“Today brands are not broadcasting from a window, but are down in the street having a conversation. You are in dialogue with consumers – you are open and vulnerable to both praise and criticism.”

This extraordinary shift in the relationship between brands and consumers is the most significant impact that digital technology has had on marketing, “eliminating all boundaries and triggering ultimate transparency and authenticity.”

For Irina Rodina, that shift has characterised the changes she’s seen in her career in marketing over the last 20 years. Most recently she was the CMO Northern Europe of Kraft Heinz. Prior to that Irina was the Global Vice-President of Marketing at Barilla, and prior to that she served as the Senior Global Marketing Director in Unilever’s ice cream division. 

Having worked with Irina in all three of her roles – assisting her team in understanding the cultural context of Frenchness in the UK for Carte D’Or ice cream, the changing meaning of Italian-ness in the US, Russia and even Italy to help develop strategy at Barilla, and most recently when we worked with her on the changing cultural meaning of Britishness for Kraft Heinz  – Sign Salad caught up with Irina to discuss the future of marketing and the role of cultural insight within it.

Irina’s introduction to marketing was very much an analogue approach, or as she put it, “When I started at the end of the last century, you needed to know very clearly your USP and ensure your comms translated and expressed it clearly.” The emphasis, was on accentuating the brand’s physical and functional benefit, its emotional benefit, and ensuring campaign effectiveness by landing desired messages that would increase sales.

20 years later, Irina believes that the value set of concern for consumers has expanded from the impact of the brand on one’s immediate family, to community and even the broader planet. “Iconic brands are expected to act at all these levels, to have a role in the society not just the life of the individual consumer.”

But in addition to those kinds of macro-cultural impacts on consumers, Irina points to more granular category changes.  She sees significantly lower barriers to entry to the marketplace for start-up brands; as a result, categories have seen the fragmentation and proliferation of choice, with smaller and newer brands competing for market share: “New competition makes you think on  your feet, experiment more, be bolder and more innovative in your expression. So everything happens at a much higher speed now.” Which makes marketing a more exciting, and a more pressurised, environment to work in. 

“To nurture and build iconic brands, marketeers must know what their brand stands for. They must have a well-articulated central myth, and be clear about their beliefs and values, their point of view on the world.”

For some this has come to be known as brand purpose, for others it’s about a business having a cultural or societal benefit. But however you describe it, it’s clear that the world of marketing has moved beyond campaigns focusing solely on functional and emotional benefits.

For Irina, that shift towards a cultural dimension to marketing, can help make people feel more deeply understood and create greater, category transcending ‘brand love’:

“These days the role of brands has gone far beyond the functionality of their products – brands can change culture, bring new ideas and norms to society, even change laws.

Irina offered examples of brands that have positioned themselves to represent that cultural power: “Dove, for instance, is sponsoring a movement to make the Crown Act into a law in all 50 states in US to protect freedom to wear hair in culturally appropriate ways; Heinz is lobbying for the introduction of free school breakfasts in UK to help the morning hunger issue.” The female hygiene brand The Female company has achieved the reduction of the VAT on tampons from 19% to 7% by German parliament through an impactful Tampon Tax campaign back in 2020.

“In many instances,” she says “brands break taboos – like the powerful work by Bodyform to normalise conversation about female intimate health, or LGBT inclusivity by Lipton in India a few years ago – and this alters the role of the brand from having a personal identity to a social mission.”

But Irina has also noticed that this kind of marketing shift is happening in what she describes as a “softer way”.  She draws attention to those brands promoting positive values but also defusing societal tension, like the community-bonding, inter-generational generosity of Cadbury celebrated in their current campaign.

Brands can apply cultural insight in fun ways too. She cites the Heinz Ketchup pasta sauce launch as an example The UK New Ventures team launched pasta sauce with ketchup as a core ingredient, because research had revealed that large numbers of people in the UK eat pasta with ketchup. This was a way to ‘unite’ the nation around this debate. The Italian team responded by putting a phone booth in the main street of Milan with a direct line to the customer service office, so that consumers could tell them just what they thought about this new product, with some hilarious responses which were then used in brand comms (e.g. “we have protested in the streets for far less”).  The clash between Italian culinary traditions and British eating experiments proved fertile ground for a culturally-driven marketing campaign.

