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Do it for the culture


Zach Kula (left) is a senior strategic planner and Tom Kenny (right) is SVP of strategy at BBDO's Toronto office.

Zach Kula (left) is a senior strategic planner and Tom Kenny (right) is SVP of strategy at BBDO’s Toronto office.

Despite its frequent use, culture is something of an elusive term. But at its essence, it is the things that collectively matter to us at a given point in time. At this moment in North America, the Me Too movement is culture, Trump’s Wall is culture, as are Cardi B and that egg that briefly took over Instagram. They are the things that we talk about, and think about, and in some instances create memes about.

The best advertising is in conversation with culture. And in the rarest of instances, perhaps a handful of times a year, it will even create culture.

Great creative ideas not only find their way into culture, but are informed by the very culture they hope to infiltrate. From Apple’s Think Different to State Street’s Fearless Girl, ideas that are discussed and remembered beyond their advertising life cycle bring incredible success to the brands that deliver them. And this success is not by chance – these ideas are born from an understanding of what people care about in that moment and ultimately relate to. Whether it’s an opposition to conformity or a demand for equality, many of the greatest ads of all time have authentically harnessed cultural significance as a means to connect with their audience.

While understanding culture has always been important, it is more important today than it’s ever been. The primary reasons for this are twofold. First is the changing media landscape. As marketers, we no longer have the luxury of simply buying a guaranteed slot of attention and using craft to deliver our proposition within it. Infusing our ideas with culture – things our audience collectively care about – increase our chances of standing out and competing with the things already earning people’s attention. Culture is a wave that is much bigger than our brands, and because it’s harder than ever to buy attention, the hope is that we can ride this wave into the hearts and minds of the people who might buy our products.

The second reason culture is more important than ever is driven by the evolving nature of how people relate to brands. With so much of our lives on display via social media, we increasingly buy things not just to do a job, but to tell a story about who we are and what we value. I want to buy a beer that says something about me when I’m holding it. That was true twenty years ago and continues to be true today. But it’s more acutely true today when I post a video of myself holding that beer on Instagram for what I narcissistically think of as ‘all the world’ to see. Culture can transform that beer into a symbol of something people want to be associated with.


But entering into conversation with culture is a risky proposition, largely because we are protective over the things that matter to us. It’s easy to recall examples of brands who have attempted cultural relevance unsuccessfully, and it’s usually because they made it all about themselves or didn’t belong there in the first place. There’s a big difference between finding your way into a conversation and forcing your way in. If you’re going to crash a party you weren’t invited to, your presence needs to be both authentic and additive. In other words, don’t be a buzzkill and maybe bring some pizza – everyone likes pizza.

Brands need to engage with culture in ways that feel true to who they are. A clear brand purpose narrows the area in which different brands can authentically play. With such a wide and diverse set of themes running through culture, there’s are bound to be something happening that will be complimentary. Like using your brand legacy of Just Do It to support bravery in the face of career-defying criticism and credibly participating in a global conversation in the process. The authentic connection between brand and culture can be the difference between cultural relevance and cultural appropriation, or in the worst case scenarios, cultural backlash.

There is in fact a third reason why culture is more important today than it’s ever been, and that’s because it’s at risk of disappearing. Not from the world of course, culture is more ubiquitous than ever, but from advertising. As the creation and deployment of ads becomes more automated and efficiency driven, we need to be vigilant in not losing the magic that allows great advertising to rise above the noise. There are two diverging paths emerging in advertising and as dollars are increasingly spent delivering a relevant message to the right person at the right time, we must also strive to make our brands famous. Not just because it’s fun to do things people talk about, but because fame generating advertising has been proven to make the work exponentially more effective.

But fame doesn’t happen by only talking about ourselves, we need to talk about ourselves in the context of things that matter to people. We need to converse with culture.

The Institute of Communication Agencies’ Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

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