Opinion

Oh Lord, won’t you find me a culturally significant brand

More than ever it's important for brands to harness cultural insight not only to build strong consumer-facing strategies, but also to win the talent war. Daniel Bluzer-Fry explains why.

I’m sure many of us have noticed plenty of articles and discussion in recent times about the numerous challenges that exist today when it comes to attracting and retaining great talent.Daniel Bluzer-Fry

Most articles I’ve read of late have taken a millennial skew, with some of the key strategies for engagement including clear and transparent dialogue between senior management and staff, clear pathways and opportunities for growth along with strong mentorship/coaching (amongst other things).

Indeed, creating a winning organisational culture is often a theme at the centre of many of these articles, something that I feel was most poignantly articulated by Didier Elzinga – the CEO and co-founder of Culture Amp, an Aussie tech start-up specialising in using data and analytics to improve company culture – who notes that “culture is the only competitive advantage”.

But I always find reading these articles interesting given most of them are penned by HR practitioners, and as a marketer, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about ‘culture’ is how brands build value by forging meaningful connections within the world we inhabit not as purely ‘consumers’, but as people.

It certainly feels like more than ever before, we need to stop compartmentalising the HR function of building organisational culture and the art of building culturally iconic brands to sell to consumers when it comes to driving growth.

Long before marketing had its own space cut out as an academic discipline, there was plenty of discussion surrounding how we work as the little consumer machines that we are in relation to culture and the world around us.

From early economists through to psychoanalysts and philosophers, there were many theories and ideas being bandied around as to how our consumption choices reflect our identities[1] through to how cultural movements could be harnessed to help both brands and product categories grow[2].

In more recent years, publications such Holt’s How Brands Become Icons and Cultural Strategy have also garnered more attention in this space.how-brands-become-icons-and-cultural-strategy-book-by-douglas-b-holt

Yet much of the literature on cultural strategy and branding seems to focus itself on adding value to organisations through addressing a very specific stakeholder group in end consumers.

Whilst there’s a raft of postmodern theorists who would suggest that work plays a significantly lesser role in how we construct our identities today than in previous epochs[3], the reality is that a substantial part of how we derive our identity today still comes through one of our major preoccupations … our work.

Indeed the labor we undertake and its outcomes still has a substantial bearing on how both we, along with others, conceive of who we are.

So it’s with that in mind, that when it comes to becoming an attractive brand to stakeholders at all levels – from end consumers through to employees and prospective partners – it feels as if more than ever before, brands need to ensure they have a cultural outlook, and be employing cultural insight in harmony with data and science, not simply to ensure they can derive income on their balance sheet through smarter positioning, communications and innovation pipelines, but to ensure that they are cultivating attractive brands to maximise the human capital they have access to when it comes to both recruiting and retaining talent.

Don’t get me wrong, this is much easier said than done. It seems that at least the short term, building a top class, culturally iconic brand isn’t particularly simple or cheap to do.

On the ‘simple’ front, one of my strongest memories about how companies can perceive opportunities in this space came when doing a debrief with a cross-functional team from a strong Australian brand many years ago.

Upon digesting the presentation that had just been delivered – and realising the brand’s capacity to live beyond any simple product category and influence culture to build lasting equity –  a senior executive responded by openly saying, “Well, that’s a lot of work isn’t it?”.

Further to that, we’re living in a day and age when not only do the foundations for these types of brands have to be forged properly, but they also have to be policed. Take, for instance, Apple’s slide down the brand equity ladder (for example, see Added Value’s Cultural Traction reports) in recent years.apple-iphone7

Looking at recent headlines about the company’s tax avoidance (not to mention its  history with questionable labor practices), and trying to align these behaviours to some of the mission statements set out by incumbent CEO, Tim Cook, I’m going to tip that the tech giant keeps heading south on most brand equity scales unless they do some hard work to genuinely address a range of their existing practices (and I wouldn’t say I’m out of step with leading industry commentators in this suggestion despite a fancy new iPhone with no headphone jack being around the corner).

And beyond having to cultivate and implement a meaningful long term vision, the other difficulty most brands have is usually tied to costs – and I’m not talking about the resources that are required to update a brand and align its various operations.

There’s no doubt that some of the cultural plays that brands will make to build long-term equity have short-term implications and risks – hence there is often penny-wise-pound-foolish complex of not wanting to alienate potential customers when redefining what a brand is all about and actually making it stand for something that goes beyond a standard CSR checklist.target logo - 2

In recent years, it’s been interesting to see brands that have tried to become more in tune with contemporary culture cop flack when they step up to the plate (see the trolling and loss of certain customers Target experienced when it decided to pursue gender neutrality amongst other things).

But again, in an age of perpetual disruption, whilst it’s difficult to tangibly value many brands on a balance sheet, it’s actually cultivating this asset that should give companies the best chance of pivoting along with entering new markets to adapt and grow in a business landscape filled with flux.

It’s not easy, but there are some surprising brands who have the courage and audacity to push the boundaries in these spaces to grow their brand equity.

petr-pavlensky-burger-kind-deal-tweet-balls-nailed-to-ground

Just recently, one of my favorites examples of a brand going to the effort is Burger King – that’s right, a fast food company – whose recent work in Russia saw them celebrating the work of political Russian artist Petr Pavlensky with a range of different interpretations of his art on their burger range.

One imagines that whilst this kind of activity may irritate a select few (and I do hope it doesn’t get shut down by the powers that be), in the long term it will help the brand win a place deeper in the hearts and forge a more meaningful relationship with a variety stakeholders from all walks in both Russia and abroad.

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So what should we be thinking when we think ‘culture’? Well, as I suggested earlier, the biggest tension that I see right now when it comes to the phenomena of ‘culture’ is the disunity of both the marketing and HR function in many modern day workplaces. Thinking back to that day in the boardroom when that executive I referred to earlier made his comment, part of me dearly wished that HR was present in the room (and no, it wasn’t for them to see the attitude of this particular senior executive).

The reality is, the decisions that come out of a marketing department when it comes to creating a brand will impact the talent that walks through the doors of that business.

As a friend working in a couple of early stage start-ups in the U.S., reminded me recently, a company can only grow as fast as its people.

As such, more than ever before it should be a priority for senior leadership within any organisation to ensure that these two functions in particular have strong alignment and integration, otherwise, it’s hard to think that the future will be as bright as it can and should be.

Daniel Bluzer-Fry is head of strategy at Live Safe and a freelance strategist

[1] See Thorstein Veblen’s commentary around conspicuous consumption and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders amongst others for some great examples in this space

[2] See Edward Bernays’ ‘Torches of Freedom’ – namely it’s ties to Suffragettes to promote cigarette smoking as an exemplary case study

[3] See the works of Polish Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman for a thorough exploration of this idea (namely his book Consuming Life)

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