It is unsurprising that Irina understands the tough realities that large multinational businesses face, and the role marketing plays in helping business to navigate all the fast-changing contexts, and both drive and respond to conversations around the brand: “Ultimately, that approach helps the brand to be culturally innovative, while digital tools can be helpful to build and spread the message in a fast way, and to increase relevance and resonance. Both long, and short term.”

Irina is highly aware that brands exist in culture, and interact in culture both ways – they partner with it (responding to cultural events, engaging with cultural phenomena), and impact culture (by addressing and/or overcoming some cultural tensions).

For her it is clear that cultural insight should be at the top of every marketeer’s mind. She provides a basic set of principles that cultural insight can and should support:

  • Inspire innovation and activation.
  • Help brands feel fresh and up-to-date – specifically their visual and linguistic expression
  • Ensure that what you do is not cultural appropriation, or tone-deaf.

Irina suggests that cultural insight can deliver profound impact at 3 levels – personal, ongoing and strategic. “It is personal, immersive and experiential. To develop your own cultural awareness and a “gut” you need to experience what your audience experiences – go to same places, watch the same TV programs, listen to the same music, be aware of key cultural influencers. At best it is ongoing, with sharp cultural tracking using social listening that tracks key hot topics around the brand and in broader culture,” and finally she suggests it is “strategic and can offer focused dives into relevant cultural topics and inject those findings back to the company to keep it updated”.

While very few companies have in-house culture teams, for Irina this is a false aspiration, because a separate role “shouldn’t be needed. I believe that a Chief Marketing Officer should actually be the Chief Marketing and Culture Officer, and every brand manager – Brand & Culture manager – but that is simply not the case in many instances. The protocols developed in partnership between the marketing and insight teams rarely have cultural dives as strategic and creative necessities, and in increasingly budget-conscious contexts, this is often the first to be classified as ‘non-essential’.

“Not all companies appreciate the value of cultural insight and semiotic research to provide much deeper interpretation and guidance vs. qualitative feedback alone. It can read between the lines, explaining why consumers think and act as they do, and how to change both to the brand’s competitive advantage”. It is useful, she suggests, to inject cultural insight into existing qual and audience research, brand strategy and comms development. 

But specifically in brand strategy, “semiotics can help to articulate the cultural profile of the community it aims to connect with, identifying existing and emerging cultural themes it can engage with, and work out where and when to do this most effectively.”

For Irina, this is critical in an age when the conversation between brand and community online is 24/7. It is as important to know when to talk, she suggests, as when not to talk. Whether the brand wants to address a particular social tension or ‘play’ with culture, cultural understanding is the lens through which to listen to what’s happening and changing in the consumer’s world, and when the moment is right for the brand to act with a tone and message that is true to the brand.

Often, this comes from a company’s social listening function, its content teams, as well as agency partners (comms, PR). But, she recommends, this is a clear role for a cultural advisory service precisely because change often happens at high speed and those agencies permanently engaged with understanding those cultural shifts are best-placed to assist brand guardians. “The slogan of the in-house creative studio at Heinz was  ‘creativity at the speed of culture’, but of course without understanding the cultural bit of that equation, brands would make mistakes with the creative”.

Ultimately for Irina, as she looks ahead to marketing in the second quarter of the 21st century, it is vital for any brand to have cultural sensitivity in the marketing team, to have good ways of capturing learnings on what is right and wrong for the brand, and “having a great cultural insight partner is critical to developing that collective ‘gut’ instinct on what is the culturally-appropriate direction for the brand, because that’s the way that growth and success lies”.

It’s an approach she is committed to as she re-energises herself for the challenges ahead for the next chapter of her exciting career as a senior marketing professional, positioned at street-level rather than looking down from a detached window.

No More Window Seats: Sign Salad interviews Irina Rodina on how cultural insight unlocks brand success