Closing the loop between culture and branding | “Cultural Strategy”

ph: Cultural Strategy, book cover, Oxford UP

“Cultural Strategy” by Holt & Cameron [link here] has been around for more than 10 years. And it is still one of the best works proving how a cultural approach to brand strategy leads to blue-ocean innovations.

Some businesses strive to close the loop between culture and branding. Managers and creatives build brands aligned to corporate values and the benefits consumers are supposedly after. Culture is considered an uncomfortable creature to deal with: they either confine it to the background as “context,” or domesticate it as “market insights.”

“Cultural Strategy” is a powerful reminder that:

  1. Brands are cultural expressions. Iconic brands are the ones that capture the collective aspirations and anxieties of a specific market. They offer a suitable narrative to express these sentiments across different touch points. The breakthrough of Nike as the leader of athletic shoes only happened when the brand was able to interpret the combative solo willpower sentiment of the Americans facing the Dream disillusionment in the 70s.
  2. Culture evolves, and so should brands. What is compelling today might become trite tomorrow. To regain share in the European youth market, Levi’s revamped its tired image through subversive gender portrayals. Competitive companies monitor the cultural conventions of their times, searching for those historical disruptions that offer them the opportunity to adapt alternative ideas, values, ideologies.
  3. Embracing complexity is key. Traditional marketing tends to distill consumers’ behaviour and preferences into insights, snapshots or one-word keywords. Cultural strategy works with collective ideologies and their evolution, extracting value from what is contradictory, complex and tacit. The iconic value of Malboro does not lie in the cowboy stereotype; it lies in the articulated narrative about the American frontier masculinity.
  4. Cultural innovations are organically produced. Cultural innovations require an heterogenous groups of professionals and an informal workflow. It is this flexible and open environment that allows professionals to brainstorm and develop ideas in a trial-and-error fashion. This is not a linear nor a structured process: it is no wonder that SMEs and start-ups are often at the forefront of cultural innovation in branding.