Vasanth Seshadri, founder and creative director at The Sunny Side, argues that brands have a responsibility to engineer culture – and shares three ways for them to start.
The year 2020 will be remembered for two things. One is Covid-19, which has made us rethink everything from our work culture to the sharing economy. Another is the anti-racism movement that has finally made the world wake up to centuries of systemic discrimination.
What’s remarkable about both these seminal developments in human history is that brands were not just allowed to add their voices to these conversations, they were expected to drive the conversations.
Before most governments had a chance to formulate a cogent response to Covid-19, Lifebuoy quickly launched a poster and social post educating people about the proper steps of handwashing to stay safe and healthy, and even gained kudos for recommending their rivals like Dettol by name. P&G factories in Cincinnati and Boston started making face shields. LVMH turned its perfume factories into hand sanitizer factories.
Brands felt just as compelled to respond to the other pandemic: racism. Apple launched a $100m Racial Equity and Justice Initiative with a three-pronged focus on education, economic equality and criminal justice reform. Google committed $175m to racial equity with a focus on financing Black-owned businesses and supporting Black entrepreneurs. Nike pledged $40m and put out a poignant ad that said, ‘For Once, Don’t Do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.‘
All of this is part of a wider shift among brands over the past few years: the desire to change the culture. I’ve explored the culture-changing power of brands in my new book, Cultural Engineering. In it, I dive into how today’s young adults expect brands to demonstrate a value system through not just communications but also sustained actions, and how any brand that does not have a point of view is headed straight for a museum.
The term ‘cultural engineering‘ is new, but I use it to refer to a phenomenon that has taken shape over the past few years. I define cultural engineering as the systematic effort to dismantle relics of culture that burden us and to install new thought processes and behaviours that empower us.
These old relics of culture include racism, homophobia, risk aversion, and the patriarchy. All of these might have served our ancestors well, but today, we can all agree that we would be better off without them. But people don’t change overnight. Culture doesn’t change overnight.
That’s why dismantling these relics needs sustained effort. This effort may come from governments, non-profits, or influential individuals. Indeed, it often does. But increasingly, it also comes from brands.
Burger King has been knocking its marketing out of the park for the past few years. But it’s not just clever product pieces and digs at McDonald’s. In 2014, they tackled homophobia by packaging their Whopper into a rainbow, calling it the ‘Proud Whopper‘, and filming the reactions of customers to create a provocative social experiment. Participants assumed that this limited-edition Whopper was somehow different, only to see a message in the packaging that “we are all the same inside”. In a small way, it made these participants (and those who viewed the film) change their thought processes and realize that we are not too different regardless of our sexual orientations. The kids who participated in it will later raise families that are more tolerant of sexual diversity. This is an act of cultural engineering, even if it takes years to achieve results.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is another burdensome relic of culture in many parts of the world today. In 2019, Mexico’s national carrier Aeromexico addressed this with an ingenious campaign called ‘DNA Discounts‘, which gave flight discounts to Americans depending on how much Mexican DNA they possessed. Their target was not Mexican-Americans who knew about their Mexican ancestry, but Americans who did not even know that they had Mexican heritage. This broke down the walls many Americans had built in their minds between themselves and immigrants. It’s hard to think of immigrants as others when you know that one part of you is them. Again, anti-immigrant sentiment is not something that can be re-engineered overnight, but the first steps have been taken.
Why are brands uniquely positioned to drive these changes? I believe that it’s because brands possess an exceptional combination of knowledge, expertise, wealth, influence and goodwill. Some governments may possess wealth and influence but not the love of the people. Some non-profits may possess knowledge and expertise but not wealth and influence. But brands have accumulated substantial knowledge, gained wealth that can be redeployed to drive human progress, and most importantly, earned love by empowering their consumers in myriad ways over decades. It would be a travesty if brands ignored this extraordinary power.
Where does all this fit within the great debate about brand purpose? The term has come under renewed scrutiny lately. Some are arguing for it to be abolished. I believe that abolishing it is not the solution, but that the concept must be refreshed and rejuvenated. Cultural engineering is a concept which I believe will hit refresh on brand purpose and give it new life.
The reason brand purpose sometimes receives a stick is that brands don’t always walk the talk. State Street Global Advisors, the firm behind the widely-acclaimed Fearless Girl statue that spoke loudly for gender equality on Wall Street, was outed for paying women less than men in the same positions. When something like this happens, the marketing campaign looks insincere in spite of its four Cannes Grands Prix.
But on the other side of the spectrum, you have a brand like REI, who didn’t just do their ‘#OptOutside‘ initiative as a one-off campaign, but are expanding it year after year. For five years running, they have closed all stores and paused all e-commerce on Black Friday to show their commitment to the outdoors. On top of that, in 2019, they asked all their 13,000 employees and 18 million members to “opt to act” – to join a nationwide clean-up effort of the outdoors. They’ve also asked their employees and members to sign up for a 52-week action plan to take small steps throughout the year to reduce their environmental footprint. They are rethinking their core business model to reduce plastic packaging, and expanding their rentals and used gear businesses to give their consumers an alternative to buying new gear. These steps have made REI a poster child for a brand purpose.
I believe that any brand that does not engineer culture is destined for the waste bin of history. This is not a philanthropic exercise. This is not some fluff about making the world a better place. This is a business imperative. Today’s young adults have started asking brands what their stand is on crucial issues that matter to them. They are voting with their pockets for brands whose stand overlaps with theirs. It’s often said that a brand needs to behave like a person. We make friends among people whose point of view overlaps with ours. Why would it be any different when we make friends with brands?
Let’s say I’ve convinced you that brands have a responsibility to engineer culture. How can they go about it? Here are my three recommendations:
1) Identify societal tensions that affect the world today. These societal tensions ideally need to affect some of your own consumers and overlap with your product category in some way. Good examples would be Ariel identifying gender inequality in household chores as a societal tension, and Lifebuoy identifying the lack of safe handwashing habits as a killer of millions around the world.
2) Address the societal tension in a creative and memorable way. Staying with the above examples, Ariel tackled gender inequality in household chores with their ‘Share the Load‘ campaign that found creative ways to encourage men to share household duties, such as a his-and-hers detergent packs and a calendar with odd-and-even days for men and women to alternate household chores. Lifebuoy has found multiple creative ways of encouraging people to wash their hands, such as a jump pump in rural India that turned water pumps into playground rides, so that kids would play and get water to wash their hands at the same time.
3) Follow through with sustained actions that firmly establish the brand as a change agent. Ariel has returned with multiple iterations of ‘Share the Load‘ year after year. In 2020, Lifebuoy achieved an extraordinary milestone in educating 1 billion people around the world about the importance of washing hands with soap and water, saving an incalculable number of lives.
As marketers look to the future with both excitement and uncertainty, I believe that this three-step framework is an ideal blueprint for brands to engineer a culture and earn brand love. I believe that the concept of cultural engineering is a timely refresh to the way we approach brand-building. When what’s good for business is also good for human progress, isn’t that the best of all possible worlds?
Vasanth Seshadri is the founder and creative director at The Sunny Side