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Culture and creative – a delicate balance




A 2016 study by Young and Rubicam1 of 24,000 brands across 22 markets found that 66% of global brands were in decline or stagnant, whereas local brands outpaced their global counterparts by 6%.

Their advantage was a deep cultural connection within the markets they served. Culture has always influenced how brands connect with consumers, but it is becoming harder to get that connection right.

The birth of social media and the advent of consumer control over the last fifteen years has led to a generation of more voluble consumers who enjoy spotting cynical brand behaviour. Leveraging culture is a powerful approach, but it is dangerous in the absence of authenticity and relevance.

Pepsi discovered this danger the hard way, from its unsuccessful depiction of Kendall Jenner solving a conflict with a soft drink in 2017. On the other hand, Nike managed to walk on the right side of the line in its use of Colin Kaepernick in last year’s manifestation of the brand’s mantra. There is a world of difference between these campaigns, but the most important point is that Nike’s approach was more authentic and consistent with its values. Nike has been encouraging people to “just do it” since 1988. This idea has changed clothes a few times over the years, but it has always been about celebrating people acting upon that which is most important to them.

So, how do we build cultural understanding into briefs? The first step is making sure you have a genuine understanding of culture and how it is shifting. A tool like the Core Cultural Index, which tracks the top news stories in terms of their importance to Irish people, is a helpful place to start. Understanding the real issues that capture people’s attention, as opposed to making assumptions is key.

The second step is to understand the difference between a short fad and a longer-term cultural understanding. Both have uses. A nimble brand with a clear personality can quickly leverage a fad for a clever one-off execution and move on, whereas understanding cultural movements in the longer term can be critical for brand positioning.

The third step, as highlighted by the difference between Pepsi and Nike, is understanding your relevance and thus your permission to leverage culture. This is not just about which elements of cultural discourse to leverage, but also which pitfalls your brief needs to avoid.  In 2018, a financial institution received criticism for its depiction of a young woman moving home to save for a deposit in a social media advert. At first glance, there was nothing wrong with it; the depiction was realistic and the company wanted to show how aware it was of the reality; but old wounds heal slowly, and the brand didn’t realise the sentiment of the market, which doesn’t give financial institutions permission to depict a reality they are seen to profit from.

The last step in leveraging cultural understanding for brands is following up. It’s all very well and good for Nike to use the story of Colin Kaepernick to highlight its ethos, but its behaviour must follow suit. When leveraging culture, what you do is as important as what you say.

In 2019, the brands that leverage culture and win will do their homework, find their relevance and follow their communications with the right behaviour.

Ignoring the evidence weakens brands

The danger of short-termism has been a key topic of debate in marketing over the past half-decade, but still the proportion of activation-based marketing campaigns continues to rise. We estimate that 47% of advertising investment in 2018 was short-term in nature2 – a worrying increase from 43% in 2014. This is despite clear and compelling evidence that to optimise the long-term profitability of a brand, marketers should only invest 38% of budgets in short-term activation campaigns (using rational messaging) and 62% in long-term brand-building campaigns (using emotional messaging)3.

Short-term initiatives are effective at driving transient sales effects, but they deliver weak long-term growth. The exact investment split varies depending on several factors, including the sector, the size of the brand,  pricing and life-stage of the category.

However, many businesses are still not listening, and brands are weakening as a result. The Core Brand Image Monitor highlights a worrying trend; recall of the top 100 brands in Ireland is dropping, despite the growth in advertising investment4.

This tells us two things; firstly, that the threat is real, and secondly, that volume of advertising alone isn’t enough to stop the decline. What matters is how budgets are invested. Businesses need to employ both short and long-term techniques in the correct proportion.

Businesses still see brand marketing as risky expenditure, rather than a strong investment.  Marketers need to address this head on.  Work with your agency to build a robust evidence-based business case, forecasting the outcome of different scenarios.

To de-risk marketing investment and build sustainable growth, we must embrace the available evidence  and use it to demonstrate how brand strength drives sustained profitability.

1. How Global Brands Resonate Across Cultures – WARC Best Practice (2017)

2. Core analysis of Nielsen AdDynamix data (2018)

3. Les Binet & Peter Field “Effectiveness in Context: A Manual for Brand Building” (2018)

4. Core Brand Image Monitor & Nielsen AdDynamix data (2018)

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