In recent discussions among professionals working with brands, certain questions have arisen time and time again.
They tend to revolve around topics such as how brands can create value for society or add value to customers’ lives, while taking a stance on current affairs.
Practitioners, as well the general audience, are debating whether brands should commit to an active role or not.
The same talks also address sustainability and empathy, with a sub-theme about brands becoming more data-driven. This is in order to better understand their consumers through improved insights and optimizing engagement on a societal level.
The majority of these drivers are coming from the industry itself, but the end consumer’s expectations are growing too.
Because the individuals raising these questions don’t always know exactly what they want the brand to do, these debates tend to end with them routinely unsatisfied with how they are solely focusing on product advertisements and nothing more.
This growing groundswell reflects the fact that brands are increasingly seen not just as brands, but as cultural symbols.
Society trusts these symbols to be capable of anticipating cultural changes from a macro perspective. Since all these disciplines are concerned with the brands’ microenvironment as well as the data-driven push, it’s not enough to do this from a brand or organizational viewpoint – with segment-related consumer insight or brand tracking and Net Promoter Scores.
So brands and those involved with them, have a greater need to understand culture on a macro level. In short, brands have to be relevant.
When the world is moving this fast, with regards to consumer trends and desires, brand insight departments will struggle to catch rising fads at a quick enough pace to actually benefit from them. Simply put, tomorrow’s insight might be a turn-off trend for today’s audience.
This means that marketers are required to comprehend the cultural interface and how to tap into particular movements at the right time. When looking at this from a strategic and disciplinary point of view, it’s a totally different methodology than just a rudimentary brand strategy discussion.
The underlying issue we face is that we are trying to solve new kinds of challenges with existing methods. It’s, therefore, necessary to appropriate an entirely new toolset to overcome the problem of brands not being able to foresee the audience’s needs. From a strategic as well as a research perspective, it’s now defined as a cultural strategy.
The cultural strategy model is certainly not new. However, it seems many of us are unaware of it and those of us who have encountered it in the past, have probably forgotten much of it. It is because of this, I believe this approach needs to be placed firmly back in the spotlight, given its relevance today with the appetite for it only going to escalate.
This discipline of yore is called Cultural Branding Theory. It was espoused by Douglas Holt, who first introduced it in 2004’s How Brands Become Icons.
After years of project consulting and academic research as a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School and acting Chair of Marketing at Oxford for L’Oreal, Holt then developed a further model entitled the Cultural Strategy Model.
Although over a decade old, it was launched a few years after Facebook became mainstream and in the very same year Instagram came to fruition.
In 2016, he wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review demonstrating how social media has made the Cultural Strategy Model even more powerful and outlined why it was the platform that worked best for most consumer brands.
Last year, Holt introduced his Cultural Innovation Model in the Harvard Business Review, with a new book about its evolution soon to be published.
The key take-away that we should all heed, is that there are many tools, models, and approaches like Holt’s out there, which many of us don’t even know exist or have yet to encounter.
As brand specialists, regardless of which side of the table we are sitting on, we should be collectively challenging ourselves to become inherently better in the new normal and not just demand brands do something for us.
It’s our duty to confront, discuss, and help one another, and the cultural symbols around us to be what we expect them to be for both our generation and today’s society.
Cover image source: MagicPattern