Embracing Culture To Drive Brand Growth

Emmanuel ProbstSeptember 8, 20178313 min

Brands can no longer stand out by solely relying on clever ads and effective media placements. They must also be relevant in the rapidly evolving culture of consumers. Brands that become iconic do so by co-creating culture through fashion, music, film, sport, food, drink, art and design. Conversely, brands that don’t align with culture go unnoticed at best, or at worst, offend their audience with out-of-touch campaigns that translate into PR nightmares.

This makes the role of marketers a lot harder, as they cannot only focus on what they control (advertising). They must also understand and embrace culture, which is mostly driven by their audience. Unlike retargeting and other lower-funnel tactics, embedding a brand in culture is a long-term strategic endeavor.

Below is set of three guidelines that can serve as a foundation for the development of your brand’s cultural strategy.

1. Embedding Brands Into Culture

The spirit and beer category is particularly challenging for marketers as consumers’ preferences evolve rapidly from one generation to another. Also, differentiating on taste alone can be very hard, especially as spirits are often mixed with other ingredients. Would you be up for a blind test between Smirnoff, Tito’s and Belvedere vodka, once mixed in a Bloody Mary?

Spirit and beer producer Diageo has developed a sharp competitive advantage by aligning their premium brands with their target consumers via culture and entertainment.

When Diageo wanted to evolve its messaging to men, it carried out in-depth cultural analysis and talked to DJs, sociologists and magazine editors about this audience. The research brought to light 15 personality types that men aspired to. These became valuable yardsticks for Diageo’s marketing.

2. Evolving A Legacy Brand For The Current Generation

Becoming an icon for a generation of consumers is no easy task, but staying iconic for the next generation is even harder.

Speaking at Mediapost’s Brand Marketer Insider Summit, Anthony Abernathy (North America Brand Marketing Director at Jordan Brand) described how Nike had to rebrand its Michael Jordan line of products for a generation of young athletes that have never seen Michael Jordan play. Instead of relying on pictures and footage of Michael Jordan’s perfect shots, Nike articulated its campaign around pictures of champions in preparation. Indeed, research showed that today’s audience was not responding to picture-perfect advertisements, but rather wanted to understand and experience what it takes to become Michael Jordan. Based on its understanding of today’s teens training world, Nike expanded its brand in an authentic way by promoting the real training rigor that distinguishes all champions.

3. Reviving A Legacy Brand

Brands that are out of touch with culture can decline as fast as they once grew. Lego became hugely successful with its bricks and “minifigures” in the 80’s…and courted bankruptcy in 2003. In a first attempt to survive, the brand started producing bigger bricks, based on the assumption that players thought Lego bricks were too small.

By doing so, Lego focused on the functional aspect of its product while ignoring its cultural environment. Right after launching its bigger bricks, Lego sales plummeted by 30%.

The turnaround came when ethnographic research revealed that people were willing to spend time and efforts using small bricks to build things that were culturally relevant. Lego partnered with franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter and became an immediate success. Children started using Legos to tell stories and make culture through Lego mini figures, firehouses, police stations, homes and cities. In 2014, Lego became a larger part of popular culture through the release of The Lego Movie. It became an instant box office hit, grossing over $450 Million worldwide. Lego recently expanded on its ability to not only embrace but also make culture, with the release of Lego Batman and upcoming release of Lego Ninjago.

Diageo, Nike and Lego illustrate why implementing a cultural strategy is crucial to the health, growth and even survival of a brand. As discussed previously, marketers are often consumed by lower-funnel tactics and metrics. While web analytics and other behavioral metrics offer valuable insights into the consumer journey, one should never lose sight of their brand’s ability to engage with and even influence culture.

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