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Rob Fields: How Brands Can Provide Cultural Leadership

How can companies move beyond purpose to guidance?

Rob Fields, BAA
Rob Fields, BAA on March 17, 2013. @robfields

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.

Thinking...