox.  In that post, I said that was the first of two ideas that struck me.  Here’s the second:

I suggested later that a better word might be that they’re buying “fluency”.  After further thought, it might be “currency”.  As in they’ll have new currency to spend in the marketplace of ideas, in the marketplace of cool.

But let’s circle back.  Maybe they ARE buying “cultural literacy”.  Think of it like this: Apple ruled cool for a long time.  But no one can stay on top forever because things change.  Current cool is always displaced by new cool.  So maybe Apple, while still a top brand, hasn’t learned to decipher the markers of cool in THIS moment.   Which is what Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre may help them do.  I say “may” because Iovine is 61 and Dre is 49.  Both are nearly billionaires.  Certainly they’re in touch with a certain kind of cool that Apple doesn’t have. But, is it the right kind of cool for Apple to add to its mix?  Perhaps this bit of rebelliousness that Jimmy and Dre represent will be good for Apple.  Maybe it’s about them injecting a new POV into a highly regimented corporate culture.  We’ll see.

In the meantime, maybe we can frame things up like this:

literacy –> fluency –> currency

Stage 1: Literacy

This stage is about observing and listening.  Smart brands will spend the necessary time to determine what networks both the brand and its consumers inhabit, and where current and potential points of connection might be.  Also, whether or not these networks are connected to larger cultural movements that will impact the brand.  This stage is about figuring out where you stand culturally, and where the boundaries are.

Stage 2: Fluency

At this stage, you understand the perspective of your consumers, their norms, rituals and cultural markers.  You now have the ability to interact with them in a way that they find authentic.  You’re clear on how your brand adds value to their lives and their community.

Stage 3: Currency

Your brand has built up enough good will through smart communications and actions in the marketplace to influence and (perhaps) lead.  This is the stage of active engagement between brands, followers and fans.  Fans, in particular are open to deeper relationships with the brand.  Consider the brands on Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands index.  These are brands consumers have taken to heart as reflections of who they are.

Not A One-Time Exercise

Perhaps there’s a fourth stage called proficiency, wherein the brand is firing on all cylinders when it comes to culture: right tone, right products, right actions and engagements, etc.  Something to think about.

The only thing we can count on is that things change.  Therefore, this process should be revisited regularly.  The cultural landscape shifts constantly.  One day your brand is cool and, yes, it’s good to be the king.  But the problem with incumbents is that they are, by definition, ripe for disruption.  So, if you’re not constantly aware of how the cultural frame is shifting, it’s easy to look up one day an discover your brand is now the old guy in the club.

I don’t think Apple is quite at that stage, but I think they felt like they had to do something preemptive.  It’s press forward or get left behind.  Of course, time will tell if this was a smart move or not.

At least they’re not resting on their laurels.

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.