The promise of cultural relevance has become a siren call in the marketing world. Yes, it’s an alluring pursuit but it can lead brands down a treacherous road, one that sees them simply chase and recycle trends. This is not the same thing as cultural relevance. True cultural relevance means consistently being a part of and shaping people’s lives. While giants like Nike and Apple have successfully shaped culture, this type of impact is rare and chasing it can be futile. It can cause brands to forget where their strengths actually lie. Most need to rethink their approach, focusing not on reshaping culture but on contributing to it meaningfully.
The Power of Strategic Partnerships
WednesdaysFor brands that can't single-handedly shape culture, partnerships offer another path to relevance. Aligning with well-loved events, influential personalities, or popular activities can elevate a brand's presence. From celebrity endorsements to sports collaborations, these partnerships can weave a brand into the cultural conversation, even if they don't redefine it. Remember Orange wednesdays? Before it became EE, the mobile network ran a 2-for-1 cinema ticket offer for almost a decade between 2005-2015. It became a national treasure in its own right and the network’s decision to call time on it spawned a series of magazine and newspaper articles mourning its demise. Orange wasn’t out to change the world but this humble offer became the backdrop to family trips out, dates and birthdays. It embedded itself in peoples’ hearts and their everyday lives.
Authenticity: The Key to Connection
Authenticity is crucial in making a cultural impact. Brands must resonate genuinely with their audience, creating products and experiences that reflect their true identity. That also means knowing when to back off. Forcing your brand into a cultural moment, or “hopping on a trend” can backfire. It is jarring for consumers and can weaken trust.
The same goes for partnerships. Time and time again companies will partner with brands that seem hip or cool. This approach can help you to appeal to a younger audience but it could also alienate an older base if it conflicts with your existing brand identity. It’s a delicate dynamic that relies on genuine chemistry between partners if it is to be successful.
That’s why BMW’s 2014 collaboration with Louis Vuitton made sense. The fashion brand designed a line of luggage for a specific BMW model. It may seem like an odd move but both brands recognised what their customers have in common: an appreciation for high-end, sophisticated design and the disposable income to back it up. It felt authentic.
Cultural Immersion for Relevance
We know authenticity is key and one way for brands to achieve this is by immersing themselves in the cultures they target. Rather than trying to lead cultural trends, they should be active, authentic participants. They need to show they understand and reflect the values of their cultural groups through brand activities. It may seem simple but brands make these mistakes over and over again. An open mic night event in support of Black Lives Matter, for example, shouldn’t have an all-white lineup; an event about feminism should be dominated by contributions from women. Failing at the first hurdle can massively backfire and it’s a quick way to erode trust and respect.
Participation means living and breathing those values. Back in 2020, Estée Lauder made headlines for all the wrong reasons when the British-Nigerian actor John Boyega quit as a brand ambassador for Jo Malone when it recast a campaign, removing him from the Chinese market. The company apologised but the whole episode should have been avoided.
Achieving cultural relevance is more about participation and contribution than leading cultural change. By focusing on authentic partnerships, genuine brand representation, and active cultural immersion, brands can maintain relevance and make their mark in the cultural landscape, even if they aren't reshaping it.