Brands as Stories

Culturally connected brands

This article by Brand Strategy Director Sarah Kelleher and Content Strategist Michael Bell was orginally published on The Best of Branded Content Marketing website.

Culturally connected brands are thriving. In a world where we’re bombarded with overt advertising messages from the moment we switch on our TVs, fire up our computers or step out of the door, a deeper connection to the rhythms and rituals of culture helps brands cut through the noise and establish a stronger connection.

Whether it’s Etsy tapping into and acting as an enabler for the trend towards making your hobbies and interests a viable business, or GoPro providing a generation with the tools to become film-makers and using that ever-increasing mine of rich content to place itself at the heart of the cultural conversation, establishing a ‘cultural strategy’ has become a powerful way for brands to reach hard-to-target consumers.

This cultural connectedness – being able to tap into culture and gain a deeper connection with people through it – can be extremely powerful but also extremely elusive. Culture is complex, multi-faceted and difficult to pinpoint, at times it can be slow moving and residual whilst also in a state of constant flux, so making sense of it is often easier said than done.

Culturally Connected Brands

Much of our work at Truth involves people – understanding who they are, what they do (or are likely to do in the future) and what makes them tick. In order to help us understand people better on behalf of our clients, culture is our first port of call.

We see culture as the connections, influences and embedded codes that make us who and what we are as both individuals and collectives. Culture is the basis for meanings to be created and it enables these meanings to be shared. Culture is the codes, rules and norms that underpin the thoughts, actions and outcomes of everyday life.

This focus on culture allows us to step back from discussions about ‘branded content’ versus ‘content marketing’. By focusing on culture, we’re more interested in the stories we tell to make sense of the world and the way that they’re told. A focus on storytelling enables us to think and act at the higher level of narrative instead of tactical, campaign-focused content.

Storytelling not only allows us to connect with culture, but also enables a deeper emotional connection with people used to tuning out overt advertising messages. Tell a story or create a narrative and people are much more open to what you have to say – crucially, they’ll remember it too.

This has led us to develop an approach we call Brands as Stories, which utilises our focus on culture to help the brands we work with identify their place in an increasingly complex cultural landscape, positioning them to create and tell stories that matter to consumers and allowing them to thrive.

This approach is built on four main pillars, the first of which is ‘Tell a story that matters’. This is rooted in our focus on culture as a means of helping us make sense of the ever-changing world around us. Brands can only tell a story that matters by being connected to culture and utilising it to create meaning, richness and relevance in their interactions with consumers through narrative and storytelling. This cultural connectedness acts as a catalyst for content and future-facing ideas, allowing brands to establish cultural legitimacy and disrupt category conventions.

We utilised this approach for Lucozade as we helped them understand the cultural context around energy drinks. The difference between a huge energy boost and something more controlled or the occasions energy drinks were best suited to are insights that can only be discovered by monitoring the cultural codes at work around the product, blended with a deeper understanding of needs an behaviours from our ethnographic research.

The second pillar is to ‘Influence the influencers’. This means moving away from mass marketing to a more targeted approach that identifies key cultural influencers as the best way of disseminating a brand’s story. These influencers can come from several quarters, whether they’re the ‘connectors’ identified by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (often the artists, writers, film-makers, musicians, bloggers or cultural conduits who help create culture), or the consumers who are now empowered by social media to take control of brands and culture themselves in a more creative way.

These influencers can be existing or even future customers. Using a range of ethnographic approaches, immersions and ongoing ‘human storytelling’ we helped John Lewis bring their customers to life and position them to identify who is most influential now and who would be in the future. Awareness of and the ability to engage more effectively with these influencers, or potential ‘super-fans’, positions the brand to tell the kind of stories that connect with them and place it closer to their cultural experiences and expectations.

Next is the importance of ‘Committing to always-on conversation’. This allows brands to step outside of the traditional marketing model of one-way messaging and engage their consumers in a genuine conversation. Always-on is not just about starting a conversation, but sustaining it over time and giving people the opportunity to create new ones through their engagements with your brand.

