Brands inhabit a world of constant change and complexity where the demands for growth are relentless. They constantly strive both to unlock the step changes that redefine the dynamics of a category, and achieve the marginal gains that will sustain consistent results.

Understanding the cultural forces creating those changes and impacting brands has never been more important, because those changes are happening at an accelerated rate and constantly multiplying – from Covid, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to #metoo, the demand for radical transparency of supply chains and brand promises created by social media, the escalating importance of the sustainability agenda (from food to tech to automotive to travel), decline in institutional trust, the veneration of the new, the expectation of instant gratification driven by the speed of digital communication, from ownership to subscription based models, and the speed at which consumers expect brands to respond.

Actionable cultural meaning is – or should be – a fundamental element of answering these complexities and to creating a winning strategy to answer these challenges. Culture is at the heart of all the behaviours we adopt; the needs/occasions we prioritise; the choices we make. Brands that understand how culture is moving and how that’s changing these choices, can create numerous points of competitive advantage. Think of Nike’s choice to make Colin Kaepernick a brand ambassador to realise the power of cultural relevance for commercial gain…

…or how Savage X Fenty have successfully celebrated diversity and inclusivity, while Victoria’s Secret’s outdated values have led to declining sales.

But there is no algorithm for culture, and whilst traditional research can reflect cultural outcomes by gathering consumer opinion, it is not designed to unlock the unconscious drivers of choice/behaviour, which consumers themselves can’t articulate, and when their attention is diverted by a thousand different attractions. But the pressure on brands to deliver growth remains constant.

The accelerated pace of cultural change means many brands find themselves in one/or a combination of 3 distinct places. They are:

  • STUCK. They or the category just isn’t quite so relevant or distinctive anymore. The business is declining or struggling or being replaced by new offers.
    • The mainstream breakfast cereal category dominated by key Masterbrand businesses (e.g. Kellogg’s, General Mills, etc.) has gone through significant changes as a result of cultural shifts. They are still big, but smaller, newer, agile, healthier, crafted, more sustainable competitors and high quality own label brands are squeezing them at both premium and mainstream ends, picking off all the profitable segments of the category, leaving them STUCK in the unattractive middle.

  • LOSING. Someone is meeting needs better, differently, or more cheaply than they are.
    • Large mainstream brewing companies who almost completely missed/dismissed craft beer when it first entered the market – they are currently buying up craft brands at speed! (e.g. AB InBev’s purchase of Camden Town Brewery)

  • NEW. As a result of the above or similar, a brand is forced into trying something new, usually with high risk and outside of its traditional comfort zone.
    • Dairy companies have been forced to follow the non-dairy trend as their sustainability transgressions were exposed, and the less/reduced trend in food emerged strongly with more health-conscious consumers (i.e. less sugar, fat, salt, etc). Dairy brands have had to undertake high risk innovations with plant-based foods, e.g. Danone’s purchase of Alpro & Silk non-dairy milks, and their innovation of yoghurt with plant-based ingredients.

So with these three challenges –  Stuck, Losing, New – CMOs have an increasingly tough time, and marketing is struggling to remain respected by the C-Suite, so they constantly need to/are looking to find new drivers of relevance and distinctiveness/difference to build better, stronger brands. 

Cultural meaning will support CMOs efforts to create stronger, distinct territories for positioning or purpose.

It will help deliver better outcomes for comms and marketing.

It will drive more and better marginal gains across the portfolio/and against competition by facilitating a deeper understanding of categories and how people interact with them.

At the level of innovation, it will help brands to understand how culture is changing the landscape for brands and identify the advantageous white space. It will help define changing and future needs/attitudes around diverse cultural themes critical to brand success, e.g. ‘gender’ for personal care brands, or ‘wellness’ for food brands.  This actionable cultural meaning will drive better outcomes for brands.

With cultural insight as a fundamental part of your plan, the odds will be more strongly in your favour to help you navigate a world of constant change and win in the crowded market place of competing brands and businesses.

Cultural Insight: Marketing in a changing world