In a society of accelerated cultural change, I see a conflict. One that sees the inner cultural values of a brand fall out of synchronous with the fast moving and amorphous pace of outer culture. And one that is shortening the lifecycle of brands that require a cultural context to connect with consumers. Brand building has often assumed the effect of culture on markets was static and not catered for the increasing speed of the cultural climate.
I believe that the future of brands lies in finding synchronicity in the varying properties of modern culture. And therefore brands need to better analyse and define the cultural systems in which they operate to determine the speeds at which they need to move.
The role of culture within brands emerged as a dominant theme in the latter half of the last century, and has provided a means for brands to borrow interest and associations from the macro-environment in which they exist.
Some brands rely heavily on culture to substantiate existence, others just need to be aware of the cultural climate in which they operate, but all must understand that the nature and patterns of culture have been fundamentally altered by the mass adoption of connected technology.
Culture is always moving, but in today’s environment…
…It’s moving much faster
…It’s more visible
…It’s more porous
As a result, brands are finding themselves operating in an unpredictable climate where meaning to consumers and contextual relevance are variables in a constant state of flux.
For many years, brands built success from resolute values that were rooted in slow moving or unchanging human and product truths. These values largely defined their company culture, reflected how they conducted business and related to the consumer. But they assumed that the cultural effect on markets was static. Today, brands face the challenge of balancing these inner cultural values with the fast moving and amorphous pace of outer culture.
“A brand survives and thrives by adapting to a changing dynamic environment” and therefore should be a system that interacts with its environment. This essay explores how the patterns and properties of culture can represented through a waveform model, and how different brand types can use this to determine the differing speeds at which they need to move. In examining this, I will pull out a series of principles that will help guide its practical application and which I believe will help inform the future of brands.
A badge of assurance to a part of culture
Brands began as a ‘badge or promise of certainty in an uncertain world’, a guarantee of repeat performance that a customer knows will satisfy.
It is often accepted that since this inception, branding has gone through a number of “ages” that were largely defined by the societal context and consumer conditions of the time. And that there has been a linear progression through these ages that has lead to what is defined by Franzen (2006) as Total Branding (Fig. 1)
However, it could be posited that these ages are not discrete phases in history that occurred in sequence, but more so a cumulative build of discipline that should be viewed as a spectrum rather than a chronology. And as such, a relation to core benefit or essence must be concurrent at every point on the spectrum.
|Principle – all brands should be built from a solid core of strong identity and clear benefits. Brand behaviour is not determined by the “age” in which we exist.|
The spectrum determines a brands relationship to culture
A brand addresses the challenges it faces in today’s market conditions, by adopting a position along this spectrum. It is on the more recent additions to the spectrum that the role of culture within brands emerges as an important factor in brand building, and on the earlier stages where benefit prevails over everything else.
If you are the toilet cleaner Toilet Duck, you arguably don’t need to culture to help enable choice, your objective would be more toward establishing the brand as a heuristic and doing so by building its mental availability
At the opposite end you have the brand as a cultural icon that acts as “vessels for self expression and are imbued with stories that consumers find valuable in creating their identity”. These are the passion brands that become culture engines in their own right.
|Principle – Not all brands need culture to exist. Access to culture should be determined by brand type.|
2 Speeds of Culture
Culture takes many definitions, but for the purpose of this essay, I choose to define it as:
… the collective programming of the spirit through which the members of the group distinguish themselves from other groups and determine how they relate to products and brands (Franzen, 2006)
For any brand there are 2 distinct cultural systems at play:
- The Inner System – The brand culture built on fixed or slow moving founding values
- The Outer System – The cultural milieu in which a brand operates
The inner cultural system, built from the left side of the spectrum, is rooted in benefit – the reason for a brands existence and should “involve everything at the core of a brand which works to the brand’s unique advantage in the marketplace”. This system often determines the overall culture of the company.
The outer cultural system is part of the macro-environment in which a brand operates. As noted by Franzen (2008)
Consumers’ wants are culturally determined and shaped by the environment in which the consumers live
A brands interaction with the outer system is important, as cultural conventions determine how appropriate behaviours and attitudes are learned, and its cues are used to help navigate situations of choice. This is not dissimilar from one of the formative roles of brands – to simplify choice.
As consumer wants are defined by culture, it is important for brands to correctly interpret its signs, symbols and meanings and use these as tools to connect with people.
I believe having a clear strategy that addresses both systems is imperative for a brand to thrive in today’s market conditions. However, it is the relationship between these two systems that is the critical factor, as it is how a consumer relates to a brand. Marketing is the common language used to reconcile these two systems and make the inner system decodable to the consumer via the means of outer culture and vice versa.
