Justin R Howell

Connect Or Perish: Why harnessing the power of culture movements is essential for brand marketers.

Reflecting on the 2023 Landscape (It Ain’t So Pretty)

Food scarcity. Global poverty exacerbated by inflation and stagnant wages. Healthcare and income inequality. A rapidly escalating climate crisis in which the stakes could not be higher and yet, despite loud and vigorous alarm-bells from the foremost experts, a widespread response of any consequence to which always remains elusive. Workplace harassment. Casual sexism. The jarring “normality” of everyday violence toward marginalized people and communities.

The doom word-salad above may sound like the makings of plot for a Mad Max sequel — or perhaps inspiration for a “We Are The World” set to the woes of the twenty-first century — but any modern media consumer will be all-too-familiar the apocalypse-tinged topics above, and equally accustomed to the anxiety-inducing headlines, dread-filled dinner table conversations, and bleak visions for the future they inspire.

With so much gloom, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain any degree of optimism about humanity’s struggles against such oppressive forces and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

What’s even harder to cling to is a genuine degree of optimism about the role of corporate entities and brands in moving the ball forward for these dire issues, the cultural implications of which can hardly be overstated. (If you think the environment above sounds like a joyful one to enter touting new “marketing solutions,” I commend your spirit.)

But we shouldn’t be so quick to discount brands when it comes to supporting, and even advancing, the culture movements that define our current moment. (Really. Hear me out.)

Now This Looks Like A Job For… Brands? 🤔

Before we go any further, let’s address what exactly we mean by “cultural movements.”

In a nutshell, a cultural movement is just that, precisely what it sounds like — a widespread movement, be it changing ideas about important causes and social/political issues, macro-level societal shift, news-making moments and the viral trends they inspire, that takes hold and permeates within our collective culture. These all fall under the umbrella of “cultural movement.”

It’s easy to dismiss any move by corporations to align with cultural movements, particularly when it purports to be serving a noble purpose or acting in the public good by doing so.

“It’s a cash grab.”

“Shameless capitalism masquerading as virtuous do-gooding.”

Disingenuous.”

Criticisms like these are frequently leveled against brands, both large and small. And let’s be real. Naysayers’ skepticism is pretty understandable. And if you’re one of them, I hear you. After all, given brand marketing’s reputation for half-truths and pension for exaggeration, consumers have historically been given little reason to trust in the purity of corporations’ intentions.

But to paint the whole project of leveraging marketing as a means to mutually beneficial ends as some dastardly industry-wide plot, drummed up in dim, cigar-smoke-filled offices across the world, is not only a hasty generalization but also ignores real-world results to the net positive for multiple stakeholders — and not just shareholders and C-Suite execs.

Meeting (Or Missing) The Moment

Now that we’ve addressed the cultural movement marketing skeptics, I’d like to speak directly to the very brand builders and marketers curious or on the fence about throwing their hats into the ring by aligning with cultural-defining movements and moments.

It’s no secret you’re in this business to make money. More than that, you want to see your ideas and products come to life. And at the end of the day, hopefully, you want your customers to love them as much as you do.

But what if there was a way to make all of that happen while also firming up your position and an industry leader by being at the forefront of cultural movements?

What if you could use the power of your business to help other people?

To create change? Build community?

That sounds like a win all-around.

Business is about bottom lines. There’s no way around it. But it doesn’t only have to be about the bottom line. It can be something you believe in. Whether you’re looking for opportunities to give back or just looking for ways to get involved in something bigger than yourself, there are plenty of places where you can find inspiration and make an impact on the world around you.

It takes an adventurous spirit to go out and stand for something more.

Consumers — scratch that, people — want to stand for what’s right. They want hope. Hope that things can get better. Hope that individual actions can make collective change. Hope for themselves and for others.

As a brand, if you’re able to play even a small role in making that happen, you’re already ahead of the game.

If you’re not meeting the moment, you’re missing it.

The Means, The Megaphone & The Motivation: Driving Brand Marketing With Cultural Moments

So why take the extra step into the realm of social issues, trending topics and the rest?

You don’t want to just sell your brand — you want to foster the growth of your business, while also viewing yourself as part of a larger social responsibility. As if that’s not enough, consider this:

The needle on consumers’ expectations of brands is moving quickly these days. Like, really quickly. In 2018, 97% of consumers reported believing it is “at least somewhat important that companies behave ethically,” a 21% increase from 2012, Mitel found. In the same year, Nielsen reported that 80% of 15- to 20-year-olds believed that companies should implement environmental sustainability programs, a major cultural movement in its own right.

In the not-so-distant future, there will be two kinds of brands: Those that meet the moment. And those that perish. Think that sounds dramatic? Think again.

When mounting societal and global problems meet a democratized information economy built on instantaneous access to news, thanks to the internet and social media, meets long-overdue consumer empowerment and social reckonings, this all spells survival of the fittest — or rather, the most ethical — for brands.

However, because of the culture-making power they already wield, brands are at an advantage to join the ranks and take up the work of cultural movements. They already possess the means and the megaphone — the essential last piece of the puzzle is, and this bit is important, the motivation. If a brand possesses all three, with a genuine commitment to actually doing the work, they sky’s the limit when it comes to its ability to amplify cultural movements.

Movements In Action

What does cultural movement marketing look like in action?

Many prominent brands have made a name for themselves or built on their successes by tapping into cultural movements. Here are just a few examples of brands using creativity and innovation to make the world a better place.

