Why Marketing Needs To Look Beyond The Mainstream To Earn Its Place In Culture

By Alex Rückheim, Cultural Strategist

The Sense Network is a global talent platform that incubates ideas. Members can be found in over 1,000 cities and have made more than 20,642 network contributions to over 450 projects. Their purpose is to make things better and to make better things. Harnessing their creative intelligence, we discover and define opportunities with brand innovators, designers, planners, strategists and consultants. Together we go wide, we go deep and we iterate with The Sense Network. Collaboration with this diverse community delivers credible growth, faster.

Brands are increasingly understanding the importance of getting a handle on culture… Get it right and you will build a foundation of trust and respect that will allow for real conversations with your audience. Get it wrong and I’m sure we can all recall countless examples that backfired, especially in the increasingly connected world we live in. Brands seem to think they’ve got it all figured out. Truth is, it’s disappointing to see so many not learning from their mistakes.

Here at Sense Worldwide we work with consumers who are curious and critical about the world we live in; creators, innovators and explorers who are exceptionally articulate and, more often than not, early adopters of cultural shifts. That is, they live outside the mainstream both in thought and action.

Simon Freund
Looking beyond the mainstream
Credit: Simon Freund
So what?

Well, new ideas are rarely found in the mainstream. And brand teams won’t have an impact in a vacuum. Our ‘Sensers’ help us challenge the habituations and assumptions that so often live in internal team culture where the pressure to push products out for the consumer trumps the idea of creating with them. This is why we work with brands to collaborate with The Sense Network – a talent platform of consumers from all corners of the world. As one team, we celebrate and harness the creative potential of their divergent perspectives and diverse experiences, to ensure brands are in tune with their audiences.

Let’s reflect on a few recent examples of brands that have been called out for getting it wrong. Remember that time when…
  • Primark’s Pride capsule collection was blamed for pinkwashing, covering the brand in rainbows for a few weeks out of the year in an attempt to create a credible LGBTQ-inclusive strategy;
  • Johnnie Walker was called out for re-gendering its usual logo to ‘Jane Walker’ to express a sense of inclusivity;
  • Ram Trucks’ Super Bowl ad received backlash for co-opting parts of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to align the brand with ideas of cooperation;
  • PUMA’s ‘House of Hustle’ party drew criticism for glamourising drug culture among London’s working class youth.


 

Forcing your place in culture more often than not publicly backfires, these examples are testament to that. But is this a risk your brand is willing to take?

“The most important cultural shift shaping our world today is that more people have chosen to rebel against the old way of living in what used to be a world of possessions, segregation and competitions. While the Kendall Jenner advert tried to celebrate cultural embracement it did so in ways which were both far too see-through as well as hypocritical.” Jakob, from The Sense Network, when asked what cultural themes are shaping our world today.

 


Culture Is More Than Ticking Boxes In Your Content Calendar

Many businesses have learned the hard way what it means to miss the mark. An increased fear of cultural missteps emerged when Pepsi pulled its Kendall Jenner-starring ‘protest ad’ in early 2017 after being roasted by the public for exploiting and undermining social issues of discrimination. Your audience will call bullshit on you.

Axe The Pink Tax
So why is it that so many brands are still getting it wrong?

I’ve been grappling with the question for some time now. Certainly, changing dynamics in consumer culture are making it near impossible for brands not to get involved. The result: a sense of urgency and the fear of being too late to the ‘culture party’. But co-opting meaningful conversations by jumping the bandwagon too quickly is a high risk maneuver. The only thing you’ll gain by doing just this is a lack of authenticity and credibility.

Brands are under increasing pressure to do the right thing, and do things right, but no brand is perfect. But with people more connected than ever, there will always be someone ready to voice their dissent. Consistently winning over hearts is near impossible. So what to watch out for?

“You can’t please everyone but at the same time you can definitely piss them off. No one expects [brands] to make everyone smile, but we’ll know if they faked it.” Sean, The Sense Network, when asked what brands are losing touch.

 


5 Ways To Stay Culturally Relevant
1. Don’t Piggy-Back

This is your brand’s equivalent to FOMO, also known as the bandwagon effect. Brand teams are making decisions too hastily of fear they will miss associating their brands with the current Zeitgeist. The result is usually a rushed me-too behaviour which is no more than way too see-through and hypocritical. Move with intent.

2. Stay True To Yourself

Brands don’t need to be everything to everyone. Be genuine, be honest, be real. To be credible and taken seriously you need to live by your values. Ask yourself what you can really own and defend.

“Brands should be true to what they stand for… If they don’t believe in a certain cause then they shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon just because everyone is doing it. Take a stand, do what is right and stand by it.”
Aaron, The Sense Network, when asked what brands are getting wrong.

3. Be Brave

Don’t just talk, do. No one expects bold statements on big issues. It’s important that you choose a theme that is important to you as a business, the role you wish to play and the voice you want to have. Proactively managing to move from the realm of talking to doing is key.

“No one is ‘doing it right’ because everyone waits until the ship has sailed to start getting on board. Being on top of your game means being willing to evolve, not to co-opt. To listen to marginalized voices, not tokenize. Spark real change.”
Danielle, The Sense Network, when asked what brave brands do.

4. You Can’t Just Sell Culture

Brands have a far more important role to play in culture than ever before. But you can’t just sell culture, you’ve got to earn your place in it. Your products may sit in culture, but it’s your brand that needs to engage with it purposefully.

“I’ve found that beauty brands like Fenty Beauty and Glossier are really upping their game when it comes to staying culturally relevant. It’s becoming increasingly important for people to feel that brands reflect them as a consumer, so it’s not enough to show a lineup of white, blonde, slim women anymore.”
Freya, The Sense Network, when asked what category disruptors are doing differently.

5. Learn From Your Consumer First Hand

How can you possibly have an impact behind closed doors? Your brand cannot simply assume what matters to your customers… even if you are working for Nike and have a sneaker collector in the team. Instead, businesses need to have their ears closer to the ground and seek conversations with real people with real hopes, fears and stories to share. This will provide the inspiration and understanding your team need to make better decisions, faster.

“Immediate, real-time alerts could be great as a quick feeler for whether brand teams are on the right track with an idea before it develops further. To be able to have a say from the beginning would be beneficial. Why not jam on ideas and create something really magical together.”
Freya, The Sense Network, when asked how to channel cultural intelligence into businesses, fast.

 


Culture Is Not Black And White.
There Are Different Ways For Brands To Engage

Brands can play different roles in culture… as long as their efforts are genuine. Culture is not a badging exercise, nor do you need to make big statements about every Trump-like or Brexit-type event to be culturally relevant. With people looking to engage with brands that reflect their values and the beliefs they share about the world, brands need to listen to their audiences more than they ever have.

Unfuck The System
Unfuck The System
Credit: Kent Lins (Flickr)

So long as decision makers think themselves safe of hindsight bias – the ‘we knew it all along’ effect – they will continue to repackage culture based on their presumptions and own agendas; far away from people’s lived experiences. Trust is not built overnight but through engaging in conversation and participation.

Here at Sense Worldwide we believe in the exponential potential of harnessing the creative intelligence of smart consumers; curious people who can stretch, challenge and build on our thinking to inspire new ideas and avenues that really matter to your consumer communities… because if you’re not creating with them, you’re not creating for them.

Just think to yourself… what would you ask a global, creative intelligence platform of smart consumers if you could?

When you know, book in for a free 15 minute consultation to discuss how you can put our Exponential Innovation Tools to use to grow your business.

Also published on Medium.