Principle: Marketing translates slow culture into fast culture, and uses its cues to simplify choice
High, low, fast and slow
For brands to effectively operate at the different speeds of culture, they need to move with the patterns most relevant to them, so it’s worth looking at its different dimensions:
High and Low
Cultural theorist Edward Hall (1976) classifies culture as either high-context or low-context Where high-context cultures depend on the context to signal the appropriate message, and where in low-context cultures the message is less influenced by context and where “rational information prevails over social information” The spectrum of high to low is the first key point in defining the importance of the outer system of culture to a brand as this determines its visibility.
It could be argued that in high-context cultures, interactions with the outer system are less necessary, as consumers will take sufficient information from communications from within the inner system.
Fast and Slow
A shift in the way media is deployed and consumed has led to an acceleration of the cultural cycles that exist within the outer system. McCracken (2012) describes these decreasing lifecycles of culture as “Culturematics” – instances of culture with short half lives
Evidence can be found on this when looking at search trends of the recent cultural phenomenons of the Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style (Fig. 2)
Ideas are very quickly appropriated and then discarded.
Technology is the clear driver of this acceleration. Yakob (2011) has spoken of the diminished cultural latency and that “there is a link between the amount of time it takes to disseminate ideas, their seeming volume, and the length of time that they stay relevant.” There are no technical limits to publication and distribution, but getting and focusing attention over a long period of time is a great deal harder. Scale is no longer a guarantee of stability. Production of culture is now open to anyone and everyone. Platforms and tools are becoming more central than publishers and distributors.
But it is not to be said that because culture is moving faster, all brands should move at a similar pace. Binet and Field (2013) present evidence to support the value of brand communication being most clearly felt over the long term and a slower pace.
The total number of business effects rises steadily as the campaign length increases… This is largely as one would expect: the longer a campaign runs, the more investment has been put behind it and the more time it has to generate effects.
What this sets up is a system of differing speeds and depths that brands need to adhere to, the merits of which help appropriate behaviour to cultural context.
|Principle: Analysis of the cultural dimensions provides a rich understanding of the context of both the inner and outer systems|
|Principle: Moving fast is not an imperative. Sustainable business growth takes time|
Using a Waveform approach to manage the different speeds of culture
Culture takes many forms and has many properties. I believe these properties can be expressed as Waveforms.
Every waveform has 3 core properties – Amplitude, Wavelength and Frequency, and these can come to represent to different elements of culture (Fig. 3)
- Amplitude – depth of culture, how visible it is based on high or low context
- Wavelength – the length of a cultural cycle
- Frequency – The repetition of appropriations of this cultural cycle
For the above example of the Harlem Shake
- Amplitude – Low, it has doesn’t change culture in any way
- Wavelength – Short, small half life
- Frequency – High, repurposed quickly
I believe that brands need to find the right balance of waveforms to effectively communicate with consumers through culture, and this balance is guided by the position they occupy on the spectrum. The waveform model can be used to determine the differing speeds at which they need to move.
It is the relationship between the slower waveforms that govern the inner culture system and the faster waveforms of the outer culture system where brands can find the translation points that can help them build brand equity through the macro-environment in which they exist.
Take the example of Red Bull. Its cultural waveforms move both slow and fast
- Inner Culture – It’s essence as a brand that “gives you wings”, providing the skills, power abilities to achieve whatever you want to, which they have built a company culture from moves very slowly. In most western cultures the ideology of possibility of individual achievement has prevailed for many centuries 
- Outer Culture – however the way it relates to outer culture is much quicker. It uses the domain of extreme sports, an area in which some of the youth of today use to construct their identities, as vessel to translate the essence of achievement in action and communication
Its waveform representation would look as below (Fig. 5)
This highlights the opportunity for marketing to act the translator between the 2 systems and to output culturally relevant communications as a product by analyzing the amplitude, wavelength and frequency of the 2 cultures in which it operates.
|Principle: Inner culture and purpose should be the driver; outer culture gives the opportunity reinterpret this purpose|
Breaking down culture in to its constituent parts feels like an abstract exercise, but I believe expressing its different speeds as waveforms can have a practical application for brand planning. Throughout this essay I’ve outlined some principles, which I hope can give direction on how to operate within the fast paced cultural climate.
Not all brands are required to oscillate wildly with the speed of outer culture and embrace the real time world; some will prosper by purely communicating their benefits, others will seek to borrow interest and associations from culture. But all brands need to be built from something and have a clear foundation – the inner system – and it’s from this they can start to embrace the fast paced world in which they exist.
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