adWeek VOICES, August 2023

Cultural relevance cannot be achieved with major rebranding efforts and media and PR blitzes. It needs to be organically grown and fostered throughout the organization.

The question is, how?

I have worked in cultural branding for more than two decades. Through my experience, I believe marketers must understand four interrelated concepts especially well in order to rewrite their marketing playbook for greater cultural relevance.

Cultural relevance Let’s start with the objective itself. Cultural relevance refers to a brand state when people feel compelled to talk positively about that brand and advocate for it, at any time (not only during the campaign cycle) because it deeply connects with them within the context of what is happening in the world. This connection is established when a brand makes a positive impact (that doesn’t always have to be “worthy”) on and with their communities and engages with them credibly, meeting them how and where they are.

Cultural marketing For me, culture marketing is marketing. Even before 2020, global cultural shifts, such as the climate emergency, technological advancements and political influences started changing audience behaviours and mindsets and called for big brands to embrace "cultural relevance" as an opportunity.

Understandably, the past few years have forced businesses into survival mode, leading to a surge in traditional lower-funnel marketing strategies. The prevailing belief is that the bigger the brand, the larger the media spend, and the more eyeballs reached, the more successful the brand becomes.

However, in a post-2020 world characterised by uncertainty, complexity, and a new financially empowered generation that values privacy (impacting 3rd party data) and seeks meaningful relationships and shared values with brands, the traditional funnel is no longer sufficient for reaching and engaging audiences.

Knowing how to read and analyse cultural shifts specific to our clients, then flex brand plans accordingly, is how we drive reach & relevance, hype & depth, numbers & nuance.

This is modern marketing.

Cultural positioning To be truly culturally relevant, you must rethink your entire approach to product, culture, consumer and commerce. You must realign your brand, to discover your brand’s special role and place in the world for your audience, and community—a role only your brand can fulfil, addressing or navigating the global shifts affecting the target audience and positively impacting that much desired brand differentiation score.

If executed correctly, this can put companies on the path to sustainable, equitable, and meaningful business success.

Latent audiences One important byproduct of the cultural positioning work is the identification of “latent audiences”— communities and consumers who already engage with, purchase products and services from, and even possibly love a brand—but who are currently not part of the brand’s traditional target audience.

In many cases, the brand may not even be aware of these audiences. Think Timberland with Hip-Hop culture in the 1990s. Or sportswear brands and/or music artists in gaming culture today.

Cultural relevance does not happen in a single moment. It is earned through positive contributions to communities and genuine connections with consumers over time.

It comes not from new mission statements or isolated social initiatives but through a continuum of strategic, creative, and operational decisions to address the global shifts affecting a target audience.

Tapping into and resonating with latent audiences creates previously additional and unconsidered business growth opportunities and can facilitate curiosity and an innovation mindset internally. Respectful acknowledgement and support can give a brand true credibility in that culture or with those communities.

But to be successful, the right people need to be managing and handling this type of marketing to ensure the nuances and expectations are respected. This may be outside of rostered agencies and the current internal talent pool.

How Guinness Found its Flava—and a Latent Audience One notable brand that tapped into a latent audience is Guinness UK. In 2020, the 250+-year-old beer maker sought Platform13’s help to become more culturally relevant and meaningful to consumers outside the brand’s traditional target audience of older white males.

During my time in-house at Diageo, I discovered that Guinness had been exported to Africa and the Caribbean since the 1800s. In the UK, the movement of people from the colonies (West Indies, Africa, and Southeast Asia) in the 20th century shaped the multicultural demographic that exists today.

These latent communities brought with them their cultural expressions, including food, art, music, and fashion—alongside their beloved Guinness.

Among the insights we gathered, one statement from a Jamaican record label owner stood out: “I thought Guinness was Jamaican. I had no idea they were Irish.”

Culturally, Jamaican culture has a massive influence on the world and on Black British culture, particularly in music and food. Given Guinness’s history in the Caribbean and West Africa, we had a unique opportunity to celebrate the stories and heritage of the elders in a way that resonated with the current generation—a reflection of the ongoing cultural and global shifts.

We launched the series by telling the story of Original Flava—a pair of brothers born in a London suburb, Croydon, who transformed their passion for flavoursome Caribbean cooking into a unifying platform that blended British and Caribbean culture through food and flavour, with many recipes taught to them by their incredible grandmother, including the iconic Jamaican Guinness Punch.

The Guinness campaign we launched targeting the Caribbean community took place on the last long weekend of August 2021, coinciding with the end of summer and Notting Hill Carnival—an annual celebration of Caribbean culture (which had been postponed to Covid that year) which attracts over a million attendees.

A citywide OOH campaign featuring Nanny and the Original Flava brothers, along with social content on how to make Nanny's Guinness Punch and Original Flava’s Guinness Jerk chicken, received an overwhelmingly positive response from the Caribbean community.

The comments we received from these long-term latent audiences were truly goosebump-inducing, as for the first time, this community felt seen, heard and celebrated by a brand that was already deeply embedded in their culture. Added to that was how the project surpassed the traditional metrics and benchmarks, achieving 59% over planned reach, which was the main brand-set KPI for the campaign.

The results are clear, a brand can have both reach and relevance - this is where culture marketing wins.

Cultural relevance as a growth driver Now imagine if this approach moved from marketing activity to business strategy.

Your employees are also part of cultures and communities. We know the new generation of incoming intersectional talent want to work for brands and companies who have a point of view on the world…and stand up for what they believe.

Done right, cultural relevance will foster curiosity (of what is happening in the world and the credible role that brand has to play in it), encourage creative new ways of working and drive innovative ideas (updating processes and systems to make it fit for purpose for the 21st century) to build resilience (can help in decision paralysis and concern around call-out culture) and achieve resonance by credibly engaging with existing, latent, and employee communities and consumers.

Such an approach could ultimately future-proof the business and the brand.

But it’s not enough to simply add the word cultural to your title. It can only work if you can, know how to or bring the right people in to help evolve the traditional marketing and business playbook to make it fit for purpose today.

It’s time to embrace cultural relevance as a powerful force that can shape the trajectory of brands in the 21st century.


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