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When Brands Become Culture

You can market your brand toward a culture, but an even more powerful idea is to make your brand become a cultural icon all on its own. 

When we start looking at which brands have gone on to become cultural icons, we don’t need to look very far. 

As consumers, we instinctively know which brands have become embedded in the cultural fabric – and which have tried and failed.  

Pepsi’s infamous 2017 commercial starring Kendall Jenner is a case in point. The ad aimed to leverage the growing activism surrounding police brutality to appear relevant and plugged into current culture.   

Yet by depicting a tense standoff between police and protesters as being solved by a supermodel with a can of Pepsi, they received intense criticism both for showing little understanding of a complicated issue and for their apparent efforts to profit from it.   

Compare this to a similarly-themed ad released just a year later - which got a very different response.  

 Nike’s decision to sign American Football player Colin Kaepernick for a new campaign was also controversial. But unlike Jenner, his activism had made him a notable figure at the crossroads of sport and popular culture.  

The campaign "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything" didn't just win an Emmy and generate a 31% surge in sales; it accomplished something far more significant. 

By choosing to take a stance on an issue instead of using it as a backdrop to push their product, Nike achieved what Pepsi could not: it made itself a part of cultural discourse. 


Defining Cultural Branding   

We’ve spoken a lot in recent Thinking articles about how branding strategies have evolved: From attribute-based branding, to forging emotional brand propositions, to our current era of experiential marketing and branding.   

Cultural branding rests on a much deeper idea: That brands, just like culture itself, are shaped by the times we live in.  

Cultural branding as a concept was first developed by former Harvard Business School professor Douglas Holt, who wrote the famous book How Brands Become Icons.  

In his approach to brand strategy, turning a brand into a cultural icon is the holy grail of marketing. His theory is that brands become cultural symbols by responding to disruptions in society, exploiting cultural contradictions and becoming cultural activists.   

“Icons act as cultural leaders, as activists encouraging people to think and act differently through their stories.” Holt says. “They do not simply evoke benefits, personalities or emotions; they advance causes. Icons are resolutely political in their stance, using stories to evoke new ideas, new ways of living.”  

In this model, stories or myths are the most valuable part of the brand, and customers buy the product to experience these stories. In this frame of thinking, the product is simply a conduit through which customers can experience the stories that the brand tells.   


Why Cultural Branding Matters 

To once again test the power of cultural branding, we only have to look at the now-iconic ‘Cola Wars’ of the 1980s. 

How could Pepsi (once again) lose to Coke after the famous ‘Pepsi Challenge’ proved that more consumers preferred them in a blind taste test? 

The answer is simple. People’s attachment to what Coke represents (good times, relaxing, fun in the sun) was far stronger than Pepsi.  

Without a competing cultural brand, Pepsi was unable to persuade consumers to change their buying habits – and Coke continues to dominate the marketplace to this day. 

When consumers sip a Coke, Corona or Snapple, they are drinking more than a beverage. Rather, they are imbibing the identity myths anchored in these drinks. An effective cultural strategy creates a storied product, that is, a product that has distinctive branded features through which customers experience identity myths." 

This idea of ‘more than just a product’ is at the core of why cultural brands endure. 

Cultural branding recognises that many of our purchasing decisions are dictated by the desire to belong.  

This is why Nike’s campaign put them in a unique position to shape the debate over social justice - the brand proved that they had a deep understanding of the culture (and its people) that they wanted to be relevant to.   


The Holy Grail: Brands as Culture 

When cultural branding is done successfully, brands become cultural symbols that are meaningful for people. They arent just selling productsthey are creating a world around their brand where communities are formed and the brand becomes part of an everyday social ritual. 

So while it isn’t possible for every company to achieve the same level of significance as Nike or Coca-Colacultural branding still offers several important lessons. 

 We no longer live in an era where it’s possible for brands to independently define what their culture and values are. In today’s hyper-connected world, consumers have an integral role in shaping what brands represent. 

This means that the most successful brands are those who pay attention to what’s happening in the world around them - and use it to inform their core brand messaging 

Because when brands make the effort to participate in the culture they’ve built, they are far more likely to stay relevant.