Cultural Branding Matters Now More Than Ever

Brand Culture Speaks Volumes

Today, what a brand does matters as much as (if not more than) what a brand says. It’s not enough to talk the talk; successful brands need to walk the walk and live their values to be purpose driven. Clearly, in a cultural branding climate where Lyft can grab more market share because of misogyny at Uber, consumers are voting with their dollars based on how brands act, and not just based on what they say.

If it seems like this should be obvious, then why do we still see brands sloganeering instead of making real change happen?

Within the space of a week, the New York Times published two stories that underscored this point. In “Can You Draw the Starbucks Logo Without Cheating? Probably Not” they reported that, in a study by of 156 participants asked to draw the logos of iconic brands from memory, a miniscule percentage could do it.

So Much Noise, Not Enough Signal

Perhaps, they surmised, the cause was “inattentional amnesia” a phenomenon that when something is seen repeatedly, the information ends up being more easily ignored or forgotten. I can’t speak for everyone, but inattentional amnesia sounds like a pretty good term to describe my current state of mind.

I find myself needing to ignore the latest marketing messages programmatically beamed to all my devices for the thousandth time, and needing to emotionally gird myself for the next media onslaught coverage of the latest harassment case, Trump headline, and mass shooting. It’s not that I care less now. It’s just that because I have less time, and because I am receiving messages repeatedly, they’re much easier to ignore to get through my day. That’s inattentional amnesia.

Brands know this. So rather than focus on messages alone, they’re taking stands in the culture wars. In “Pizza is Partisan, and Advertisers Are Still Adjusting” the Times reported on the social media backlash against Papa John’s, Keurig and Jim Beam for wading into controversial territory with their actions.  The conclusion: it may be impossible for brands to not take a position on core values in such a politically charged climate.

How Brands Can Adapt

So, if brand messages are ignored, and brand action matters now more than ever, how should brands find resonance with consumers? The Ad Age article “Four Pillars of the Modern Brand Identity” points the way forward. The author states: “modern brands don’t hand off the attributes of their brand identity to media. Instead, they build their identity in their networks, one experience at a time. They are identity networks. Modern brands are less about the company that created products and services, and more about the individual who buys them.”

To combat bullying, Burger King crafted the culturally relevant Bullying Jr. video and seeded it on all social platforms. On International Men’s Day, Harry’s, the razor company, took out a full-page print ad in the NYT, and shared social content asking us to question the meaning of this holiday (see below). On Black Friday, REI yet again provoked us to not shop, but to #OptOutside instead. These are just a few examples of companies demonstrating that cultural branding is having a moment. The posturing and actions of companies will not be ignored (for now).


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