De-Wanking Culture and Getting Punched in the Face

February 14, 2024

Apologies for the offensive title, but it feels accurate. The way we talk about culture is wanky. And when you talk about it differently, you get punched in the face.

When we started Hopeful Monsters one year ago, it was born out of the belief that the most effective brands in a category have an innate understanding of the culture that drives it. 

One year on, that's not just a belief, we know there is a causal link between impacting culture and hard business effects. It also feels more important than ever.

Now, I’m certainly not elevating this point of view over another. There's enough dogma in marketing. It's additive.

However, our industry has created a worrying imbalance. 

For everything marketing science, targeted advertising or whatever mental model we live and die by gives us, it’s causing the majority of brands to become culturally irrelevant and homogenous. 

“When universal intelligence leads to universal strategies, it leads to a more homogeneous product”.
Derek Thomson, Author, Hitmakers.

Take this week’s Super Bowl - the vast majority of ads were mostly very expensive gags about celebrities.

Perhaps that doesn't matter. But as I said, you don't have to choose between the two.

Yeah, we could reel off brands Nike, Liquid Death, Oatly, but they are only a rare few that do - outliers in categories ripe for cultural innovation and problem solving. 

Unfortunately, the majority of us are stuck in a marketing universe doom loop.

A universe where we seek comfort in frameworks and laws rather than solving business problems. 

Where we ignore the fact that these problems are often caused by people’s changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviour, aka culture.

Where we would prefer not to lose rather than win.

Where marketing has become a copycat sport rather than a competitive one. 

Where lowering our ambitions to hit basic metrics means we avoid the anxiety of doing something different that leads the category

Where our understanding of people is shallow rather than deep.

Where we overthink things that don’t matter and underthink things that do.

Where we undervalue creativity and overvalue technology, to the point it's having a negative impact on business and society. 

Yes, it’s true. Being dull is more risky than not being dull. 

Yes, 75% of people don’t even look at your content for more than two seconds.

Yes, 25% of your programmatic spend fails to reach an audience. It's also a bit gassy.

Selling culture is like getting punched in the face. 

Despite all this, 'selling culture to brands' is a lot like getting punched in the face. 

As much as people want their brands to be 'culturally relevant'. As much as people believe it’s important. And as much as people want to emulate the ones doing it well, there’s always a reason not to. 

Mostly because people are so physically and emotionally invested in the above points. It just doesn’t fit into their corporate way of doing things. It isn’t serious marketing.

So, if you’re still reading this, feeling like you’re the only person in the room talking any sense, and you enjoy getting punched in the face for the greater good, here are a few things that might help. 

Align on what culture is and isn’t. 

(To be honest, this is often futile but worth doing for your own sanity).

Culture isn’t the arts. Culture isn’t chasing cool. Culture isn’t just about Gen Z. Culture isn’t celebs. Culture isn't all about purposefully changing the world. Yeah, it’s all part of it, but it isn’t it. 

Culture is the most powerful force that shapes who we are, what we think and what we do. 

In the words of Brian Eno…

“Everybody knows that science is powerful and could be dangerous; therefore, there’s a whole lot of criticism on that basis. What people don’t realize is that culture is powerful and could be dangerous, too. 
As long as culture is talked about as though it’s a kind of nice little add-on to make things look a bit better in this sort of brutal life we all lead, as long as it’s just seen as the icing on the cake, then people won’t realize that it’s the medium in which we’re immersed, and which is forming us, which is making us what we are and what we think”.

Word of warning. Not everyone is into Brian Eno. Not everyone is up for having a deep and meaningful chat about it. And a lot of people love chasing cool. 

So, all you’re doing here is sowing a seed. Trying to get a grown-up, substantive conversation going, even if it’s in your own head. 

When you do this, you will probably look at things around you quite differently. 

Marketing science and technology is expensive. Culture is not. 

Leveraging culture is the great equaliser. It gives challenger brands a secret weapon. If you can’t afford econometrics, culture is your answer. If you can’t afford to be on TV, culture is your answer. If you can’t afford to target everyone, all year, in all channels, culture is your answer. 

If you don’t have the time or desire to get lost in a painful process, culture is your answer. 

Brands on a mission matter. 

You can give me all the documentation, research and analysis in the world, but I can tell if a brand can do great work or not simply by getting a feel for its mission. 

I don’t mean a wordy mission statement hidden in a 150-page brand bible. I mean a well-crafted mission the entire business is committed to delivering. 

This last part is as important as the words on the page. 

When we speak to founders of brands, the mission is all they really talk about. When we talk to the guardians of large brands, it’s often glossed over, moving quickly to the KPIs that need to be hit. I think that’s pretty interesting. 

Most of the time, a lot of the heavy lifting can be done with a really ambitious and market-orientated mission that aims to put a dent in a category, bending it in a new direction. 

A good brand mission states what it wants to stand for in the eyes of its customers. What do they want to be known as or for? What’s their point of view? What’s its promise? 

But most importantly, and this is key, the impact a company wants to make needs to be ‘locked’ into how it makes a profit. 

For example, Heaps Normal’s mission is to change Australian drinking culture. It does that by creating cool, great-tasting non-alcoholic beer.

It really is that simple. A great mission will save time, and money and create far more effective work. Less bullshit, more doing good shit. 

When the mission doesn’t matter, it leads to subjectivity, endless meetings, and highly tactical and expected work. 

Replace metrics with powerful problems to solve. 

This is a relatively easy one to change that makes a massive difference. If you write briefs, you have the ability to change the world or at least the direction of a business. 

Resist the urge to load up a brief with a list of metrics to hit, elevating their status to objective, problem and KPI. Instead, spend more time articulating a really powerful problem the brand can solve.    

Great brands don’t just incrementally tweak the funnel, they solve a business problem by tying it to a cultural problem.

Without culture, brands don’t exist. 

Finally, to end with some more Brian Eno: “Culture is anything you don’t have to do”. 

People need to wear glasses, but they don’t need to wear wacky ones that cover half their face.  

People need shoes, but they don’t need to wear Crocs covered in Jibbitz. 

People need to eat, but they don’t need to eat an A5 Wagyu steak. 

People don’t need to listen to music, read books, go to the movies or support a sports team. But we do. 

The list goes on. 

At the end of the day, brands are social objects. 

The path between the collective brain and collective behaviour is far more interesting and complicated than what you’d find in a marketing manual.  

Of course, paid advertising is a powerful force in that equation, but it’s only one. We give brands our attention in many different ways and places.

It's an age-old question. Do brands shape culture, or are they shaped by culture? Both are true, but the reality is, increasingly, it’s the latter. 

Even worse, if we continue in this direction, we will reach peak cultural obsolescence. I’m willing to be punched in the face for it, are you?

Words by Carl Moggridge.