Culture is Serious Business. If you take it seriously

February 9, 2023

As the very odd and slightly disturbing saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. 

But in marketing communications, we’re encouraged and aggressively lobbied to subscribe to a couple of vehemently opposed feline doctrines.

You either performance or brand your way to growth. You love emptying your funnel or you love filling it up. If you’re one of the lucky few able to hold two thoughts simultaneously, perhaps you do a bit of both. 

In many respects, this is the sum of the rants that rage on, day in and day out, in briefs, meetings, media, PPTs, Twitter and Linkedin. 

And much like life, the debate is getting wild. Well, as wild as marketing can get. 

Meta’s Facebook and Instagram are now great for building brands. Compared to six months ago, when they weren’t. 

Imagine that. Oh, the difference ‘independent’ research can make in the hands of digital media specialists worried the heady days of tracking people might be over. Not to mention some research suggesting 70% of all digital advertising is viewed for less than a second. 

Byron Sharp is bunkered down in an Ehrenberg Bass Institute social media war room, trolling anyone for not building mental or physical availability and distinctive brand assets, aka DBIs. And generally, anything not invented by Ehrenberg Bass.

Distinctiveness trumps differentiation. (I’m still confused why you can’t try and do both).

As standard, Mark Ritson is calling most marketers incompetent cocks.

ChatGPT is taking our jobs. 

ChatGPT will never take our jobs.

Man, working in marketing is exhausting and just as exhausting as most debates in society. Divisive, binary and attention grabby.

We’re being facetious of course, we’re not marketing science and technology deniers. But respectfully, there isn’t enough discussion about brands that lead and shape the culture of their categories through everything they do. Not just their advertising. 

Surely understanding people is more scientific than understanding advertising? But why don't we treat it so?

At the end of the day, marketing communications is about understanding people. Communicating with them and through them. Yet we continue to make it unnecessarily complicated and increasingly detached from people. Is anyone else looking forward to all of the customer journeys and category entry points you have ahead of you this year?

Ultimately, a rebalancing of the adtech obsessed, hyper-rationalised way of marketing is needed, at a time when marketing effectiveness is on the decline. 

In our humble opinion, there is no force on human behaviour bigger than culture. It’s even bigger than Byron Sharp. 

Brands should not only leverage it more, a better business case needs to be made for it. We might not have a fancy pants regression analysis chart, but saying our behaviour is not disproportionately influenced by culture, is like saying the world is flat.

However, the word culture is loaded with baggage.

Language matters.

Without Googling it. When you think about culture, what comes to mind? How would you define it? It’s a tricky one.

The word culture reached peak popularity in the last 20 years because we throw it around to describe anything from the arts to the latest cool things young people are doing or suffering from, such as the fear of missing out #FOMO. 

At the time of writing, you can read 2.1m articles on this unique, once-a-generation phenomenon, and there are over 150 definitions of the word culture in the English language. 

Google Ngram Viewer

Given that we're an industry that over-indexes in its use and that we're a little loose in how we use it, it isn’t a surprise that serious marketers roll their eyes every time someone says the ‘c’ word.

For most brands, culture isn't a serious business. It’s a fluffy and vague concept. It’s less pressing than the other grown-up items on the to do list. 

However, when you consider the most practical definition of what it is, it becomes useful; 

"Culture is the shared values, attitudes and behaviour of a group of people".

If we were to be so bold, there isn't a brand in the world whose future isn't reliant on understanding or influencing culture. The best and most effective brands we admire, as marketers and consumers, do this.

Yes, how we invest in media is important. Yes, marketing science is helpful. But for an industry where changes in a culture impact a brand, we spend little time really understanding it. We’re far too focused on ploughing through the various advertising methods, frameworks, processes and rules. 

At the end of the day, people don't really care about brands, they care about their own problems and themselves. It isn't always about big existential stuff either. Like climate change or the myriad issues brands are jumping on. It's everyday stuff, like not getting shot playing video games when snacking.

Ok, you may think this is stating the blinding obvious.

However, the majority of marketing communications do not do this. The general convention is for brands to simply tell people what they want them to hear. Chasing them down an abstract funnel, crossing off problems flagged in a brand tracker. 

A revolutionary idea. 

What if the people (us and you) who worked in marketing started communicating with people as if they were, well, people?

What if we put some time aside to put a dent in the culture of our category and not just our digitally-skewed media plans? 

The thing is, we’re pretty sure most people in our industry are in fact people. Yeah, there are some robot, A.I things going on, but generally speaking, we think that’s a fair statement to make. 

However, something very odd happens when we come to work every day. Our marketing brain is literally being rewired not to think about the context in which people buy our products. 

Ultimately, the values, attitudes and behaviour of our industry have veered so heavily in favour of hyper rational, bureaucratic processes and rules, doing anything that remotely reflects culture is impossible.

The stark reality is, a lot of hardcore marketing work gets in the way. Serious left hemisphere tasks need to be done. Market segmentation, analytics, sales funnel analysis, media investment analysis, brand tracking, econometrics, ad testing and the application of marketing science, to name a few. 

For everything this gives us, such as keeping us on the straight and narrow, stopping us from doing silly things and ensuring we're efficient with our spend, it has probably taken an important thing away. Such as our imagination and a deep understanding of people. Worryingly this is diminishing every day. We tend to have the answers before we’ve really understood anything at all. 

That isn't to suggest we should dismiss it, we just shouldn’t always use reason to deliver creativity. It's the equivalent of your left brain, briefing your right brain to come up with ideas.

Words like mental availability, fame, emotion and distinctive assets are not strategies, they’re a long list of requirements, yet they increasingly fill up briefs, along with a long list of other criteria. It's impossible to make anything using this terminology.

Seriously, we doubt Apple has a marketing science manual, but it delivers on it in spades. And it has done so for decades. Because it gets culture. Of course, they still have some big brains focused on converting people and looking at media investment, but they do a lot more than that.

When you work in marketing, your left hemisphere gets a solid workout every day, to the point your poor old right hemisphere is turning to mush. Ok, not literal mush, but the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that passes information between the hemispheres is shrinking. Our left brain is telling our right brain to stay out of it. It's got it.

However, to build brands that influence culture, you need to look out and into it. You need your right hemisphere on the case. The part that deals with understanding, broad attention, memory, empathy, emotion, lateral thought and imagination.

The left hemisphere does a brilliant job of decontextualising the world. It is concerned with local, narrowly focused attention and rationality. It gives preferential treatment to the expected, preferring to deal with what it knows, rather than what it doesn't. 

A case in point, look at the last brief you may have written or received. If brands have never been so sophisticated, why are briefs. The document that starts the making process, so bad? 

It’s estimated that 1/3 of marketing budgets are wasted on poor briefs and misdirected work.

6 out of 10 marketers admit to using the creative process to clarify the strategy.

Source: Better Briefs

Finally, you can have all the data, frameworks and rules you like, but at some point, someone somewhere is going to have to make something people see and react to. An idea that generates quality attention and influences people. An idea that genuinely grows a brand, ideally at the expense of the competition.

We significantly overcomplicate marketing communications, focusing on the inputs, just because we have loads of them and not the outcomes, as they’re buried in dense marketing manuals. 

Without throwing the baby out with the bath water, another odd and slightly disturbing phrase, once we’ve got over the information overload and the fact general rules lead to general brands, we might just get back to understanding people. After all, that’s the business we’re in.

Words by Carl Moggridge.