Marius on Strategy and Communication

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Cultural Strategy, or Why the Hell Aren’t We All Into This By Now?

There has for many years been this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that the existing theories of branding cannot possibly inform strategies that lead to the sort of brands that anyone actually gives a damn about. There was a tension between advertising theory and practice on the one side, and personal experience and common sense on the other that I just couldn’t articulate. Until I discovered Douglas Holt that is.

‘How Brands Become Icons’ is the best book ever written about branding – an achievement it shares with the author’s second book, ‘Cultural Strategy’, which has inspired a number of my previous blog posts. In these books he proposes a new model for branding that is derived from extensive research into what made some of the most successful brands in history, such as Nike, Coke, Harley Davidson and Volkswagen, true cultural icons. A theory which is pretty much the exact opposite of the dominating models in use today: the so-called mindshare model, emotional branding, and viral advertising (or some sort of concoction of the three).

I first read Cultural Strategy a year or so ago and was immediately converted. Finally getting around to reading the introduction to this model old frustration flared up. This was written in 2004, and while it seems to have inspired a few of the best overseas agencies, why the hell haven’t it changed the way we all do advertising? Looking at the near total abstraction of most of today’s branding and communication theory and subsequent practice, we should be thrilled that someone proposes an powerful and proven approach to our profession.


On that note, here’s a summary of the model:

Brands live in culture and must in order to play a role in it consider the full context in which it exists. That means getting one’s head out of one’s own category. Where the opportunity lies for brands to become a cultural icon is to leverage cultural changes and the tensions these inevitably create.

Culture is in constant evolution, both on macro and micro levels. Ideals change and the constant power struggle between various groups leads to constant shifting in all spheres of society.

Parallel with cultural evolution are people’s own identity projects, where we constantly engage in defining our role in society and in relation to other people. While personal identities (ideals, beliefs, values and attitudes) may change over time, they are significantly less flexible than the culture in which they relate to.

So cultural changes cause tension. When the ideals of society, whether on a macro (e.g. political, financial) or a micro (e.g. workplace, school) level contradicts people’s identities, a need for new ideologies occur to resolve this tension (which I suppose is a form of cognitive dissonance).

This creates an opportunity for brands to step up and create a role in the grander narratives of people’s lives. It’s not a coincidence that the most iconic bands and movies emerge from social turmoil. Brands are no different. Although less powerful, the same mechanics are at play.

In order to succeed, the brand must create a new mythology, where it updates old ideals to suit today’s reality. The result of a successful such manoeuvre is the brand will be perceived as a credible champions of a new ideology, which directly (but subtly) addresses contradictions in our minds. The brand then becomes a vital part for these people to express themselves, and they feel a genuine connection to it (this feeling is infinitely more powerful than emotional buzz words showed down their throats btw)

New mythologies are created by mining subcultures, where the need for new mythologies have manifested themselves, for rituals, behaviours and symbols and utilise these in its communication. And this should not be confused with chasing the latest pop cultural trend. The distinction sorts the cultural parasites from the icons.


Developing a cultural strategy, and I mean doing it properly (and why wouldn’t you), has a few consequences that will be painful to many. Hardwired habits take time to change, but a dedication to Holt’s model requires unlearning. Here’s a few places to start (and I’ll try and elaborate in future posts):

It’s not about pushing messages (who cares about narcissistic product claims?), but rather championing a point of view which people relate to. We must zoom out and change our focus from petty and contrived concepts like product benefits and categories to culture and society. We must stop treating people like consumers of a category and treat them like people with full and complex lives. This means new skills and knowledge are needed.

Brands can’t be afraid of polarising people. If everyone likes you, you’ve played it too safe and nobody cares. It’s also not necessarily the biggest audience which is worth going after. A cultural strategy will by its nature appeal to a relatively small number of people to begin with, before its credibility is established and its cause can catch on.

It means a farewell to abstract brand definition and essences. These represent a highly rational way of approaching brand theory, but when doing business in the cross section of culture and human beings the accountants have to step aside and make room for cultural sensitivity, intuition and sophistication.

The obsession with a single key insight must end. As must the flawed idea that simplicity is king.

Research methods must change. From insular focus groups and market research to cultural analysis, anthropology and ethnography. Utilising academic research is a god place to start.

Strategy must have a significantly greater influence on the creative product than it does today. Brands are extremely sensitive to the intricate executional details of any piece of communication, and it can’t be left to the personal tastes, and interpretations of an agency-formatted brief.


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This entry was posted on September 27, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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