  1. The Body Shop was one of the first companies to implement fair trade practices in its supply chain. Their efforts have helped provide employment and safe working conditions in developing countries, as well as help protect the environment.
  2. Patagonia is a company that has long been committed to sustainability. They use recycled materials in their products, donate 1% of their sales to environmental groups, and have even taken legal action to defend the environment.
  3. Toms is a company that is best known for its “One for One” program. For every purchase made, Toms donates a pair of shoes to a child in need. The company has also expanded its giving to include other needs such as clean water and eye care.
  4. Warby Parker is a company that sells prescription glasses and sunglasses. For every pair of glasses sold, the company provides a pair to someone in need. Warby Parker has also partnered with nonprofits to help train men and women in developing countries to become opticians.
  5. Bombas is a company that sells socks. For every pair of socks sold, the company provides a pair to someone in need. Bombas has also partnered with shelters and other organizations to help get their socks into the hands of people who need them the most.

What you’ll notice in each of these examples, is the brand and cultural movement they’re aligning with are seamlessly intertwined. The cause is woven into the core of the business and its values. No cheap cash-grabs, no gimmicks. The brand and the purpose are perceived as being practically one and the same. It just goes to show, the consumer observes, that a brand can be both good, and profitable.

The Power of Connection

At the core of all things branding and marketing is a simple but powerful factor: human connection.

People want quality products and services, sure. But to build a brand that truly gets people jazzed about your mission, you need belief. Buy in. A reason to care. Real, tangible connections with your consumers.

In today’s ultra-competitive market, people are latching onto and expressing loyalty to brands that reflect their values and attitudes. And it’s not difficult to imagine why. We’re social creatures. We crave community, involvement and meaning. One way we seek this belonging and identity validation is, yes, through our choice of brands. And although generally speaking brands may play a limited role in meeting these needs compared to other avenues, they do play a part.

Brands that reflect the best in their consumers and the ideals of who they wish to be, particularly in their relation to important moments and causes, have a leg up, and tapping into cultural movements can be an incredibly effective way to do just that.

‘Silence, Brand’: Keeping It Real

There are few things as cringe-inducing and condescending as when a brand’s attempts at relatability miss the mark.

You do not want to be that brand.

Consumers are good at sniffing out when brands’ expressed values don’t stack up to their real-world actions, and they’re getting better at this all the time. Heck, people are practically allergic to disingenuousness on the part of brands.

This is bad news for brands who doubt the intelligence of their consumers, an opportunity for those who deal in transparency, and a wake-up call to those in between.

The importance of follow-through in cultural movement marketing can hardly be overstated.

Marketers are good talkers. But to effectively tap into cultural movements, you have to walk the walk. If you’re willing to bet consumers won’t notice if you don’t, you’re making a risky wager.

Brand With A Cause

Cultural movements and brands are like feet and rock climbing shoes: it’s all about finding the right fit. (Also, unfortunate things tend to happen when it’s a bad fit.)

As a brand, you know you can’t be everything to everyone. Approach your cultural movement alignment with the same mindset. Pick a cause, or a few, that are authentic and truly align with the core of your brand mission and values. (Think Bombas, Toms, Patagonia, etc.)

Do you sell pizza ovens? Think of ways you could use your brand platform to feed someone in need.

Do you stand for equality? Consider donating a portion of your earnings to a nonprofit whose mission fosters inclusivity for historically marginalized groups.

You get the idea.

There’s no one size fits all here. What’s important is being relevant (Is this something important that people care about or should be aware of?), intentional (Do you have a clear vision, purpose and goal?), authentic (Is this a natural fit for your brand, and are you legitimately committed to the cause?), and community-building (Are you inspiring/empowering consumers, earning buy-in, and building shared belief around your chosen movement?).

If you’re checking all these boxes, you’re well on your way.

Summary: Seize The (Cultural) Moment

Tapping into cultural movements can be a critical component in brands’ strategy, resulting in both positive change and positive consumer perceptions. In other words, good for the world and for your bottom line.

But there are a few bases that should be covered, lest well-meaning brands fall victim to haphazardly-conceived initiatives and bungled executions. The last thing any brand wants is to be seen as insincere or, worst of all, “tone-deaf.” (Yikes.)

To recap, here are some key takeaways:

  • There are a lot of problems facing our society today. It’s easy to adopt a cynical attitude and believe brands can’t help to advance important cultural movements. This is a misguided generalization. Don’t let this thinking stymie your plans for positive change. Show them your brand can be a force for good.
  • Aligning your brand with cultural movements can build community among consumers, benefit society and increase your bottom line.
  • There are many examples of prominent brands who have found success tapping into cultural movements as part of their brand strategy. These success stories underscore the potential benefits of movement marketing done right.
  • Consumers want the brands they consume to reflect their values and stand for positive change. Cultural movement marketing can facilitate this.
  • Like any business decision, one’s selection of cultural movements to align is a calculated risk with potential pitfalls. Brands should exercise caution when choosing cultural movements to align themselves with and ought to ensure they genuinely reflect and compliment their overall brand identity and values. If it’s an ill fit or a brand fails to hold up their end of the bargain, consumers will take notice.
  • Cultural movement marketing is not one-size-fits all. Brands should focus on ensuring their initiatives are relevant, intentional, authentic and community-building.

With this all in mind, your brand will be well-equipped and ready to seize the cultural moment. Go forth, brand leaders, and spread some positive change!

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