Create Culture, Don’t Just React to It

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One of the most memorable lessons on “brand culture” I ever received didn’t come from an article, or a textbook, or an all-night strategy session. No, it happened very unexpectedly—on a day I stepped into Ralph Lauren’s flagship store on Madison Avenue to find a gift for a friend.

I remember thinking that the store’s entryway oozed that classic Ralph Lauren style, mirroring the essence of the fashion staples that lay within. But for all the on-brand architecture and pitch-perfect decoration, something else stood out. The antique merchandise counter cases at the front of the store held dozens of vintage watches from brands other than Ralph Lauren!

The insightful Ralph Lauren team recognized that classic Americana exists in many forms, in many coveted products—even those without the vaunted Ralph Lauren name. They were holding up other brands in order to broaden the reach and substance of their own culture. Sure, you could buy a new Ralph Lauren watch at the store, but the look you’re going for might be best supported by a vintage Hamilton military-issued watch.

Many brands co-opt culture, but truly great brands create it. They add words to the culture’s lexicon. They establish rituals. They champion cultural exemplars and even instigate fights with other brands that don’t align with their ideas, their culture, or their cultural values. Above all, brands that actively create culture wield an outsized influence in their category and beyond.

The good news is that all brands have an opportunity to look beyond short-term sales to support the long-term health of their culture—a deeply meaningful way to create lasting business and brand equity.

And there are myriad ways brands can stake a successful claim for cultural influence (other than showcasing competitors’ wristwatches). Hosting events, for example. Lululemon offers free yoga classes in public parks throughout the world. This “gift of yoga” brings like-minded people together—people who will likely end up buying Lululemon’s clothes and pushing yoga further into the community.

Brands can also pony-up some money to further their cultural growth. One of my favorite examples comes from Burton Snowboards. In December 2007, Burton announced their Sabotage Stupidity campaign. A bit of background: there are four ski resorts in the US that don’t allow snowboarding (to snowboarders, this is stupidity worth sabotaging). Burton offered $5,000 in cold hard cash for the best video documentation of a successful poach of these resorts. The effort was part of Burton’s “open minds, open mountains” campaign to open more areas to snowboarding. What the campaign really did was seal Burton’s place in a fickle counterculture—a counterculture that would readily abandon a brand that didn’t align with their inherent values.

Another inspiring example?—Converse’s backing of a music culture icon. When London’s legendary 100 Club announced it was struggling to stay afloat and intended to shutter its doors, Converse, who has consistently supported efforts in the music space, stepped up and signed a deal with the club that would keep it open for future generations and fans of independent music. And because Converse truly “gets it,” they didn’t swoop in and insist the club be renamed or colonized by the Converse brand. Sometimes all a culture needs is a visionary and benevolent benefactor.

In the case of our own work with Nissan, we created an app called Diehard Fan that lets fans of U.S. college football show their team pride by virtually applying thousands of extremely life-like facepaint designs to a selfie photo. The adoption was so widespread we’re now expanding the app to cover other sports across the globe. The takeaway is that the Diehard Fan app helped diehard fanatics become more fanatical and participate in a culture they love.

So the question is, what can your brand do? If you have a physical presence, this opens an entire canvas of creative opportunity. Ask yourself,  “What happens to the space after hours? Who in our community might be able to benefit from access to square footage?” Or, as in the case of Ralph Lauren, what products, outside of your own, make sense to merchandise and share with the culture?

Territories to explore:

  • Offer a platform for the community to connect – does your customer base have the best tools to connect? What else can you offer or fund?
  • Curate and share ideas that you feel support the culture – what are you publishing on the topic?
  • What technology does the culture need to thrive? What can your brand provide access to?
  • How can your brand help entertain or educate the community?
  • What partnerships or alliances can you create to make the culture even stronger? Could you put differences aside and partner with a competitor?

If your brand can go beyond merely co-opting culture and start creating it instead, you’ll find that the community will suddenly find themselves with a new set of rituals, experiences, and legends that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

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