Brands, sometimes it's a good thing to make people ask WTF

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.

Roy Choi's Kogi BBQ

We talk a lot about #WTF moments at Grey. A WTF is when you see something so weird it stops you dead.

They come from the rough edges of culture, sometimes deep within subcultures or hidden in plain sight on a celebrity’s Instagram. WTFs often happen when two distinct and opposite cultures collide. Sometimes these collisions create new behaviours, trends or styles. Often they reveal a tension that brands – with all their money and energy – can help resolve.

In the early days of the LA street food movement – 2009 to be precise – a legend slowly built up around a food truck called Kogi. People called it ‘America’s first viral eatery’. Kogi used Twitter in an interesting way that no other static restaurant could. But it was the Korean/Mexican hybrid food that caused the real sensation. Spicy pork tacos and kimchi quesadillas came naturally to founder Roy Choi, a Korean American raised in LA where taco trucks were the norm and people couldn’t get enough of them. The success led first to a fleet of trucks and then multiple bricks and mortar locations.

In our global social media bubble, you’d imagine these culture clash success stories would be ten-a-penny. But for all our connectivity, too many lead to unhappy outcomes. Recent examples include a yoga class in Canada, which was cancelled after student leaders at the University of Ottowa complained of ‘cultural appropriation’. Given that yoga has roots in Indian spirituality and identity, there were concerns that the way in which it was being practiced might be offensive. Similarly, Asos came under fire for selling bindis and a recent article in Time called for gay white men to stop stealing sayings and behaviours from black women.

Who owns a particular culture is a messy, complicated business. Who decides what is a tasteful meeting of cultures or distasteful appropriation? But we have to tackle this as we try to embed our brands in culture.

In a recent FT article, Brendan Lemon talked about the democratisation of taste-making. The rise of social media, so the theory goes, enables individuals on the outside of traditional cultural institutions to exert influence over the people on the inside. Taste has gone from being the property of the few to the ‘province of the democratic army’.

But what if the democratic army exists in a filter bubble of curated homepages and personalised search results that keeps hidden views that oppose their own? The content in our feeds confirms, rather than challenges, our beliefs. It's a form of cultural isolation where distinct groups have their own cultures that must not be mixed.

As audiences become more tribal, negotiating issues such as taste across multiple groups is tricky for everyone, people and brands. So where does this leave marketers looking to make an impact on culture or embed themselves within it?

On one hand it makes it more important to keep an eye on the fringes of culture – not just to see what new behaviours and styles are emerging, but also how different groups are responding to them. We all have to get out of our own filter bubbles. Random Follows anyone?

It also reinforces the need to truly understand what your audience values. Doritos recently released a bag of rainbow-coloured chips to support Gay Pride and whilst some people were excited and most thought it was a good idea, there were plenty of naysayers who’d never buy Doritos again.

To find the tensions to play with, powerful brands must be brilliantly connected to what's happening in culture. And to have a legitimate role in culture, they must have a strong point of view on the world. Doritos may have alienated some people, but that was a good thing. Unlike price or product, culture can't easily be copied. In fact, it's the biggest sustainable advantage a brand can have today. So the hardest lesson might be understanding that if you want to make an impact on culture, you need a position, even if it costs you.

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

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