How Culture Drives Brands

February 20, 2018 — Christina Papale

A few weeks ago, it was announced that the Cleveland Indians would put an all-stop to using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms by 2019. The cartoon-like logo depicting a Native American was first introduced in 1948 but over the years, the team name and symbol have been called out as insensitive and racist to Native Americans resulting in many a debate and protest. In fact, pressure to remove Cleveland Indian brand symbology has been ongoing for the past 50 years. So why the change today?

In our highly connected and attuned society, it is more important than ever that a brand be keyed-in and connected to the fast moving cultural barometer at-large.

Culture inherently moves like an ocean, its forces and waves breaking as “a storm to the norm.” Think watershed or counter-culture movements.That’s why all brands, regardless of industry, should be paying attention to cultural conversations; and if brands are smart, they will be leading changes for good vs. reacting. When a brand doesn’t keep up with culture, it runs the risk of the worst brand offense: irrelevancy. We’ve seen our culture break many brands that were too slow to evolve. We’ve also seen culture reward brands that do-even if they were on the brink of extinction.

Brands should keep three key things in mind when riding the cultural waves of relevancy:

1. Brands need to be fast and flexible to stay culturally relevant

Retail brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and J.Crew were once attuned to how people wanted to dress and even helped dictate the trends. But as we evolved how we think about our identity and ourselves, and how we dress to communicate that identity, both companies have been slow to adapt their brand. Abercrombie and J.Crew market identifiable branded looks to masses that no longer care for identifiable branded looks. See the crazy?

A strong brand point of view is good only if flexes with culture. A notable example is Barbie. We witnessed culture do a number on Barbie, turning a lifestyle aspiration for countless girls into the poster child of negative stereotypes pertaining to women. In response, Barbie has been slowly shifting. We’ve seen changes in the dolls’ body dimensions, the release of a more diverse lineup and last year’s debut of man-bun Ken. Seems like Barbie is fighting hard for relevance and listening to culture…at a girl!

2. Brands need to deeply know their audience to stay culturally relevant

The teen-centric clothing retailer Brandy Melville launched their “one size fits all” sizing that was perceived by many as exclusive, exclusionary, and contributing to negative body images of women. However, the brand remained steadfast in their stance, maintaining that offering one size was their way of speaking to their specific tribe. While controversial, the strategy has paid off and mobilized a loyal teen army (3.8 million on their US Instagram alone) who love how the sizing makes it easier to shop. These evangelical fans are not only shoppers but primary content contributors, shaping the brand they love so dearly. Brandy Melville continues to ride this particularly controversial wave alongside their fan base overriding a cultural swell that isn’t quite big enough to swallow the brand whole.

3. Brands need to play the culture card with savvy to stay relevant (or at least stave off a massive backlash)

To ride culture well, brands have to really understand the how the sea moves. Today, brand opinions can turn on a dime if a culture lens isn’t applied with utmost savvy. Leaning in the wrong way could be disastrous. And it doesn’t take much to be in and out of favor.

For example, PepsiCo waded into offensive territory with a television spot starring reality star Kendall Jenner last year, then stepped in it again when the announcement of their “Doritos for women” surfaced as a new snack platform. Dodge Ram released Super Bowl spots using a speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sell cars and the torrential blow back through social media was fast and furious.

Just as fast, Pirelli Tires switched gears, trading in their traditional girlie pin-up style calendar for more meaningful culturally driven content. The 2016 calendar shot by Annie Leibovitz became a brand game changer that stuck, and they’re not looking back.

Can a brand always know when their culture card will be misplayed? Yes. And big brands have no excuse for appearing tone deaf when they have the resources and cash to obtain perfect pitch.

Brands either move with culture or die. If they are flexible, deeply understand their tribes, and play their culture cards with utmost savvy, they will thrive.

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