Why the best brands are setting the pace in the shift of culture
Fiona McNae, co-founder and CEO of cultural and creative consultancy, Space Doctors, writes that for brands to resonate with their audiences they need to stop trying to keep up with culture and instead, reframe their approach. It's about creating culture, not chasing it, McNae argues.
Culture has never moved so quickly. Today, the ways we interact are constantly shifting: what is and isn’t acceptable; the meanings and connotations of certain words, phrases, icons and more can metamorphose in a heartbeat.
Social media has democratised self-expression, exposing a multiplicity of voices, micro-cultures, subcultures, identity groups and specific geographies.
For brands to resonate within those multifarious factions and with their audiences they need to stop trying to keep up with culture. It’s a Sisyphean task. Instead, they need to reframe their approach: creating culture, not chasing it.
When you think about it, the idea of “staying relevant” for new consumers is a contradiction in terms.
Brands, advertisers and innovators often think of themselves as operating within a landscape made up of their product or category, keeping one eye on the competition and the other on what’s happening socially, culturally and politically.
They labour under the idea that retaining relevance is about acting and adjusting responsively.
A fast-food brand, for instance, might fight to keep its cool by introducing some Gen X nihilism to its communications. When this sort of vigilant reactiveness is done well, it can make a brand feel timeless - think Levi’s or McDonalds. They’ve worked hard behind the scenes, Wizard of Oz-like, to appear ever-relevant, ever-present, offering something for almost everyone.
But what this model forgets is that new audiences don’t just enter the landscapes of category and product: they create them.
Take beauty. Ten years ago, brands and their communications focused on problem-solving, emphasising things like anti-ageing properties or acne treatment. Aspirational branding merrily coexisted with remedial promises.
Today, the beauty industry has a huge consumer base prioritising affirmative self-care and recreational skincare, with brands from Lush to Kinship focusing on the positive, rather than shaming users for their flaws and claiming to solve them.
Glossier is a prime example of a brand that’s willing to become whatever’s wanted – to start afresh where the market’s needs are and make a brand feel as though it truly belongs to its audience. Emily Weiss famously kicked off the Glossier brand by soliciting opinions from her blog readers. Product ideas came from actual potential customers.
But this pre-production focus group wouldn’t have succeeded were it not for the insight behind it: that already-pressurised young women were averse to entering a skincare category centred around transformation and optimisation. Instead, the always-on, constantly photographed Gen Z was looking for ways to feel nourished, un-judged and healthy.
Glossier claims to ‘create the products you tell us you wish existed’ – and it does. But by bringing in a wave of white packaging, sensory skincare experience and buildable, barely-there coverage, it also offered beauty that felt like breathing space.
That then-novel, now-well-established co-creation dynamic has since helped many brands connect with their audiences before their products are even out the door; it’s the very foundation of things like print-on demand sites and crowdfunding platforms.
Active listening is an essential step for any brand. But what’s more important is to take a further leap, and ask: “if my category didn’t exist, would my new market or demographic invent it? What might they invent instead?”
Many category-shifting brands whose successes are perceived to be tech-driven, such as the rise of direct-to-consumer beauty, have in fact succeeded by reimagining categories and products for new audiences.
Monzo became the fastest crowdfunding success in history – raising £1m in 96 seconds – by offering British millennials a bank built on their own needs and desires from the ground up. Its app features – while impressive – weren’t anything that Barclays or HSBC couldn’t have done. But spending notifications, budget-tracking, saving ‘pots’ and a friendly, transparent tone showed that Monzo’s vision of what a bank could be was built around the specific needs of its millennial target market.
Depop, meanwhile, reimagines ‘shopping’ for Gen Z consumers who are more concerned about sustainability and sociability than any other. Depop’s offer of easy access to otherwise elusive, often deadstock, pieces is tailor-made for Gen Z. But what’s even more important is its rejection of the idea that a buyer can’t also be a seller; that personal style can’t be monetised without celebrity; and that investment pieces are only for the rich.
Obviously, existing brands are in a different position to new brands that are created by and with their target audiences when it comes to relevance. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from the latter and ask themselves what it would look like to radically center their audiences’ actual needs.
Ambitious brands can reconsider their assumptions – generation by generation and market by market – to stimulate genuine freshness, connection and loyalty.
Embracing reinvention is key for brands to take the needs-based imaginative leaps that demonstrate to new audiences that they’re truly relevant, and relevant to them.