Change is the engine of progress. Yes it breeds uncertainty, anxiety, fear. But it also promises innovation, development, evolution, and what Australian art critic Robert Hughes called ‘the shock of the new’. Throughout history, the drive to overcome significant challenges and complexity has galvanised human imagination, inventiveness, new behaviours. 

Even before the current scenario, brands were facing a range of challenges and real or imagined crises. Now, more than ever, it is essential that marketing fully utilises all the tools at its disposal to find difference and add value. Unlocking cultural meaning represents a significant opportunity to build value and distinctiveness.

For generations of marketers it was thought as being obvious that attitude drives behaviour. But for Byron Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg Bass Institute, the reverse is the case, and they maintain that behaviour drives attitude. Or as Aristotle put it “we are what we do habitually”. 

‘Behaviour drives attitude’ has become one of the newer marketing mantras, but critically behaviour is itself the product of cultural conditions and values. The variability of culture means that behaviour is flexible and febrile, and the resulting attitude, capricious. It is cultural meaning that drives behaviour, it is the fuel in the engine.

It has become clear then over the last pandemic year, that for brands to succeed they need to have some measure of control over where they fit into what we can call the ‘culture-behaviour-attitude’ nexus. Put simply, because we live in a culturally dynamic world, understanding culture is a first principle to understanding consumer behaviour and attitude, and to having an influence over both. In short, culture is causation – the reason behind action and thought. It determines whether people will buy your product and connect with your brand.

 Brands therefore need to continually ask themselves how they fit into an ever-changing world, not just onto ‘the shelf’, and in doing so make themselves more culturally relevant. Most brands do not systemically integrate this into either strategic or executional approaches. This is a missed opportunity for many, yet some brands are leveraging culture effectively. 

Barilla, the Italian pasta brand, for instance, has considered how it can elevate the cooking moment and their role in it. In creating a Spotify playlist, with different tracks calibrated to the optimal preparation time of various pastas in their portfolio, they have understood how to transform tedious functionality into playful enrichment. What’s so culturally beneficial about this is that even if no one ever uses the playlist, it’s brand enhancing and clever and expresses something about the ‘task’ of pasta cooking. It also works brilliantly in the context of social media where people can build their own pasta playlists. That the music Barilla has selected also creates an evocative sense of contemporary Italian-ness, adds pleasure and provenance, binding the moment of cooking to the moment of eating. Barilla has understood that Italian culture in the wider sense can be integrated into their brand experience, and make themselves more relevant to families unable in lockdown to get to Italian restaurants where such music provides an authentic backdrop.

Cultural insight driving this kind of imaginative response, is not only about predicting the future, but providing you with a change agenda for your brand and creating a vision that gets you where you want to be, right now. 

The recent speculative KitKat outdoor poster, created by Sam Hennig for One Minute Briefs as part of a Twitter competition, identifies the brand’s vital role as a break between Zoom meetings. Like Barilla, Sam Hennig similarly identified the need to align the KitKat brand with a changed cultural climate. Where the brand had traditionally positioned itself as the antidote to the repetition of Fordist-productivity (whether at a desk or a factory-floor), this approach recognised their relevance to updated remote culture, and more importantly, that the literal semiotics of their bi-fingered design slotted into the ladder of the Outlook calendar. While other chocolate confectionary represent unhealthy snacking in an environment of sedentary remote working, this approach controlled the cultural meaning of KitKat’s ‘have a break’ legacy and updated it to symbolically align with a wellbeing discourse which advocates liberation from the tyranny of online work. As Hennig’s inspired idea demonstrates, cultural updates enabling a brand to ‘fit into the world’ more relevantly don’t have to mean strategically re-positioning it, it can also mean rejuvenating and restoring cultural meaning to a brand that might seem old-fashioned.

Indeed, since the large majority of us has spent considerable time locked-in at home over the last year, delivery logistics have moved to the forefront of the business agenda. Some brands have also understood that the constant interruption of the doorbell while home-schooling the kids, or in an online meeting signifies annoyance not convenience. The response by some brands has been to develop packaging that fits comfortably through the letterbox. From cocktails and handmade biscuits, to flowers and bath salts, a wide range of brands have overcome the closure of retail & hospitality outlets, and created ingenious ways to get their products to you seamlessly – even down to flattening wine bottles. 

This kind of winning cultural awareness, has prompted consumers to engage with these brands because of their innovation, convenience, wit, and promise of elevated personal experience. The behaviour that has shifted as a result of this cultural ingenuity, e.g. drinking cocktails at home more regularly, in turn generated an attitude which brought the spirit of Gatsby-esque sophistication into the home. The link is clear – the cultural conditions of lockdown forced brands to think about how to creatively respond, and that response generated positive consumer behaviour which shifted the idea of drinking ready-made cocktails at home. Cool Convenience was fused into a single moment. This is culturally-driven behaviour that will almost certainly ‘stick’ and any brand which enters the home space by by-passing stores has the opportunity to consider this moment of truth by transforming its packaging (opening mechanism, layout, messaging).

But the accelerated pace of cultural change, won’t allow even those brand successes a period of reflective self-congratulation. As some countries slowly emerge from their national lockdowns amidst vaccination optimism, marketers will need to ask how they sustain the success of DTC (direct to consumer) after ‘normality’ returns. The demand for constant updated difference will rise. Without asking how they can achieve that, they will fail to be in control of their meaning and lose all the advantage they have gained in influencing consumer behaviour and attitude with innovative comms and packaging.

Checking your brand’s cultural true north then, is a day to day activity, not just an input into strategic futures. Cultural insight is not an esoteric exercise, at its best it identifies the causal whys influencing today’s executional outcomes, and its impact affects you in the current fiscal year, not just sometime in the future. Cultural change won’t slow down when we move beyond the pandemic. Monitoring and analysing the moment and emerging moment in time is surely a brand marketing essential not a choice. 


3 key takeouts for brands:

  1. If you as a brand are spotting behavioural changes in your category through your data and insight, competitive distinctiveness will come from understanding the cultural drivers of that behavioural change. Culture > Behaviour > Attitude
  2. Think about the way that ‘convenience’ has changed – it’s not just about time saved, but about how to emotionally enrich brand experiences.
  3. The first moment of truth has changed for the brand-consumer experience. How can your packaging pushed through the letterbox increasingly deliver strong cultural values of discovery, playfulness & surprise that enhance the experience beyond just the functional protection.

Alex Gordon, CEO

What Next?: Culture, Behaviour and Attitude