News & Views

Opinion / Deconstructing Culture

by Georgia Malden

I rather boldly took on the task of doing a talk at our Now Next Why event last week on how brands can connect to culture. It seemed an important and timely topic for Contagious to tackle. There had been a lot of discussion in the industry about doing things that matter more in culture. Culture is so much more fragmented and volatile that finding the right role for brands has become trickier than ever. And I’d just been working on a project with a big FMCG client who’d specifically said that one of their biggest challenges today was that they felt out of touch with culture.

I quickly realised it was a foolhardy undertaking. The problem was that everyone disagrees on what it means to be relevant to culture. For some it is simply about fame. For others, it’s ‘doing things that people care about’ (and who wants to do things people don’t care about?). Within that, there are those who believe culture specifically relates to areas like music, art, film and entertainment – things like The Lego Movie. And for others culture is about ‘being a perfect expression of the way we live now’. Lidl, surprisingly, was an example someone gave.

This breadth of perspective is hardly surprising, given the complex history of the word culture. It’s a highly loaded term that’s been used to describe the civilizing effect of the arts and the pursuit of intellectual interests on the one hand, and by anthropologists to describe a particular way of life (of a particular people or time) on the other. (And if you’re interested in this history, check out Terry Eagleton’s book on Culture.

I had a number of discussions with my colleagues about whether Uber, for example, was culturally relevant. My argument: Uber has changed our expectations not just of ordering a taxi but of the kind of seamless on-demand services we expect of other brands now – and as such it has fundamentally impacted our way of life. So too Amazon. Everything it’s done to change behaviours around online shopping has made it part of the fabric of culture today.

The more I thought about it the more the arguments I’d read about the divide between data and storytelling, between culture and collateral, seemed meaningless. Phrases such as ‘the individually precise is culturally invisible’ or ‘data can make us smart but it can’t make us great’ felt out of sync with the changes afoot in culture today. It was specifically Uber’s smarts with data and personalisation that had made it so prominent. At the same time, however, you could say that its single-minded dedication to this at the expense of other ethical considerations had rendered it out of touch. And that was the point. When it comes to behaviours, Uber is in tune with culture today. But when it comes to values, maybe less so.

I decided it was worth breaking culture down into more of a systematic framework. For me the different dimensions of culture are Behaviours (as in evolving audience behaviours, particularly as a result of new digital platforms), Values (as in the societal causes people care about) and Interests (as in wider lifestyle interests such as music, art, entertainment etc.). And across those dimensions there are different levels of cultural relevance – think of it as the difference between being culturally fit and cultural leaders. (See below.)

When it comes to behaviours, I love what Lego has done with its new Lego Life app. It’s basically Instagram for Lego, so that kids can show off their creations to their peers. It’s in tune with our expectations of social platforms, but also the fears of parents too, who want to monitor their children’s online activity and ensure that screen time is balanced with physical play. It’s part of the company’s ongoing efforts to keep the brick relevant and alive amidst the onslaught of new forms of digital play.

When it comes to values, I love what Skol in Brazil has been doing to promote gender equality – putting its old sexist posters into the hands of female illustrators (and the general public) to make over into more empowering representations of women. Far from an ad paying lip service to the latest cause, this was an honest and believable approach that invited collaboration.

And when it comes to interests, I love what Tiger beer has been doing to reframe and export Asian culture – teaming up with an Indian inventor to create street art made from air pollution, or opening a pop-up shop in New York’s Chinatown selling high-end original craft from up and coming Asian designers. This isn’t a brand simply jumping on the latest trends to be cool, but creating completely new experiences that are rooted in the DNA of the brand itself.

The point is that there’s no single approach to being relevant to culture. Lego’s involvement in blockbuster movies might be the most obvious way the brand connects to culture today, but it’s not the only way. And it’s not a helpful benchmark for other brands looking for their own route to cultural relevance. Instead, it’s a question of thinking hard about the right building blocks for you. Maybe that’s focusing on constantly adapting to new platforms and pushing the boundaries on expectations in the category. Or maybe there are values that are core to what you believe that you can emphasise. Identifying the authentic and credible space for you and committing to it, rather than jumping on the latest bandwagon or cause célèbre, is your best bet for staying relevant today.