Rob Fields: How Brands Can Provide Cultural Leadership

Rob Fields: How Brands Can Provide Cultural Leadership

How can companies move beyond purpose to guidance?

Rob Fields, Theory + Impact
  • 17 march 2013

To paraphrase the late author Raymond Carver: What do we talk about when we talk about cultural leadership?

I ask because there are enough companies that are playing in and with culture as a means of engaging consumers that I think it’s worth exploring what leadership in this area really means.  But first, let’s start by defining what I’m NOT talking about. I’m not talking about organizational culture. Nor is it about brilliant program execution.  And, in case you’re wondering, I’m not talking about developing world-class arts and cultural institutions.  Rather, I’m asking a bigger, more aspirational question.

My interest is this: How can brands achieve their business goals by leading and influencing the direction of our collective sensibilities and our evolving understanding of how we make meaning of our lives?

At its most basic level, leadership is about making a choice to chart a certain direction. That is, given the options of where we can go, here’s where we should go. From a cultural standpoint, it’s saying here’s what we should be talking about. Here are the new ways to frame a particular conversation, and we (Brand X) have expanded the frame because we believe there’s a bigger conversation to be had.

Apple brought good design to the masses and, unleashed everyone’s inner aesthete. Packaged goods manufacturer Unilever’s Dove surfaced a global conversation about female beauty standards with its “Campaign for Real Beauty” (image above).

In some ways, this is related to the current discussions surrounding the value of purpose-driven brands, but it’s not quite the same.  I’ll grant that standing for something is an important start, especially in these times of increasing uncertainty. But it  isn’t the same as leading.

Mission, Risk and Meaning

According to the late management guru Peter Drucker, one quality of effective leaders is that they are mission driven. So, what can/would/should a brand’s cultural mission be?  Of course, the problem with company “missions”–the kind exemplified by mission statements–is that they tend to be inwardly focused on corporate culture and product delivery. Cultural leadership suggests that a brand must incorporate an evolving understanding of its place in the world—and the cultural conversation—at large.  Somehow this feels like it’s an area beyond the realm of “consumer insights” teams. Admit it: Despite the successes, most companies aren’t that good at culture.  Perhaps it’s time for a serious revisit of cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken’s idea of a Chief Culture Officer.

Cultural leadership also seems to involve a level of risk.  Which means that a brand doing a big celebrity endorsement (see Pepsi & Beyonce) doesn’t count for much on its own.  Risk is about exposure, vulnerability, and taking a leap you’re not quite sure you’ll make.

It also occurs to me that there is something in all of this that correlates to the concept of “meaningfulness”. Havas Media recently released its Meaningful Brands survey, a new approach to what comprises brand value. It’s very much tied to the extent to which consumers see brands as contributing to their own personal well-being. One of the study’s finding is that if 70% of brands disappeared tomorrow, no one would miss them. This is not just an issue of brands being personally relevant to consumers but also, I believe, of being culturally relevant.

Yes, “lifestyle” brands have an edge when it comes to impacting a cultural discussion. But, again, the Dove example shows that a product such as soap can influence a cultural conversation.  So, it’s possible. But cultural leadership requires more than jumping on the latest trend or Internet meme.

Before we get to the “how” there are significant questions that need to be answered in order to make this actionable.  For example:

  • What’s the best and most useful definition of cultural leadership?
  • Is it even reasonable/worthwhile to expect brands to “lead” when it comes to culture?
  • Does the concept of cultural leadership exist at cross-purposes to the main function of the enterprise, i.e., to sell more stuff?
  • To what extent is the inability, broadly speaking, of companies to lead culturally related to the inability of big companies to innovate?
  • Can cultural leadership be defined only along specified axes, issues and against specific audiences?
  • How does cultural leadership map to other indicators of business health such as equity, volume, profit or market share?

Unfortunately, I’m leaving you with more questions than answers.


Lancôme's Newest Campaign Stars A Domestic Abuse Survivor

Arts & Culture Today

Small Urban Pavilions Create A Nature Refuge In East London

These relaxing micro shelters provide a haven amidst chaotic city environments

Travel Today

Travel Laundry Pouch Washes Your Clothes Wherever You Are

The Scrubba Wash Bag helps anyone wash their clothes easily and quickly with just a little water and soap


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Social Media Today

Swipe Up To Register To Vote On Snapchat

The social platform has partnered with TurboVote to help young people easily enroll in less than one minute

Children Today

Battle Card Game Promotes Childhood Vaccinations

An Australian doctor has developed a playful way to inform parents about immunization and entertain kids

Related Expert

Penny Baldwin

Marketing, Branding, Business, Technology

Fitness / Sport Today

Oakley And Intel’s Sunglasses Give You A Built-In Personal Trainer Wherever You Go

The sunglasses/earbuds hybrid tracks your performance and lets you know how well your workouts are going

Experiential Marketing Today

UNICEF’s ‘Time Machine’ Tells Stories With Data

An experiential installation at the UN General Assembly reminds us why every child matters

Design & Architecture Today

Watch The World’s Tallest Building Become An LED Display

Burj Khalifa gives a backstage look at how the transformation came to be


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed september 23, 2016

Productivity Expert: The Magic Of The Five-Hour Workday

Stephan Aarstol, Founder of Tower Paddle Boards, explains why the modern notion of office hours needs to evolve

PSFK Labs Today

Modern Workplace Culture: No More Fat Cats Or Kissing Ass

Samar Birwadker, CEO & Co-Founder of Good & Co, on designing shared organizational values to optimize employee happiness and success

Travel Today

Boeing Wants To Make Your Flight Better With Cloud And Star Projections

The manufacturer is trying to patent a projection system that would allow them to project images onto a plane's interior surfaces

Latin America Today

Colombians Teach Dance To Fund Students’ Education

Chocó to Dance is a platform that shows you how to replicate popular Latin dances to help create scholarships for local students

Work Today

Editorial Roundtable: What A People-First Workplace Must Prioritize First

Managed By Q, Soma, Workbar, Primary, AltSchool and thinkPARALLAX on why employee fulfillment is a journey and not a destination

Culture Today

Brand Engagement At The Gates Of The World’s Largest Open-Air Gallery

Tiger Beer and a neighborhood-minded nonprofit celebrate and promote New York's creative spirit by beautifying 100 security gates


Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders

Technology Today

How Technology Can Save The World By Saving Time

PSFK attends the Social Good Summit 2016 to see how new tech is changing the world for the better

Travel Today

Marriott’s Gravity Room Installation Gives Travelers A New Perspective

The luxury hotel chain's #MGravityRoom invites visitors to snap and share pictures of its inverted set up

No search results found.