Refresh. Or Perish: What Doesn’t Kill You Will Make You Stronger

23 Apr 2012|pughi

Evolve or die. It’s a truism. But it has never been more true than right now. The world is changing faster than ever, and as the world changes the people in it change. And when people change, what they want from the things they buy changes too. For a brand this boils down to the fact that today standing still is as good as going backwards.

The good news is that if you understand and embrace change (before your consumer does) you can gain access to unprecedented opportunities to grow.

So where does change start? How does it happen? And how can we spot it? It’s a question of chicken or egg, which changes first: people, or the world?

Cultural change is an intricate feedback loop that makes it hard to know where to begin.

But understanding the cultural world that surrounds us is what it’s all about. It may be amorphous and invisible, yet culture is everywhere. It is part social, part political, part environmental and part physical stuff; it makes up most of our lives. And so understanding culture, and cultural change, is vital for brands that want to grow today and, more importantly, ensure they’ll also keep growing tomorrow.

It’s been said that the CEO should know a little about a lot, the CFO should know a lot about a little and the CCO (Chief Culture Officer, a term coined by Grant McCracken in his book for the same name) should know a lot about a lot. What McCracken explores here is the need for businesses to always be tuned into what is going on in the world at large.

It’s no mean feat: you need to understand everything that isn’t your business all of the time and you need to change your brand to fit a future that hasn’t happened yet. It sounds next to impossible. But it needn’t be. Here are 3 ways of understanding culture that can help you anticipate change and use it to mobilize your brand for growth:

1. The monster on the horizon. If you don’t eat it, it will eat you. We’ve all seen it happen: it’s the sad truth of the now defunct video store making the shift to DVDs when others started streaming direct from the internet. Sometimes the world will change without telling you and that change will be driven by something that you didn’t think had anything to do with you.

Every now and again we think you should put your head above the parapet, and look at the trends that are least likely to affect you and imagine what would happen if, somehow, they did. To imagine a future where you have been legislated into non-existence or can no longer afford the rising price of a core ingredient. The exercise will be useful for innovation ideation, if nothing else. And might even keep you in business longer than the competition.

2. Know your landscape You can’t understand people without understanding the world. Consumers might be able to tell you what they think of something but not necessarily why. As we grow up through life, culture teaches us what things mean: this is an essential rule of basic survival (yellow + black + insect = don’t eat it) and social survival (jeans + trainers = sorry sir you can’t come in here).

But it’s not that simple, culture is not uniform. To grow a brand you need to know the culture of each of your markets. Bringing your own cultural assumptions with you when you travel is a recipe for disaster and cultural understanding can show you spaces of opportunity that might not exist at home.

It’s just as important to apply this thinking to the rules your category operates by. What are the signs and symbols at play? What visual and verbal language is used to call the shots in your world? By looking at how categories play out differently within your culture and others and by seeing how they map from a conceptual and cultural point of view, you can see the world in a whole new light.

3. Time travel (aka using culture as your springboard). Once you’ve got your bags packed, you can use culture as a way to travel through time using emerging culture as your conduit to the future.

This way you can make sure what you do and say feels relevant and fresh to your consumers. Culture can answer questions that consumers sometimes can’t: how is the role of chocolate changing over time? What will femininity mean in Russia in the future? Will naturalness still mean tomorrow what it means today?

This is the most important part of understanding culture. It’s where brands get their cultural vibrancy from. It’s what makes some brands feel like living, breathing parts of life and others like cumbersome juggernauts stuck in the slow lane.

These three approaches can really help brands build cultural vibrancy, the ability to connect with consumers in a way that feels consistently ahead of the curve. It’s a start, but the trick really lies with finding the right part of culture to tap into that works for your brand and for you. Part creativity, part insight, part intuition it’s a key way to getting to growth through culture.

It’s time to turn on your cultural antennae.

Written by Izzy Pugh, Cultural Insight Director, Added Value UK.

To find out more about how cultural insight can help to inspire the creative expression of your brand positioning strategy, watch the video below or email

Added Value’s CMO, Paul McGowan on mining culture for creative inspiration (Part 2 of Re-Thinking Brand Positioning)

Part 1: Building brands of character

Part 3:  Making the Brief Work

Part 4:  How We Do It

Thumbnail image created and owned by Added Value

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