How smart brands connect with culture

Brands need to decide where on the cultural spectrum they sit if they want to appear credible

There was provocative talk at Contagious Now Next Why earlier this month about culture, and its dad-at-the-disco cringe potential for brands who use it as a commercial tactic. No prizes for guessing that Pepsi’s tone-deaf Kendall Jenner ad was held up as the best example in a category no one wants to win.

As Content Director at SevenC3, a big part of my job is helping brands to connect with people through their interests, opinions and desires – and steering them away from spaces and places they have no right to be. It's a tough thing to get right, but Senior Strategist Georgia Malden was spot-on with her list of challenges brands face.

1) Defining culture

This isn't a new problem. There have always been varying interpretations of what culture means to a brand – from being in tune with trends and tastemakers, to a reflection of changing attitudes in society on big issues like gender equality and diversity.

2) Culture can polarise audiences

People have always held strong and differing opinions about cultural issues. Now social channels mean marketers can hear and see just how fragmented their audiences have become. No more neat segments or personas; if a brand chooses a cultural position, someone, somewhere, is not going to like it.

3) An explosion of cultural touchpoints

The spawning of ever-more places for people to communicate – social networks, reviews, messaging apps – means more places for marketers to get it right or wrong, and more places to be consistent in their opinions and take on the zeitgeist.

Malden’s advice on how to tackle these issues is worth repeating: brands need to decide precisely where on the cultural spectrum they want to play. She carves up this choice into three tactical options – Behaviours, Values or Interests – neatly explained in the slide below.

More interesting for me was that out of nine or 10 terrific examples of brands finding a credible way into culture, only one was traditional advertising (Axe’s feelgood Find Your Magic series). From the Lego Life Instagram-like app where children too young for the real deal share creations, to Brazilian beer brand Skol asking the public to help them redesign sexist posters, it was a parade of content-rich, tech-enabled and, most of all, interactive initiatives. Cultural alignment is clearly a two-way street, with a lot of real-life listening and learning along the way.