How brands can avoid culturally flammable ideas

By Dr. Martina Olbertova

Flammable ideas; they are everywhere these days. We see brands struggle with the portrayal of diversity and what it looks like, or representing physical handicaps in a way that is trustworthy and socially relevant. We see a greater complexity of gender and identity sprouting in our society today, as everyone wants their voice to be heard and accounted for. This new situation calls for brands to address and understand how to accurately represent diverse groups of people in their advertising campaigns and marketing collateral.

Perhaps, in no other time throughout human history has the task of correctly representing and portraying the state of our social reality more difficult than it is today. As culture evolves rapidly, so do our expectations of brands to accurately mirror the evolution of our society. The lack of doing so results in cultural distortion, gender and racial stereotyping, which helps no one. To the contrary, it perpetuates the problem as the flattened, stereotyped or otherwise distorted ideas of who we are, what we look like and how we think and talk result in our further alienation from one another in society.

Marketing and advertising has a lot of power over cultivating and engineering our cultural consciousness, but with that power comes a great responsibility. In the past, advertising used to entertain a faulty idea that it was not to be held accountable for the kinds of words and images they put out in the world because they just sell stuff. Today, we know better. There must be a greater social responsibility for anything that shapes content, images and ideas in our minds, gives us a representation of the reality to consume, dreams to desire and aspire to and uses our minds as canvases to project corporate interests.

Catch up or go down: the new lack of tolerance in the digital world

Brands now more than ever before need to catch up with the evolution of society, or they risk being irrelevant. Simply, if brands fail to shift with the flow of Culture and optimize/transform the meanings they embody, represent and send to the world, their advertising will not be relevant. And as relevance is innately tied to brand value, they have a lot to lose. Brands are all about meaning as meaning is what constitutes their long-term value and equity.

Surprisingly, brand owners and marketers are not entirely to blame for the brand gaffes and social lapses the brands they manage often make. In this new era of cultural and digital complexity, it’s especially easy for brands to fall into these traps or step on the landmines that were buried deep in our shared cultural consciousness a long time ago. Unfortunately for brands that stumble, social media brings an instantaneous effect, in this case, almost exclusively a negative one.

Earlier this year, we saw a perfect example of what a culturally flammable idea can do in the case of H&M and their shockingly tone-deaf product photo shoot. Such racially and contextually insensitive representations of people can be very harmful to the brand’s image and negatively affect brand vale and equity.

The image featuring a black boy in a ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie caused an international uproar. In South Africa, the ad resulted in massive protests in Johannesburg and Cape Town where people were trashing their stores. The backlash against the brand was so big that H&M had to temporarily close down its stores in South Africa to avoid further damage. Some protesters even demanded H&M to close permanently in South Africa, even though the chain had just opened there in 2015. This clearly shows how something as intangible and unintentional as a “cultural trespass” can have real, tangible and intentional business consequences.

One unskilled maneuver like this can easily trigger decades and even centuries old pain points and repressed grieves reopen unhealed historical wounds and recall past traumas, racial injustices and other painful memories. This is what happens when you push the buttons of Culture. History sleeps, but it can be easily awakened when provoked. Time isn’t linear – the past, present and future all coexist and continue to move along as we do. They are carried in people’s minds throughout their lives. The past contains a reference to our actions and creates a reservoir of memories that we compare our dreams, wishes and behaviors to. The separation of time is an illusion when it comes to Culture – your past, present and future all exist at once and are being transmitted through the codes and values your brand chooses to communicate and through the meanings it embodies, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

This is the reason why brands should avoid depicting problematic, challenging or otherwise perplexing cultural concepts that might be difficult to navigate, unless they have a strong foundation, an in-depth understanding of cultural evolution and a stellar point of view. For less fortunate brands with weaker positions, these lapses can be prevented with a well-informed cultural strategy.

Preventing future disasters: how to assess the cultural dimension of your brand

A particularly good way to avoid any hidden cultural traps is to consult your strategy with a semiotician, cultural strategist or an anthropologist prior to creating the campaign or at least doing a pretest before the campaign goes live. A skilled semiotician will be able to help you navigate these potentially hazardous cultural spaces, explain why they might trigger meanings and connotations you don’t want your brand to be associated with or steer clear of some topics altogether. That’s either because these topics are not relevant to your brand, and therefore wouldn’t be trustworthy for you to tap into, or it’s because they could harm your brand image and the long-term equity. In either one of those two cases, you most definitely need to know this beforehand.

Preventing the damage is always more effective and less costly in the long run than blindly following a campaign strategy without a proper cultural contextualization. It’s easy to fall prey to your own lack of understanding of how the meanings that your idea elicits might then play out in the larger scheme of culture – the very same culture that your brand value is vitally tied to.

The first thing you need to do when trying to understand whether the brand story or a creative idea is potentially flammable or not, is to assess the scope of the situation properly. You need to understand the cultural context in which your brand operates. You need to understand what the brand is saying and how this meaning lives in the world when it meets the residual (past), dominant (present) or emergent (future) codes of culture, which are all evenly distributed throughout the marketing and cultural landscape.

Many brands and their advertising agencies make the mistake that they come up with creative ideas first and then hope these ideas won’t clash with the context of culture later, whereas the right approach is the other way around. First explore the context of culture and then create ideas. Those ideas will then be rooted and anchored in culture, which will in return make them both relevant and valuable. Good ideas without context are good only in theory. It’s because we don’t live in a vacuum. In a vacuum, such a campaign might be very successful but once the strategy meets the real world, there are many different ways in which the cultural context and the brand can clash that neither the agency nor the client has necessarily the power to foresee.

This is when you call the semioticians, cultural strategists and anthropologists who will help you better navigate the fabric of meaning in the world today and determine whether the idea is relevant (e.g. depicting the mood of the now in a culturally relevant way that builds long-term brand value), irrelevant (e.g. outdated, vague, ambivalent or untrustworthy), or potentially flammable (e.g. culturally or racially insensitive, insulting or downright damaging).

If not careful, flammable ideas can quickly hijack, jeopardize and further deteriorate your marketing activities and decrease brand value. To communicate meaningfully and tell stories that are both brand and culturally relevant, we need to properly understand where our audiences are coming from, what representations of reality they carry in their minds and what meanings they might be sensitive to. This will give you an idea what is and isn’t a good idea.

If you take away only one lesson, it should be this one:

“No brand can ever say a thing outside of the cultural context in which the business is embedded.”

The context is always implicit to the environment in which your brand lives. It will always retroactively influence the brand, whether we like it or not. Even if you can’t see it or aren’t consciously aware of it, it is there and juxtaposes its own meaning on everything your brand says or does.

There is no way to tell a story outside of the context of culture. That is the nature of Culture; it’s omnipresent. We might not see it, we might not be aware of it, but we cannot ignore it. There is no way to break out of Culture. We are impacted by it, no matter what we choose our brand to say. So, let’s choose wisely from now on.

Ctredit: Branding Strategy Insider


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