Is ‘cultural relevance’ out of touch?

Cultural relevance is great, but only when it’s done right, argues Angela Seits, head of strategic planning and insights at Drum Network member agency PMG. For our Deep Dive on Marketing and the Marginalized, she investigates the pitfalls of getting it wrong and the value of getting it right.

If you work in advertising, you’ve probably been given the assignment to launch a ‘culturally relevant’ campaign over 100 times this year. It’s the new ‘make it viral!”’ But what does positioning a brand ‘in culture’ even mean? Whose culture are we talking about?

Is our industry’s definition of relevance out of touch?

The phrase ‘culturally relevant’ is often a way of saying what’s cool, trending, and embraced by tastemakers. At best, ‘in culture’ is shorthand for 'popular among young people'. At worst, it can be a way for brands and influencers to appropriate Black culture, co-opting it for commercial gain.

These two definitions collided this year. Mega-creators including Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae were called out for performing dances made popular by Black TikTok creators, prompting much-needed conversation around the differences between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.

The term ‘relevance’ remains problematic, begging the questions: who defines what’s relevant? Relevant to whom? New statistics predict the US will become ‘majority minority’ by 2045, and the post-pandemic era demands more inclusivity than ever before.

Most of us have good intentions when dreaming up ‘culturally relevant’ campaigns but too often, advertising only reflects a narrow segment of the population.

Why does this happen?

Time to look in the mirror at who’s making the decisions. More than 85% of employees in advertising and PR across leadership levels are white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This problem was called out in the 600&Rising movement as agencies released their diversity data and commitments to change. We’re still incredibly homogeneous and representative of dominant identities, skewing younger, cisgender, able-bodied, educated, and neurotypical.

Our lack of diversity is directly reflected in our advertising campaigns. Yes, we’ve made some progress in diversifying who’s visually represented: men and women of different backgrounds and ethnicities. But we’re still centering dominant voices and narratives in an effort to appeal to mainstream audiences.

Gut decisions

Our industry prides itself on keeping pace with mainstream culture. We use our gut to filter through the endless content competing for our attention. The problem is: gut instincts about what’s mainstream are wrong. We’re operating on biased assumptions.

Audiences are more fragmented and diverse than ever before, something that not even the US Census accurately accounts for. And two years of global pandemic has radically shifted behavior.

If we can’t trust our gut, what can we trust? Until we change the diversity of decision-makers and ensure a multitude of perspectives influence what gets created, our field of vision will be limited. We need to develop cultural competence and invest in human insights research to inform decision making, with always-on commitment to inclusive marketing across all platforms and channels.

So how can we develop cultural competence?

1. Inclusive research

Culturally-competent researchers ask the tough questions that your account managers may not explore. What are my own worldviews and attitudes toward the target audience? How do my views shape whose stories get told? What knowledge do I have of my target audience’s mindset, motivations, and behaviors?

Human-centric research ensures that your strategy is informed by rich insights drawn from representative surveys and in-depth interviews, reflecting the diversity of your target audience, rather than an echo chamber.

2. Equip your teams

DE&I leaders can’t join every conversation or planning session. Infuse inclusive marketing throughout your organization and equip teams to plan for inclusion early and often. As an active member of Google’s Independent Agency DEI coalition, we’ve found success participating as a beta partner for Google’s All In Inclusive Marketing Toolkit and training our teams on how to use this resource through every step of the planning process.

3. Empower self-representation

We have an ambitious goal to celebrate people as they are and represent diverse individuals while still achieving scale in our marketing campaigns. Instead of relying on your own limited lens, empower self-representation and allow people to tell their own stories. This helps ensure we’re authentically representing people’s complex identities and lived experiences.

4. Abandon one-size-fits-all and checkbox approaches

We’ve made progress in advancing racial and gender representation, but we often forget about inclusion and equity. Expand beyond a checkbox approach to representation that can come across as tokenism. Center the most marginalized and historically-excluded groups when appropriate.

Disability is repeatedly overlooked. In the US, 26% of the population is living with a disability but only 1% of primetime ads feature people with disabilities. We should strive to share stories that depict the full spectrum of experiences of people living with disabilities and chronic illness.

5. Build in feedback loops

Cultural relevance is about being informed by culture, as much as informing it. Build feedback loops into your campaign planning process to invite feedback from your target audience at all stages—not just discovery. This step isn’t as simple as leaving the comment feature turned on. It’s about doing the hard work of engaging with diverse communities and creating psychologically safe spaces for people to share perspectives that might conflict with your own.