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Conviction is your compass through cultural currents

Kalil Vicioso
Partner, LA
Hall & Partners

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In the new world order, how can brands truly engage with culture and consumers in a meaningful way?

New York Times, Robert Jones, May 2, 2017
Recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations… are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.

We’re in the midst of a major cultural disruption. It’s being driven by two competing visions for what our society will look like. This debate is unfolding in the US and Western democracies, as well as in other parts of the world. With very little middle ground to occupy, it’s never been more important for brands to understand the complex dynamics at work in culture: to be clear on their beliefs, purpose, and worldview; and to identify how best to express their convictions in ways that help advance the dialogue.

Current – cultural hybridity/fluidity

A couple of years ago at Hall & Partners we published Hispanic Now, our take on how the Hispanic market was evolving. A key theme was ‘cultural hybridity’ – the trend towards increasing ownership of cultural heritage that inspires openness to other cultures. This hybridity has led to the emergence of innovative hybrid forms and ideas through reinvention, adoption and adaptation of different cultural sensibilities, flavour profiles, music, etc. It turned out to be a global trend, impacting markets from China to India to Brazil.

It’s never been more important for brands to be clear on their beliefs, purpose, and worldview

The size and profile of this audience created a great deal of energy and buzz. Coveted audiences – such as millennials, Gen Z, multi-cultural, and the creative class (affluent, highly educated, in creative fields) – have embraced a more culturally fluid and hybrid future.

Countercurrent – Reclamation (mono-culturalism)

The counter-current – cultural reclamation – also turned out to be global. This is the belief that something fundamental about the culture is being altered and needs to be reclaimed. People are no longer assimilating, and the very face of the Western world is changing. This weakens the social fabric by disrupting traditional values and norms. The counter current is strong enough to have led to Brexit and Trump.

The same energy and buzz around cultural hybridity left a blind spot to the counter-movement. There have definitely been inklings: for example, in the very vehement and vocal criticisms of campaigns featuring inter-racial casting, non-traditional gender roles, same-sex families, and female empowerment. We’ve seen the political implications, and they continue to reveal a deep division over the cultural vision for the US, as well as in many countries throughout the West.

This re-orientation around an important battle of ideas and worldviews has important implications for how brands position themselves. Social-cultural neutrality has become a cop-out. If brands aren’t true to their values during this global dialogue, they will be less culturally relevant across audiences. Moreover, the push and pull of cultural forces is amplified by mass and social media. This is the space where brands can play important roles.

I still believe the future is hybrid-cultural; that hybridity is inherently innovative and creative, resulting in new avenues for brand growth. I also believe brands should embrace this paradigm because it’s inclusive and will lead to a more open society. Brands have an opportunity to celebrate diversity through their communications and hiring practices.

The Cheerios Effect

Brands today also have an opportunity to help bridge the tensions. They can enable all audiences to find ways to embrace and celebrate their heritage culture while, at the same time, challenging and revitalising them through openness and fluidity. In other words, brands can help lead the charge through example – by owning their own identity and meaning, and by finding ways to be fluid, inclusive and, thus, innovative.