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Brands – if you want to understand culture, you need to participate

By Leo Rayman, chief strategy officer

June 15, 2016 | 4 min read

The US election has been dominating the news of late and with it has come a fair bit of discussion about the Overton Window.

culture vulture column

The Overton Window is an idea first conceived by the political scientist Joseph Overton, which holds that for any political issue, there’s a range of socially acceptable positions that are narrower than the total range of possible positions. Positions within the Overton window are seen as mainstream and uncontroversial, while those outside it are viewed as shocking, upsetting or radical.

Less than 100 years ago women couldn’t vote. It wasn’t that long ago that homosexuality in the UK was illegal. Debates around drug legalisation, trans rights or renewable energy have moved from outside the Overton Window to well within.

The key point is that, as culture moves, the Overton window shifts, and today's radicals may be tomorrow's moderates. When thinking about brands we see a similar effect. Whilst it can be helpful to understand 'acceptable' positions and connect with consumers, this window can also restrict brands, leaving them holding positions that may be tired or irrelevant when the window shifts. Picture any household brand depicting a vanilla and perfect nuclear family, with mum doing the cooking and cleaning.

What is needed is a way to explore the edges of the window to assess which way culture is moving. Donald Trump for example has explored the edges through shock and the adage ‘no publicity is bad publicity’. Most brands however do not have that luxury.

At Grey we believe that participation in culture is the best way to understand what’s happening outside of our window. Sometimes these take the form of ‘Labs’. Nike has one, as does Tesco. It’s the place where they can try things out on a more progressive audience, receptive to new ideas, and then assess the response before adapting for a more mainstream audience.

We’re increasingly seeing this kind of cultural A/B testing taking place in the real world. Uniqlo (pictured above) has recently become the masters of this partnering with brands as diverse as Liberty, KAWS, The Tate Modern & Marvel for limited collections. These small forays outside of their ‘window’ provide feedback, which can help position the brand in culture and go someway to navigating the future.

The rising stars of the publishing world such, as Vice, Buzzfeeed and Refinery29 inherently understand this behaviour. They have vast amounts of performance metrics that help them test headlines and create better content for the future. When it comes to cultural relevancy the best way to generate data is to test and learn.

Culture is dynamic and constantly moving and the only way to truly understand it is to participate. Whether you dip your toe in or dive in headfirst it’s up to you. But seriously come on in, the water’s nice.

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

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