Culture is a powerful tool for understanding the context in which brands & their categories play

11 Jan 2017|Added Value

This article was originally published in the 2016 BrandZ Global Top 100 report.

No brand or category exists in isolation from the world. To treat them as such is to miss one of the richest inputs into their success.

Culture is marketing’s most powerful (and potentially underutilized) tool for truly understanding the context in which brands, categories, and consumers operate. It’s what’s all around us, shaping our values and how we think about things. It influences what we buy and aspire to, whether consciously or subconsciously. Mining it effectively is the key to finding cultural “levers” – ideas, notions and forces that are already at play on consumers – to help brands connect with them in the most relevant, authentic and interesting ways.

And it’s constant. New ideas get old – quickly. Every notion has its eventual antithesis. And those that once led the conversation can stagnate. Every brand’s success depends on its ability to listen. To reconfigure. To know that it is not the center of anyone’s world. To heed what culture tells it.

The worlds of beauty and personal care are no different. Today especially, so many timely notions and movements in culture have direct impact. From a continued examination of beauty ideals to moving beyond stereotypes and understanding women as multidimensional beings, and even deconstructing the notion of gender itself, the context in which these categories exist has never been so exciting.

Getting it right
The brands that get it right are those that are constantly tuned into these shifts – whether large or small. Ushering in a new era of appreciation for diversity with its “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove has for a long time led a changing debate around beauty ideals and has made incredible headway in terms of how women view the world and women themselves are viewed. However (curly-haired emoji’s aside – they rock), as it continues with its treatment of self-esteem, the brand starts to lag behind rapidly-evolving culture. The tide around femininity has changed; a cacophony of voices tells us that we are no longer in apology mode. That we’re quite alright as we are. That it’s not all about just having a pretty face anyway. It’s not that self-esteem is a bad topic – we’ve seen Always address it in an incredibly powerful way with #LikeAGirl – it’s just that this no longer feels the most-timely angle. Asking culture how self-esteem is shifting can provide fresh inspiration.

Amid the conversation around shifting definitions of femininity and masculinity, culture has moved towards a deconstruction of gender in its entirety. Not only do we see male rapper Jayden Smith modeling for Louis Vuitton womenswear, but the transgender community has come to the very fore. It is against this landscape that Tom Ford Skincare Men has come into being. Borrowing tropes around aesthetics and application from the world of female beauty, Ford introduces concealers, beauty masks and moisturizers that disrupt the marketplace, carve out a space to play and beg the question: if cosmetics become genderless, what might this mean for the future of beauty and personal care as it pertains to men and women?

Another success story is self-styled social beauty brand, Glossier. Inspired by the social nature of our lives and a timely aesthetic of the natural look (read: I woke up like this), the brand is essentially a living Instagram feed – gloriously styled, interactive and packed to the brim with highly aspirational “regular girls” (read: they’re not that regular). #NoFilterJustGlossier doesn’t just act as the brand’s ethos, but doubles as the war cry of the coolest girl gang online.

Territory for innovation
Also – psst – brands are culture too. Fashion label Misguided might not be a beauty brand (at least not exclusively), but it is shaping the context in which the industry operates. While the tide of female empowerment has explored notions of nurturing self-acceptance, “shouty” rebellion, and the depth of intellect and achievement among others, Misguided’s most recent campaign with Pamela Anderson presents a refreshing antithesis. She delights in the ridiculousness of the male gaze and her own freedom to express herself totally. Pictured in a tiny bubble-gum pink bikini and holding an inexplicable plastic pink pistol, she is accompanied by the slogan: “Reasons why Pamela Anderson is our spirit animal. She wore this and didn’t give AF.” There is delight in the absurdity and “not giving AF-ness” of it all. How fun! What a new and interesting articulation of female empowerment that, despite feeling closer than ever to what we have been trying to move from, manages to completely subvert it.

That’s culture in action. It gives us subject matter. It tells us what people care about. It exposes tensions that can be leveraged. It provides territory for innovation.

Ignore it at your peril.

Action Points for leveraging cultural insight

1. Culture has what you need.
Look beyond your own four walls to find ideas, notions and forces in culture that can help your brand connect with consumers in the most relevant and interesting way.

2. Don’t get complacent.
Leading the conversation once isn’t a ticket to forever. Stay tapped in, listen, learn and be prepared to shift. Just like culture.

3. Be creative.
Culture abounds with fresh ideas. Be innovative and interesting with regard to what you leverage. Above all, have fun with it.

Written by Laura Tarbox, Strategic Director, Cultural Insight, Kantar Added Value US

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