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How do you solve a problem like... remaining culturally relevant?

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Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

In this instalment, we ask how brands should go about tapping into popular culture in order to connect with mainstream audiences – made all the more difficult, of course, as culture itself becomes ever more fragmented and decentralised, and as the cost of a getting it wrong grows ever higher. So, how can brands make sure they’re keeping up?

How do you solve a problem like... remaining culturally relevant?

Jodie Fullagar, co-managing director, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment

For brands to stay ahead of mainstream culture they need to be in mainstream culture. One of the best ways for brands to be culturally relevant in people’s lives is by playing a role in the things people love. When brands engage with consumers through their ‘passions’, in the right way, they will see significant brand and commercial benefits.

Last year, we commissioned a piece of research in partnership with Canvas 8 into the ‘Power of Passions and Future of Fandom’. 74% of fans surveyed said they feel more loyal to companies that sponsor their passion, and nearly 70% are more likely to pay more for a sponsor’s product than a non-sponsor.

So how should brands show up in people’s passions? Firstly, beware of badging and borrowing. Brands need to spend time working out what their role is in that passion. Secondly, brands need to contribute to the fan experience or the industry by bringing something that adds value. Thirdly, commit – it’s a long game, which brings incremental return and value over time.

Finally, and increasingly important, is to show up with purpose. Our research showed that 62% of fans said they want brands to stand up for something that’s important to them.

Nicola Kemp, editorial director, Creativebrief

To keep up with mainstream culture, marketers need to be relentless and consistent in the drive to ensure their organisations and agency partners reflect the diversity of the audiences that they are seeking to connect with. The industry cannot claim to create culture if it doesn’t reflect it within its leadership teams. This isn’t just about diversifying the talent pipeline; it’s about being intentional in nurturing cultures in which all people, regardless of job title, feel they can speak out and be heard. Social listening is a woefully under-utilised marketing tool; but active listening within brands and business is just as vital.

Kendra Eash, partner and creative director, And/Or

The best way to know what’s going on in current culture is to consume current culture. Have an open mind, try it out, watch it, use it – or at least make the effort to understand why people like it. Don’t make assumptions about what a certain target audience will like. Find what you like and relate to that. I think people can see right through creative that has been created from a place of fear with a million stakeholders’ fingerprints on it. And don’t force a fit if there isn’t one there: no one’s thinking about the taste of their soda when they are protesting for human rights. Find a different way in or a cultural moment that actually fits with the brand. Sometimes the best comment is not forcing a comment.

Stuart Lang, founder and creative director, We Launch

The most authentic brands support culture, they don’t hijack it. If a brand is the sum of its parts, then it should take its inspiration from its people and customers. Look around. Look up. Stop. Actively seek out the new, in whatever form it takes. Culture is all around us, waiting to be discovered. Let it inspire your ideas, which in turn will help shape your brand.

Eyewear brand Warby Parker has done this to great effect. Whenever it opens new stores, it connect with local artists from that area to create bespoke murals and stay in touch with the community. In collaborating and giving freedom to brilliant young artists, its brand experience feels constantly fresh, surprising and full of delight. It doesn’t stop there either. Since 2014, it has sponsored the Warby Parker Visionary Scholarship, granted to 2D artists who demonstrate conceptual, material and technical inventiveness.

Whatever you do, just don’t try too hard to be relevant – because if you do, then you never will be.

Ayaan Mohamud, APAC marketing director, Impact

One of the best ways to keep a brand relevant to mainstream culture is to be involved in a grassroots way in mainstream culture through partnerships. We’re seeing more and more of our customers leverage the trust and community influence of micro-influencers to drive brand awareness and sales. When brands partner with influencers to create authentic content relevant to their passionate audiences, we see a significant uplift in performance compared to more tightly ‘managed’ campaigns. Design powerhouse Canva gets this right. It has harnessed the passion of its super fans to drive peer-to-peer recommendations through its rapidly growing affiliate and partnership program.

Lottie Maddison, marketing and development manager, Stormbrands

Brands that ask respectfully for advice from their own people are demonstrating that they are inclusive, diverse, caring and truly living their brand promise. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have seen plenty of first hand ’they should’ve run this past their LGBTQ+ staff first’ moments across different brands marketing and advertising campaigns. Despite best intentions, our world is reactive, fast-paced and in a constant state of flux. The best way for brands to keep up appropriately is to ensure your teams are diverse and represent many different voices. Most importantly, listen, learn and action. It’s better to come from your team rather than coming too late via a ‘boycott this brand’ hashtag.

Marta Swannie, senior creative and innovation director, Superunion

The gaming industry – particularly esports – can help us find the answer here as it home to so many subcultures that the prospect of staying relevant can be daunting to a brand looking to engage. The main takeaway is that when engaging with culture, brands must know when not to get in the way. DHL is a fantastic example of a brand doing just that. It created a loveable robot called EffiBot with ESL that appears at intervals during the games and it is now so ingrained in esports tournaments that crowds chant ”DHL” when it appears. It is not the role of a brand to obstruct, so where they can shine is by complementing or enhancing what is already there.

Husani Oakley, chief technology officer, Deutsch New York

When an idea reaches the mainstream, it’s already too late. The trick is to be clued-in right when the pot of memes, reverence and ideas is about to boil. Seek out and follow people who are creating what will eventually become mainstream, and then follow the people who follow them. You can’t rely on algorithms to surface their content because by the time AI detects it, everyone else already knows about it. Also, remember that culture is created outside of the mainstream. Twitter and TikTok are great, but places like Triller, Fuser and super-niche subreddits are where the real conversations are happening. Go listen to them.

Shazia Ginai, UK chief executive officer, Neuro-Insight

This year has caused a dramatic shift in the mindsets of consumers: as our life context changes, so does our behaviour. As people’s outlooks on life and the world around them change, they expect their chosen brands to adapt too – or risk cognitive dissonance. Campaigns and brand messages need to stay topical and relevant to drive long-term memory encoding as we build associations and memories through stories and experiences.

Understanding your customer and how their circumstances may have changed is crucial to shaping this connection. Our research on gender representation shows that consumers are wired with pre-existing conditioning around binary gender norms, therefore brands need to challenge and shift these stereotypes and themes in mainstream culture to be ahead of the curve.

Rihanna’s Fenty Skin beauty line focused on accommodating diverse skin colours, but realising a much greater step change was required, Fenty then went a step further by building on the brand’s ongoing premise of inclusivity by addressing the issue that skincare is just for women. More brands need to react to cultural changes and movements, but they also need to align to the world that their complex audiences live in.

Cara Van Rhyn, junior planner, Leagas Delaney

In today’s world, there are a plethora of ways for brands to stay informed. Whether it’s staying up to date with trending topics on Twitter, threads on Reddit or questions on Quora, there’s a social platform for everyone and within each one lies a host of interesting cultural insights for brands to tap into. But staying conversant with these is no longer enough. Consumers – specifically younger generations – are increasingly passionate about brands that don’t just talk the talk. They want action. Actively supporting cultural movements by giving back to communities can make all the difference when it comes to staying relevant.

Got opinions? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.

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