One does not simply walk into culture: Why brands must venture beyond the mainstream

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.

‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’, proclaims Boromir in The Lord of the Rings when Elrond explains that this is where the Fellowship must travel to destroy the ring. It’s become a popular meme used to express disbelief at someone’s proposed plan to just breeze through something complicated.

Brands would do well to have a version printed out and stuck above desks: 'One does not simply walk into culture'.

The BBC has been smashing out some stellar cultural programming of late, with Farrah Jammal’s 'Savage To Self' and Laurie Taylor’s ‘Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies' worth taking a listen.

Most brands only opt for a nod towards culture, a kind of cultural tourism that is much less effective than actually immersing yourself in something meaningful to your audience. The problem is twofold: first you need to have a purpose (which can be still terrifyingly absent in 2016) and then you need a working knowledge of the culture relevant to your audience. As Boromir says, you can’t just wander in, you have to really understand how it works.

Anthropology gives us the tools to understand culture and since the 1960s we’ve stopped talking about culture in terms of high vs low, moving towards mainstream vs niche. However, the ad industry seems to have a certain mistrust of the cultural niche. High culture was deemed better than low culture. We trust the mainstream more than the peripheral. Yet the rise of the internet, social media, self-publishing and the fragmentation of traditional media has changed the landscape. What was once underground now co-exists alongside the mainstream.

Take gaming, for example. Despite the mounting headlines about how games are larger than movies, how GTA V and Fallout 4 made more than Avatar, we still tend to think of it as niche or specialist and to brands who are after maximum reach, niche feels dangerous.

No matter that the recent League of Legends Esports semi-final was attended by 17,000 people in Berlin or that over 334 million people viewed the month-long competition with a peak viewership of the final equalling that of the Bake Off final.

Whilst Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg isn’t yet a household name, his screen name PewDiePie is certainly gaining ground. A 20 something YouTube vlogger that spends his time talking over video games and making montage videos, he’s amassed more followers on YouTube than Kim Kardashian has on Twitter and his channel has 10 billion more views than either Vice, CNN or National Geographic.

What does this all mean? It means that to truly make an impact on culture, you have to have a deep understanding your audience and the cultures that they participate in. But not only that, it often means you have to confront your fear of the 'other' and immerse yourself into something that isn’t mainstream, that isn’t discussed at the dinner parties or pop-up restaurants you frequent.

It also means that what is perhaps niche to you is everything to your audience – and just because it ostensibly doesn’t create the media waves you hoped today, it’s far better to be embedded in something meaningful for your audience tomorrow.

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

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