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The rise and rise of the cultureless brand. When will it end?

You can’t be a disruptor, without doing something disruptive. You can’t be a challenger brand, if you don’t do something that challenges the market leaders. A purpose isn't a purpose, if it sits idle.

From brands that are culturally insensitive or have an over-inflated sense of purpose, to those with spurious business practices and marketing tactics, brands have never contributed less to culture.

For the last 20 years, you could say the majority of brands have been taking from us, rather than pushing us forward.

However, one good thing might arise from this pandemic. A good old dose of what economist Joseph Schumpeter described as ‘creative destruction’. A process of innovation, most likely to happen in a crisis, where new ideas and businesses start to emerge, restructuring old practices, thinking and culture - giving rise to the next phase of rapid expansion.

Of course, when it comes to marketing innovation, very rarely do you hear it in relation to culture. Why would you? Culture and brand seem like fluffy conceptual cousins that are no longer relevant in today’s performance driven world of advertising. For many CMOs, innovating in culture is a nice to have. After all, why do hard things in culture, when it’s easier to growth hack your way to this quarter’s sales targets.

I admit, it’s very easy to get idealistic about brand. As well as debate its role in culture from high upon my horse.

I would argue though, when defining culture as the shared values, attitudes and behaviour of a group of people, to be successful in marketing, is to be successful influencing culture. And absolutely every market has a culture. Even toilet paper.

Just over a year ago we embarked on a rebrand and a repositioning of the agency. We wanted to attract ‘Brands on a Mission’. Missions to ‘Do Things That Change Things’ in their respective markets.

And despite the rigour and thinking that led us there (and there was a lot). One thing has become clear in the dozens of pitches we’ve been part of.

While many people buy into it, there’s actually a big appetite in Australia for brands to not do anything that changes anything at all. For all the purpose-driven bravado, when we’ve lost a pitch, it’s because we suggested the brand change something bigger than a metric or tweaking a media channel.

Or the thing we proposed couldn't be done, because numerous internal departments would need approval, and that was all too hard.

Or despite running a three-month pitch process, it was just easier to stay within the incumbent holding group and do the same thing just cheaper.

But in the words of Dave Trott: “You can’t change things without changing them”. You can’t be a disruptor, without doing something disruptive. You can’t be a challenger brand, if you don’t do something that challenges the market leaders. A purpose is not a purpose, if it sits idle in a manifesto ad. Chatting short-term versus long-term or brand versus performance, changes very little apart from your media plan.

In my view, and thanks to decades of prosperity that might well be slowing, marketing innovation has only had to focus on a few simple things.

Mine low quality attention with a growing population of people, already actively in the market to buy you - mostly via digital media. Worryingly, 68% of all media spend in Australia is with Facebook and Google. That suggests most brands are doing exactly the same thing as one another. I’m not sure you can call that marketing innovation.  

If you’re a big brand, just acquire more culturally innovative brands to get bigger. In the last twenty years, the top 100 most valuable brands have not changed an awful lot and more than doubled in value from $988bn to $2.13tn. When you look at brands such as Linkedin, Whatsapp, Ben and Jerry’s, Dollar Shave Club, Aussie and my beloved beer Balter, it’s clear big brands find it easier to buy brands than innovate themselves.  

Start-ups ‘disrupt the establishment’ primarily to get investment from a handful of the same investors. As an example, Sequioa Capital invests in the following; Airbnb, Apple, Dropbox, Eventbrite, Evernote, Github, Google, Houseparty, Hubspot, Instagram, Jawbone, Linkedin, Kayak, Nvidia, Popsugar, Rackspace, Skyscanner, Whatsapp, Yahoo, Youtube, Zappos and Zoom

So, in the interests of optimism, at the end of a depressingly long article, during a depressingly bleak time, let’s hope COVID-19 leads to some much-needed creative destruction of the cultural marketing kind.

There is a reason to be cheerful. There are a handful of brands on a mission. Taking cultural innovation as seriously as advertising innovation. Not just our work with Converse, but a noisy Scottish brewery called BrewDog is leading the way in beer, business and marketing.

In my humble opinion, here’s what makes a great brand great and creatively destructive.

Replace your high ground, passive brand purpose, with a commitment to an active, culture led mission. 

BrewDog’s is a pretty good example;

“BrewDog was born with the aim to revolutionise the beer industry and completely redefine British beer-drinking culture. Our mission is to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are”

Unfortunately, to build a brand you actually need to Do Things That Change Things.

To highlight our revolutionary concept, we’ve created this very scientific and very strategic ‘Do Things That Change Things’ matrix. You’re welcome to use it for free. It is particularly useful in those meetings where there are a lot of discussions about the reasons why your brand shouldn’t do anything. Whilst Kim, Lance, Donald and Jacinda all get results, I’m sure we’re all clear on how we’d rather do it.

Do what others aren’t prepared to do, in every aspect of your business.

Culture is impacted in numerous ways, particularly during a crisis. Spend more time getting closer to the action and finding all the ways your brand can push your market’s culture forward, not just in advertising. Then be consistent and relentless in the pursuit of it.

If that sounds fluffy, think about it in terms of ByronSharp. Mental availability. Physical availability. Negate the reasons not to buy and all that marketing science stuff. Here’s BrewDog delivering on its mission. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. And here.

You see. This whole marketing communications thing is a lot easier if you’re open to doing stuff. 

Not all attention is equal.

Finally, quantity is not the same as quality when to comes to media. If you have to influence people’s values, or attitudes, it's hard to do that just with programmatic retargeting stuff.  

When we approach communications planning, we always start with culture first before talking tactics. It leads to much more enlightening places.  

To end. This is not to dismiss the world of performance media and CX, but increasingly it comes at the expense of building brands that influence culture. Why can’t we do both?

For the last thirty years, we’ve been making haste while the sun shines, but we’ve been mistaking sales with marketing. Let’s hope this pandemic starts a new breed of brands that care about their market’s culture, as much as their AdTech.

Words by Carl Moggridge.

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You can’t be a disruptor, without doing something disruptive. You can’t be a challenger brand, if you don’t do something that challenges the market leaders. A purpose isn't a purpose, if it sits idle.