Biz Tips: The Best Brands Become Part Of The Culture. Here’s How Yours Can, Too

Biz Tips: The Best Brands Become Part Of The Culture. Here’s How Yours Can, Too

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The Best Brands Become Part Of The Culture. Here’s How Yours Can, Too

The way brands connect with consumers has changed drastically over the years.

It used to be that companies would develop their brand positionings largely through introspection — by identifying what they saw as the defining attributes and benefits of their brand, then pushing that version on to the market. They operated as though they were in complete control.

Now, the idea of building brands in such an insular manner feels archaic. Today, brands need to look more actively and purposefully at the culture buzzing around them — in entertainment, in fashion, in news, on social media — and use that awareness to inform how they should best position and integrate themselves into the world.

This is a more powerful form of branding, because by engaging with culture more directly, brands in effect can become a part of that culture, thereby deepening their relevance and connection with customers. And that has never been more prescient or necessary.

Here’s why.

Both brands and culture are shaped by stories.

Humans build culture — and, by extension, brands — primarily through telling stories.

That’s how we make sense of the world and of ourselves: storytelling. It’s innate. Cavemen told stories to make sense of the stars. Tribes and nations tell stories to create community. And since the dawn of capitalism, we’ve been telling stories to sell ourselves and our brands, too.

This is important to understand because it’s in this way that culture and brands are inextricably linked. The best brands are defined by and establish themselves through great stories and storytelling.

But the way brands tell stories to impact culture has changed — by necessity.

Brands today live in a more transparent and accessible world — one in which it’s possible, through mechanisms like social media, to interact with consumers more directly.

Now, if companies develop brands in a silo and ignore what’s going on around them, they come off as out of touch. Consumers no longer want to be told what their culture looks like, nor what stories define it — they want to take part in that development. Your brand must be a part of the culture, because consumers are a part of that culture.

The goal for brands today, then, is this: tell stories that ingratiate your brand in the culture so you become a part of it, too.

To accomplish this, the most successful brands integrate aspects of the culture into their core message, and/or connect their brand to recent events or moments that reflect what they want to stand for.

I’ve personally known this to be true for years. A particularly cogent example occurred back in 2009 when the agency I worked for was creating campaigns for JetBlue.

At the time, JetBlue had a clearly defined company purpose, which was to bring humanity back to air travel. This coincided with a well-defined value system that prioritized honesty and empathy and centered around providing everyday consumers with a friendly, straightforward flying experience. Our goal was to convey this in a way that felt credible and meaningful without being preachy or saccharine.

Little did we know that a financial crisis would give us the perfect cultural context.

The 2009 stock market crash was a tremendous jolt. Everyone seemed to have lost either money or faith in our country’s leaders. Despite this, CEOs and other executive types — some of whom had played a role in causing the crash — were flying around the country in private jets, even taking those jets to the congressional hearings examining their very role in the crash.

That image — of CEOs flying oblivious and pampered literally above all the pain and hurt of everyone else — touched a nerve. People were outraged. It was the beginning of a cultural flashpoint. We saw it and went into action; the corporate elitism was the perfect foil for JetBlue’s “of the people” purpose and values. We were well-positioned to tap into the growing animosity and take a stand.

We centered our campaign around that purpose. We called it, “Welcome Big Wigs.” In it, we called upon CEOs to come back and fly commercial, along with everyone else, on JetBlue of course. We delivered the campaign with a bit of sarcasm, as something of a nod to the common traveler — an acknowledgment of what they were feeling.

The campaign blew up. JetBlue became a leading voice in the public conversation. Its values began trending on social media. The brand in effect became synonymous with the opposite of corporate obliviousness.

Through clever digital and social messaging, we helped JetBlue become the brand of the moment. We tapped into the culture in a way that established us as a pillar of a certain community — as representing its core beliefs — and this strengthened our relationship with the members of that community.

This need for brands to take a stand and participate in the culture has only intensified, of course, as the culture wars continue heating up.

Consumers trust brands, now, to act almost as cultural barometers. And they’ll leave brands behind if they don’t feel like they can trust them to represent and stand for their values.

The trouble is, to tap into the culture like this is difficult.

The trick is two-fold: you need to be aware of what’s happening in the culture, but you also have to be mindful of what aspects of that culture your brand — with its unique beliefs and morals — should most logically associate itself with.

In other words, if you’re going to try and tap into the culture of the moment, you have to do so authentically.

That’s why Pepsi’s campaign with Kendall Jenner, for example, proved such a disaster. The essence of the ad was to show Jenner quickly solving the complex problem of police brutality by handing a police officer a can of pop. But the messages conveyed in the ad were not founded upon any kind of recognizable belief system, and thus they came off as cheap and shameless — in addition to ham-handed and tone-deaf.

At the end of the day, what becoming a part of the culture really requires is authenticity, engagement, and an appreciation of anthropology.

To participate with and tap into culture — and to avoid coming off as sleazy or disingenuous — you can’t be a passive spectator of it. As the agency did in our work with JetBlue, you have to engage in the communities that are driving the culture. Only then can you understand the culture substantively enough to leverage it in your marketing and messaging.

It’s not quick and easy. You can’t just sit back at your computer and monitor Twitter. You can’t just enlist an influencer and create a video with images related to hot-button issues.

You have to connect with people on a more fundamental level, understanding what motivates them, and what upsets them.

These are all things I’m thinking about now as my team and I work to establish a brand and identity for our new company, RedPen. We know that if we are to be authentic in our engagement with culture, we have to actively invest in that culture.

This is what the best brands do, after all — the Apples, Nikes, Amazons, and even JetBlues of the world. These are the brands that stick around, remain relevant, and make an impact on the culture they’re participating in. They work hard to understand the culture they want to influence.

And that’s what, at the end of the day, you’ll need to do if you’re building a brand today. The world has changed, and the way companies maintain relevance and fame has, too.

Peter is Chief Commercial Officer at RedPen, a breakthrough social news and storytelling platform powered by blockchain and AI. To learn more, visitmeetredpen.com or follow on Twitter at @meetredpen.

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The Best Brands Become Part Of The Culture. Here’s How Yours Can, Too was originally published in Marketing And Growth Hacking on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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