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Messy culture makes neat brands


We swim in culture like fish in the sea and for this reason it is so natural that we barely notice it. Yet, to truly understand people and how brands influence what they do, we need to understand the wider and much bigger picture of everyday life, and the world we live in; namely, our culture.

It is only when we understand the cultural frameworks that people implicitly use to make sense of daily life that we can meaningfully understand how to shape brand strategy in the wider context of influencing consumers on their terms.

Most of what influences what we buy and why we buy it is a result of our cultural surroundings – what Edward Soja, a postmodern political geographer, describes as a “constantly shifting and changing milieu of ideas, events, appearances and meanings”. Culture influences and arouses our desires. Culture creates “need” and is how we decide (without deciding) that we want one thing or another.

Daniel Miller, professor of anthropology, sums this up in his 2010 book Stuff, by explaining that “much of what makes us what we are exists, not through our consciousness or body, but as an exterior environment that habituates and prompts us.”

Culture is this external backdrop that subconsciously guides our behaviour, making us reach for one brand over another, even when we can’t really explain why and then need to make up all sorts of rational reasons for it.


Many marketers have tended to ignore the untidy wash of culture, typically because of a conditioned focus on the neat boxes created by economics, engineering and the psychology of the individual, despite the fact these disciplines oversimplify the complexity and chaos of life.

In the current consumer landscape of marketing convergence, the prevalence of social media, and brands slowly being taken over by customers – almost “co-owned” with the company – these disciplines have missed out on the value and meaning culture is able to provide to marketing and brands.

As leading brand strategists Douglas Cameron and Douglas Holt espouse, conventional marketing models “remove all the messy bits of human life in order to present a tidy view of consumption that allows for corporations to function in a streamlined fashion. But it is in these untidy parts that innovation opportunities lurk”.

Culture is this external backdrop that subconsciously guides our behaviour, making us reach for one brand over another

For example, Starbucks identified a growing desire in the US for a more aestheticised and sophisticated experience that was around the notion of authenticity. To achieve this, it took codes from the high-end Italian espresso bar, helping recreate this genuine European cultural energy around its brand.

This enabled Starbucks to succeed by fulfilling an unmet consumer need discovered by checking the cultural temperature, according to Cameron and Holt’s 2010 book, Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands. And love it or hate it, Starbucks and its imitators have now become firmly part of our culture.

Similarly, Pfizer has been able to adapt and develop a best-inclass business and brand strategy using a cultural insight approach. This enabled them to identify the rising interest in “medicalised beauty”, where the glamorisation of illness has extended itself into high-end women’s health and beauty products. Through the collection of this cultural knowledge, several rich territories were unveiled to shape an inspiring direction for existing brands as well as a prosperous business acquisition strategy.


Different brands, groups of people or consumer targets correspondingly have different cultures, and the first part of the process is to identify the places where this culture can be found and what strategies to follow to collect it. For example:

  • Cultural experts and guides – identify those who can share a view on cultural movements;
  • Adjacent and matched categories – areas similar to your brand that have shared themes or trends which may be working in parallel or facing the same challenges;
  • “Tuning in” to culture – as brand strategists, this is already something we’re used to doing, but could be enhanced by taking a visual “shopping trip”, cultural safari or exhibition.


With culture providing the source material that can be taken advantage of by brands, consumers have become much more reflexive and eclectic in how they use them. This includes creating self-image through unique consumption patterns of mixing and matching, as well as subverting and co-creating their own messages and responses.

Again, culture becomes an even more relevant resource for brands, which Jonathan Schroeder and Miriam Salzer-Morling explain in their 2006 edited collection, Brand Culture, as the result of brands being at the interplay between art and business, production and consumption, images and stories, design and communication.

This has led to brands becoming the purveyors of cultural capital, tapping into and utilising this shifting landscape to give consumers a relevant ideology they can use to make their own meaning. In his 2005 groundbreaking book, Culture and Consumption II, Grant David McCracken says: “Every manager is a de facto meaning-manager,” and culture now provides the missing link and source for how this can be done.


As brand owners and marketers, we must evolve to reflect this shifting role and importance of culture. Where previously we needed the skills of a psychologist, learning how to dissect consumer behaviour through interviewing and moderating focus groups, as well as making sense of data, we now need to broaden our skills and become more like cultural historians, sociologists and literary critics. This allows us to pick up on patterns and interpret the changing landscape to measure and shape the health of a brand much more effectively.

As Stephen Brown claims in Brand Culture: “Cultural artefacts such as art, literature and media representations generally – can provide more meaningful insights into contemporary consumer society than traditional tracking studies, questionnaire surveys or laboratory experiments.”


Through the diversity and integration of culture, we are able to take brands into a new world full of fresh perspective, challenging our taken-for-granted assumptions, and destabilising the status quo to help brands lead and become profitable.

As a marketing community, we should foster this ability to understand how meaning and aesthetic expression functions in the marketplace, and how this can be used to build brand equity, strategy, innovation and, all importantly, value – all with the ultimate benefit of turning brands into enduring cultural icons.

Truth is a rapidly growing strategic insight consultancy with offices in London, New York and Singapore 

For more information contact

Andy Dexter, Head of Truth at

Leanne Tomasevic, Managing Director UK at

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