15 Oct 2020

Why Culture eats Consumer Insight for breakfast (Part 3)

Part 3: It’s culture, stupid

When Neo took the red pill he could see things as they really were. A hidden truth had revealed itself. This is the central premise of the The Matrix.

The Matrix is of course a metaphor for a covert yet omnipresent belief system that tells us what is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly. We can’t see it, but it’s very real. And we can’t escape it – once we break free we’re quickly enveloped by another matrix or ‘frame’.

A useful way to think about culture – as in our collective frame of reference – is as a matrix. We use culture to create, negotiate and transmit meaning. It influences everything, including brands and advertising (responses to ads are mediated by culture, hence we cannot truly understand an ad without understanding the cultural lens through which it’s interpreted; this is why neuro and biometric techniques have little diagnostic value).

Cultural insight requires a talent for Systems Thinking – the idea that individuals operate within shared dynamic structures that influence what they think, feel and do. Whilst the system determines the rules, many psychological concepts (aspirations, beliefs, anxieties etc.) can be viewed as navigational tools we deploy to play the game, or to rationalise its outcomes.

An example from my own life: after a long absence vitamin supplements have reappeared in our pantry. Why did they disappear two decades or so ago? I’d say because, in a world obsessed with wholesomeness, vitamins were unmasked as artificial. Hence they became unfashionable. Real, homecooked food became the name of the game.

So why are they back? If you’d ask me I might say that I was feeling a little low on energy and vitamins are supposed to fix that. To support this claim I may refer to some article I’d read. Thing is, I would have said this before vitamins became unfashionable. But for some reason I stopped buying them.

I suspect that the real reason that vitamins have reappeared in our pantry is because the naturalness paradigm (the lens through which we interpreted the world for the past two decades) has lost much of its momentum. Hence fortified foods are making a comeback. I haven’t altered my ‘beliefs’ per se, I’m simply aligning my views with the evolving cultural norm.

If culture is such a powerful force, how does the insight industry get away with ignoring it? Well, we used to get away with it. Culture is having a moment because the times are a-changing. The relatively stable neoliberal era is over, at least in the West. Polarisation, identity politics, fake news and media bubbles, inequality, pension erosion, obesity, ecological collapse and now Covid-19; the list goes on. These are volatile and uncertain times in which meaning is renegotiated.

This means threats and opportunities. Brands that succeed in riding the wave of cultural disruption have an edge. And vice versa: brands that get it wrong risk becoming tired and their marketing budget will need to work harder. In contrast culturally aligned brands get more impact for their marketing buck because they i) are easier to process by our culturally attuned brain and ii) transmit more useful social signals in light of evolving social norms.

How can brands exploit cultural tailwinds? According to Douglas Holt, a former professor at Harvard and President of the Cultural Strategy Group, you need to look for a cultural friction that is important to your category, then execute it with the right myths and codes.

Nike is perhaps the best example of cultural branding. In the 1980s life was becoming tougher and more individualistic, putting pressure on people to put their heads down and try harder. Nike identified this as a cultural friction. It then pitched the idea of ‘personal grit’ as a solution for people who were feeling the pressure to perform and be successful, economically and socially (a ‘myth’). Despite the absence of a meaningfully differentiated product, this culturally inspired strategy helped propel Nike to the world’s #1 sports brand[1].

Long story short: culture is a powerful force in marketing and branding. Yet the insight industry ignores it at its peril. Truly understanding consumer behaviour demands insight into cultural undercurrents, alongside an understanding of i) people’s needs and motivations and ii) ‘situations’ or near-context. 

Parts 1-3: The moral of the story 

Consumer-centricity is marketing’s holy grail. Hence the assertion that ‘consumer insight’ is overrated is nothing short of heresy. Yet the belief that ordinary individuals hold the key to marketing success is flawed and shortsighted. Many so-called consumer truths do not live inside people’s mind. People are locked into a wider cultural context that guides what to think, feel and do. Therefore, to understand people we also need to understand culture.

[1] Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron, Cultural Strategy


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