FIVE THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOUR BRAND ENTERS THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION

 Photography by Alexa Mazzarello

Photography by Alexa Mazzarello

By T. Alex Blum and Lee Roth

In our recent post (In Tumultuous Times, Brands Step Up Their Advertising, and in the Process, Find Their Voice) we suggested that brands like Audible, Celebrity, Hyatt, Airbnb, and the NY Times are reacting to the challenges of today’s volatile and polarized political landscape by finding a distinctive voice and embracing it, with positive results, while others, like Pepsi, are missing the mark. Clearly, there are no hard and fast rules for identifying what issues a brand can safely identify with, and in addition, it is different for one brand versus another, but the key smell test no one wants to fail is authenticity.  Here are some basic questions to address if you want to enter the cultural conversation in a way that is authentic to your brand: 

What Does Your Brand Stand For? 

Everyone understands that brands are in the market to sell something, but all things being equal, consumers would prefer to associate with brands that share their values. Research indicates this is particularly true for millennials, for whom purchase intent and brand values are closely associated. Now more than ever, it is important to take the time to identify the core value or values of your brand. Whole Foods is about healthy, sustainable, organic food; Audi is about advancement through technology; Apple is about creativity and design. It doesn’t necessarily have to be deep and meaningful, but it does have to be clear, and if you are going to engage in the cultural conversation, it must be consistent with the values of your brand.  

Take Coca-Cola, for instance, an iconic global brand for generations. Coca-Cola is all about joy and happiness – it’s ethos is mass acceptance - people enjoying life everywhere. In theory, this is an apolitical message, something everyone can embrace, but it incorporates two distinct and compelling themes. The first is diversity – sometimes the message is overt, as in this Superbowl spot (Coca-Cola "America The Beautiful" but even when it’s not, it’s ingrained in their message. Interestingly, it’s also ingrained in their process. For years, they have produced their work globally, especially in South America, and repurposed it in many markets, including the US. Their work feels global and diverse, as opposed to US-centric. 

The second theme is globalism – closely related to diversity but not the same – Coca-Cola is sold in every country, in every language, it’s bottled all over the world, it’s advertised all over the world and absorbed into every culture. Some may see it, positively or negatively, as a symbol of America, but it has global cultural relevance which transcends its origin. As long as Coke stays true to these themes, it’s likely they can’t go far wrong with their message.  

Likewise, Benetton had a campaign for years called The United Colors of Benetton, which, of course, was all about diversity as well – they owned it, it was the soul of their brand; everyone knew what they stood for. It transcended politics. These are brands with total clarity about what they stand for, so when they step into the conversation and take a stand, it feels authentic. 

Where Does Your Brand Live in the Cultural Conversation? 

It’s commonly said that guns and bombs didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, it was rock and roll and Pepsi and blue jeans, the point being that American culture was the virus that caused the USSR to finally implode. Pepsi was actually the first American brand to be sold in the USSR, and in the years that led up to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Pepsi’s slogan was “The Choice of a New Generation”, which was pretty compelling when it was shown to be a choice that transcended even the restrictions of living in a totalitarian state. That was a brand positioning that Pepsi owned for years. It’s likely that someone could do something similar in Iran today, in similar circumstances, assuming the trade embargo isn’t re-imposed. Finding a way to live in the cultural conversation in this way is useful beyond measure. 

What Are the Right Conversations to Enter and What Is the Point of Entry? 

Amazon ran a commercial during the holidays last year about two clerics, a Muslim and a Christian (Amazon "Clerics"). It made a strong statement about religious tolerance, but without taking an overt stand. One of the things that really makes it work is that the product (home delivery by Amazon) is a driver of the action and the vehicle of resolution in the story in a way that seems natural. As a rule of thumb, if your brand fits naturally into the story and / or the product serves the point that’s being made, viewers will buy into it. If it’s shoehorned into the story, or it’s just a label at the end, or it feels like window-dressing, perhaps it’s not the right conversation.  

Understand the Issue Before You Associate Your Brand with It

Taking Pepsi’s unfortunate Kendall Jenner spot as an example. It’s pretty clear that they didn’t even have a point of view about what the issue was, and then they compounded the problem, perhaps unintentionally, by appearing to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter without figuring out if they actually had a point to make about it. Some issues may be just too serious to risk appearing to trivialize or exploit them. The alleged decision to put out a casting call for neo-Nazis in the interests of diversity for a Cadillac commercial ("Alt Rt" Casting Call Puts Cadillac on the Defensive)would fall into the same category. Imagine a commercial with a bunch of people drinking Starbucks coffee while they pull down a statue of Robert E. Lee. Probably not a good idea. 

Let People Draw Their Own Conclusions

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, brands that enter or occupy the cultural conversation in positive ways (Amazon, Audible, Coke, The NY Times, etc.) don’t lecture, even though the point of their message may be obvious. They present a situation that provokes thought, but still allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions, or at least feel like they are. 

It’s a reasonable assumption that no one wants your brand to preach to them; they are not interested in a lecture, but they are happy to associate with a brand that they feel shares their values.  

So, what does your brand stand for?

T. Alex Blum is the founding partner of Blum Consulting Partners, a production consultancy working with brands, agencies and their creative partners to enable a collaborative and efficient production process.

Lee Roth is a Senior Marketing Executive and CMO.

T. Alex Blum