How can brands make a real impact on culture?

Leo Rayman, chief executive officer at Grey London and chairman of the IPA Strategy Group, looks at the secrets behind the successes of the brands making a real dent on culture.

Skepta sending out a message about authenticity in Helly Hansen

Everywhere I look these days, I find marketing people talking about ‘Culture’. In the last week I’ve seen three separate opinion pieces about how brands need to 'get it’. It’s not just agency types, the authors included a multinational brand and a research organisation. But talk is cheap. There are fewer examples of campaigns making a long-lasting dent in culture.

To do that, you need to make something genuinely useful and interesting that addresses people’s desire for status and authenticity, success and the street.

But where do you look for that? Well for one, marketers can learn a lot from the music business. Musicians are in tune with culture and they know they have the power to shape it.

I’ve always been fascinated by Korea’s ‘K-Pop’ producers. Their success in turning Gangnam Style into a global cultural phenomenon is legendary. One of its leading producers, Lee Soo-man, refers to his technique as ‘Cultural Technology’.

And if technology is nothing more than a tool, then Cultural Technology is a tool to influence culture. For K-Pop that tool is an intricate blend of composers and choreographers; chord progressions and eye-shadow colours defined by market, exact hand gestures and the camera angles in videos.

K-Pop producers have created a culture-defining trend. For other brands, that want to slot seamlessly into existing culture, they’ve got to be deeply submerged in culture in the first place.

And that’s about looking out for those #WTF moments. Those moments when you see something that just seems a bit… well, weird. Because those are the rough edges in culture where interesting things are bubbling up. How about an example?

At Grey, our most recent #WTF came from the UK grime scene. Grime is a cross between dancehall and British hip-hop. It is enjoying a massive revival right now, smashing the singles chart in the last six months. SBTV is one of the UK’s most watched YouTube channels whilst Skepta and Stormzy have both appeared on Jools Holland.

We spotted that one of Grime’s biggest artists, Skepta, has been wearing Norwegian technical sportswear brand Helly Hansen – a Grey client – in two of his recent videos. #WTF? That’s odd. Why not wear a more expected and expensive sportswear brand?

Look at Skepta’s lyrics for a clue: “Yeah I used to wear Gucci/I put it all in the bin cause that’s not me.” Skepta is reacting against the Grime MCs whose success has driven them mainstream. Their money and fancy clothes show they’re losing touch with the street.

So here’s an interesting cultural friction for a brand to work with. Status used to come with high-end flashy labels but a new more understated status has emerged, rooted in technical performance. It’s really a demonstration of authenticity and solid expertise.

How a brand connects with that sentiment, and plays a meaningful role in that street-level conversation will affect how big a dent they make in culture.

The most potent brands no longer market to the world, they behave in the world, with authenticity and personality. And then, and only then, like-minded people seek them out and buy them.

This will be harder for some brands than others but it is up to us to work out how, and where a brand can credibly connect with our passions and our needs.

That is where this column will fit in, taking a look at the brands making that dent and really impacting culture, and hopefully getting to the science behind it – helping us all look at our work through the eyes of those we are really speaking to.

Leo Rayman is chief strategy officer at Grey London and chairman of the IPA Strategy Group. He tweets @leorayman

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