Understanding culture is crucial for any business that wants to stick around long term. But culture is a challenging thing to grasp at the organizational level because it’s big, amorphous, and ever changing. To co-opt an idea popularized by the philosopher Karl Popper, culture operates more like a cloud than a clock: a swirling and continuously evolving mass that can’t be accurately defined in a single snapshot.
Businesses, on the other hand, have a comparatively ordered structure. They tend to want to use clock-like approaches to tackle the cloudy cultural challenges at hand. This yearning for measurement and simplicity comes through in questions like:
When does a trend ‘officially’ become mainstream?
If we decide to adopt this tone of voice or design, will Millennials buy our products?
What color signals ‘edgy’?
Many crucial aspects of business benefit from structure, but this ordered approach won’t help businesses to solve their most pressing cultural challenges. In the cloudy reality of cultural phenomena, linear cause and effect and simple divisions of reality seldom exist outright.
Take, for instance, the ever-changing cultural dialogue around masculinity. There are literally thousands of new images and messages being shared every day – some of which challenge the more traditional assumptions, and some of which reinforce them. In the middle, brands like Target are incorporating a softer, more fluid, set of cues in a traditional ‘patrizate-friendly’ way. In the world of consumer values and brand perceptions, far more of the challenges that we face are ‘cloudy’ than we might imagine.
Grasping the deeper cultural dialogues around things like masculinity, femininity, fun, beauty, style, and the like will be impossible if you’re looking for machine-like predictability or linear cause and effect. The best problem-solving approaches blend technical, linear ‘clockwork’ thinking with creative, lateral ‘dynamic’ thinking. While a thorough initiative is best guided by a bona fide Cultural Insights researcher (shameless plug), there are some things that an organization can do on its own to infuse cultural thinking into the strategic mix:
1. Pay attention to the fringe
If a competitive brand feels fresh and new in the category, they’re likely tapping into something that we can learn from– even if they’re small in comparison. The fresh ideas in the category now are often candidates for its future, especially in quickly-changing categories like food and beverage, consumer tech, and retail. 15 years ago, how many of us brushed off the idea of health(ish) fast food?
Action Step: Include ‘extreme’ consumers in your qualitative research, and look at the edgier elements within your category, including crowdfunded ideas.
2. Use Cultural Insights for early and exploratory initiatives
Use Cultural insights early on to challenge some of the entrenched ideas around how your category or brand is working. Then, explore these hypotheses in subsequent research. For example, if your brand refresh involves looking at emergent ideas in beauty, use CI at the outset to come up with a range of territories, and then use consumer insight and co-creation work to nail the best iteration for your brand.
Action Step: Incorporate Semiotics and Trend Analysis into your research mix at the outset, expanding the number of ideas in play.
3. Harness ‘Expectation Transfer’
Consumers grow accustomed to certain norms in one category, and the expectations for these norms are slowly demanded of, and adopted into, other categories. This phenomenon, known as Expectation Transfer, can cause categories to disrupt not only their own verticals, but others that feel ripe for reconsideration. Leverage expectation transfer for your brand by staying extra observant of shifts in other verticals, and adopt them before they become a standard to stay ahead of competitors.
Action Step: Widen your scope (in landscape analysis & consumer research) to more than just your category. Try to intuit what these brands have captured about the consumer, and incorporate that into your plans.
4. Find natural places to impact the conversation
In ways that are often hard to measure, brands have the potential to influence the wider cultural dialogue just as much as they reflect it. Don’t wait for a good idea to be fully entrenched in the mainstream – or your category – before acting on it.
Action Step: Look to make public stances in ways that bring your brand’s point of view & key equities to life, and be bold in defending those views.
5. Use social listening to inform hypotheses
The Internet itself is a highly organized system, but the human activity that takes place on the Internet is much more of a churn. Leverage powerful social intelligence platforms to make the cloud-like swarm seem a little more clock-like.
Action Step: Set up a social listening dashboard following key sentiments and influencers (but be sure to avoid the pitfall of seeing it as a measurable stand-in for the complexities of the real cultural world).
Culture operates more like a cloud than a clock: a swirling and continuously evolving mass that can’t be accurately defined in a single snapshot.
With so much to see, hear, and read, culture is absolutely fascinating on both an organizational and personal level. By simply reframing how they think about culture and using the available insight tools in accordance with this new way of thinking, brands can get ahead of the curve and fully understand where their consumer is headed.