The cultural connection we discussed earlier is especially important here – brands must be prepared to publish (and react) at the speed of culture if this conversation is to be sustainable and valuable. Gone are the days of content creation by committee and waiting for rounds of approvals; brands need to be fleet of foot and trust in the editorial decisions of their agencies (in itself a new skillset increasingly required by the marketing industry). A strong, culturally connected narrative or story makes this much more achievable and less risky.

Red Bull are the gold standard in this respect, moving as they have to a position where they’re known just as much (if not more) for their cultural influence as their products. By committing to always-on conversation (via their myriad publishing endeavours), they’ve gone beyond the more tactical idea of ‘content’ or even ‘culture marketing’ campaigns to commit to and engage in a genuine cultural conversation with their customers.

As Torsten Schmidt, founder of the Red Bull Music Academy, said of the Daily Note magazine which is published during Music Academy events: “The level of talent that gets involved with the Academy can only get this involved when there is a certain amount of understanding that this exercise is not a short-term branding grab, but an actual investment in a cultural conversation.”

The final pillar of the Brands as Stories approach concerns the importance of ‘Curating experiences that surprise and delight’. This brings together the cultural connectedness central to our approach with elements of experience design. Brands need to think beyond the product or service to reimagine every interaction with their consumers as part of the same story, with multiple opportunities to surprise and delight.

A great brand experience can foster that all-important ‘brand love’ by curating a lifestyle or experience that consumers can covet. Brands like Net-A-Porter have grasped this idea of curating an entire lifestyle that’s aspirational and consistent across all touchpoints. Going from an online retailer with an editorial slant, they’ve moved into much richer content and taken the step into print with the ‘shop-able’ Porter Magazine.

A consistent experience that surprises and delights, from bespoke personalised packaging to embedded editorial and unexpected video content, ensures the consumer buys into not just the products, but a whole lifestyle.

At its simplest, the Brands as Stories approach is a framework for utilising the cultural connectivity we’ve discussed most effectively for brands, but it’s clear to us in every project we undertake the importance of being alive to the vagaries of culture, of keeping our eyes open to what often lies hidden in plain sight.

We call this ‘culture hacking’, the act of seeking out the doors into culture that will allow us to see the details and patterns of life that are often ignored. Imagine the computer hacker obsessing over code until the ‘routes in’ are found. Or the urban explorer spending weeks searching for ways into the underbelly of a city’s subway system.

The cultural awareness this brings can offer the most remarkable insights from the most unlikely sources. One example can be seen in the cultural codes of the fridge; in the UK it’s the heart of the home, hugely influential in our day-to-day lives and an agent of emotional fulfilment, but in Africa it’s a status symbol in the purest form – displayed in the living room and seldom even plugged in.

Another is the cultural rhythms and rituals around breakfast. We’ve seen how breakfast has changed dramatically, from a traditional family meal to an occasion when speed is of utmost importance – witness the rise of ready-to-eat breakfast pots and cereal bars – and where any interruption to that speedy rhythm (such as the rapidly outdating act of waiting for the toaster to pop) is deemed to slow the pace too much, meaning products which ignore these changing rhythms will struggle.

Or take the change in the cultural discourse around cancer care – no longer is ‘fighting’, ‘battling’ or ‘beating’ the disease the dominant discourse; as treatments improve and survival rates increase, more and more people are ‘living with it’ or ‘getting on with their lives’ in much the same way as those dealing with diabetes or HIV.

These examples offer some indication of the tremendous power that culturally connected brands can wield by connecting to what’s emergent in culture, what’s becoming the dominant cultural discourse, rather than being caught out by dealing in the residual and missing the shifting tide.

Culturally connected brands are thriving because they’re utilising emerging disciplines such as content and storytelling to tap into culture more effectively, embedding themselves more deeply in what really matters to their customers and staying alive to the ever-shifting world around them.