The Culture of Culture

Jean Giraudoux once said, “The most important quality for success in this business is sincerity. As soon as you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

In the modern marketing age, big named brands have an enormous hold on society.  Whether it’s food companies such as McDonald’s, or clothing companies such as Nike, brands generally seem to have somewhat of a cult following due to their age-old tactic of aligning customers with the brand for as long as possible, sometimes in any way possible.

So, let’s look at what effect brands can have on culture, and how cultures can have effect on brands.

At first glance, Adidas seem to have perfectly executed tapping into culture to further elevate their brand.  Through the use of not only sport, but also the sponsoring of new-found grime stars such as Stormzy, Adidas have linked these two cultures together – signing football star Paul Pogba in 2016 and making Stormzy the cover boy of Manchester United.  I guess the question here is what have Stormzy and grime got to do with football? Moreover, what is the future of this “underground culture” of grime now that its godfather Stormzy will apparently turn up to the opening of an envelope as long as there is money in it for him? A spokesperson for Adidas stated that “this is what we are like. If you’re like us, this is your community, too.” This shows us that Adidas does not want to be a brand, it wants to be a community that brings in a certain target audience with a particular culture that revolves around general working-class life.

Cut to… the next outing of Adidas and its Glitch Takeaway takeover, a fried chicken shop used to introduce their young black audience aged 14-19 years to their new range of football boots – surely no stereotyping or racists innuendo intended?! Though, to be fair, KFC continues to use black urban youth vernacular voiceovers on their TV and Radio campaigns despite the racial stigma of fried chicken, so Adidas is not alone in its ignorance.

The list of brands tapping into a culture and getting mass backlash is getting longer these days. These are just a few recent examples.

Puma, with their ‘House of Hustle’ event, attempted to tap into the underground culture of London’s streets by hosting a drug related party, handing each guest a burner phone and a fake fifty-pound note that read ‘run the streets’. Both very clear links to drug dealing.  Although Puma’s target audience is in fact the working-class community of Britain, it (unlike Adidas, who seemed to perfectly tap into Britain’s working-class culture) attempted a campaign that heavily backfired, with many publicly outing the activation as irresponsible in the extreme.

Amber Gilbert Coutts, a London-based social worker who works with vulnerable families, posted an open letter to Puma and event sponsor JD Sports to her Instagram account, criticising the brands for glamorising “adolescent drug dealing”, which, she wrote, “so often results in violence, exacerbated deprivation and community pain.”

A Puma press release sent after the event described House of Hustle as “designed to specifically celebrate examples of creative entrepreneurial pathways that are being forged from within the often testing social and cultural environments that are a reality for an increasing number of young urban dwellers.”

Then along came Nike with its nod to gang culture. Following a huge backlash, Nike had to withdraw its new balaclava, a piece of headgear that covered the majority of the face, neck, and chest from its shelves. Those opposed to the selling of the item insisted that the company was promoting and profiting from gang culture, citing the fact that the balaclava was modelled by a young black male, raising further concerns pertaining to racial and cultural stereotypes.

Some brands, alternatively, configure their entire company around one particular culture. A good example of a company doing this right is Vans, which has become a trademark shoe and clothing brand in a variety of extreme sport cultures and disciplines – specifically, the skateboarding culture. Vans created a shoe that was both decked and sticky on the bottom, making it the perfect shoe for skateboarding.  After the first day it opened, March 16th 1966, the shoe rapidly became a fan favourite amongst the skateboarding community.  Vans are currently one of the biggest skate brands in the world; this is due to a clever marketing technique that directly appeals to the skateboarding culture, keeping true to its classic style of shoe ever since the first one was made.  This shows fans that Vans has, and hopefully always will stay true to the culture.

“Your brand is your culture; your culture is your brand” 

Brands that are out of touch with culture can decline as fast as they once grew. I spent a couple of years working with Warner Brothers, and the one brand that kept appearing in every meeting was Lego. Lego became a cultural icon with its hugely successful bricks and mini figures in the 80s. Then, suddenly, the business courted bankruptcy in 2003. In an initial attempt to survive, the brand started producing bigger bricks for varied age groups, based on the assumption that users thought Lego bricks were too small. Lego sales then plummeted by 30%.

The turnaround came when ethnographic research revealed that people were willing to spend time and efforts using small bricks to build things that were culturally relevant. Lego partnered with franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter – this became an immediate success. Children started using Legos to tell stories and make culture through Lego mini figures, firehouses, police stations, homes and cities. In 2014, Lego became a larger part of popular culture through the release of The Lego Movie. It became an instant box office hit, grossing over $450 Million worldwide. Lego recently expanded on its ability to not only embrace but also make culture, with the release of Lego Batman and upcoming release of Lego Ninjago.

Lego illustrates why implementing a cultural strategy is crucial to the health, growth and even survival of a brand. As discussed previously, marketers are often consumed by lower-funnel tactics and metrics. While web analytics and other behavioural metrics offer valuable insights into the consumer journey, one should never lose sight of their brand’s ability to engage with and even influence culture.

I do worry that we may never see again the likes of cultural giants such as Lego, Body Shop, Fred Perry, Ben Sherman and Dr Martens ever again as today’s marketeers seem to be missing the mark so drastically in their desperation to become culturally relevant.

I guess you just can’t force culture – culture just is.