COVID-19 Reveals Brands’ Lack of True Cultural Relevance

Never before has it been more glaringly obvious which brands have meaningful Cultural Engagement strategies and which ones don’t. In this reality-redefining Cultural Moment, as many brands are scrambling to say something, anything, that could help keep them afloat in the spinning maelstrom of social media scrolling and newsfeed binging-often by scrapping their core communication strategies completely in order to feebly attempt a “relevant” response to the global pandemic situation (we’re looking at you, endless stream of “how we’re responding” emails)-the result is often reduced to riding cultural-dialog coattails via fleeting and trite social media tropes. And we’ve all seen innumerable examples of that manifesting as clearly reactive sentimentalism: “We’re with you,” brands declare, with as much earnestness as they can muster through digital mediums; or “we’re all in this together,” they console, without any real meat behind the message.

Sure, some brands are just getting lucky: Organic Valley clearly had their “From Outside with Love” messaging in progress before we were all suddenly stuck indoors, lending those lines significantly more poignancy power (we’ve never envied cows so much in our lives). Other brands are reaping the rewards right now of the particularly share-worthy personalities of their social media managers (whether it was smart or simply fortuitous, great work on that hire, Steak-umms). Still other brands can rely on corporate compassion to capture eyes and hearts in this trying time (thank you, MolsonCoors, for expanding from suds to sanitizer, and helping first responders stay safe). Frito-Lay has recently gone all-in on the latter, seemingly shifting their comms spend from brands to the PepsiCo Foundation’s support of coronavirus relief, boldly stating in a new video spot: “The world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel. This is not about brands, it’s about people.”

And we’d vehemently agree with that: the world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel. Indeed, that’s the very last thing we need. However, people are looking for perspective, hope, distraction, even entertainment; and brands do need ways to stay culturally relevant, even when (one could argue especially when) times are tough. And we think the best way-some of us would say the only sustainable way-to meaningfully intertwine those two needs is to have in place a very clear, holistically considered, and intentionally built Cultural Engagement strategy. You have to know what your brand stands for not just in the realm of occasions or benefits or even the almighty altruistic-Purpose, but in culture. Your brand needs a cultural POV.

Dove is a particularly shining example of this. In the last decade and a half they’ve redefined the cultural conversation around beauty, by taking a well-defined stance and authentically engaging in cultural dialog in, through, and around it. They’ve evolved and expanded their messaging over time, sure-but they never strayed from their clear cultural POV. And now, faced with a reality in which conversations of beauty (as Unilever’s brand chief put it) “now seem superficial,” are they jumping to another POV, or shifting for a brief time to a new topic? No. They’re doing what they’ve always done: redefining what beauty means. And in this moment, real beauty to Dove means courage in the face of immense difficulty-that’s why they’re spotlighting the beautiful courage of health workers on the front lines all across North America. It’s a powerful example of what “authenticity” (that eye-rolling box-check of every brand brief) actually means: always staying true to what you believe, no matter what.

So, as brand-builders, what to do about all of that now? For the time being, perhaps nothing. At Bluedog, we’re keenly aware-and deeply supportive-of the need to focus resources and energy on keeping operations running and getting people the products they need. But we’re hoping that one of the many things brands and businesses will take from this experience moving forward is the critical need to have a true cultural perspective at the center of their strategies; not as a campaign, not as a one-off execution, not as a chase-the-movement-of-the-moment reaction-but as an integrated part of what your brand fundamentally stands for.

And when you’re ready to have that conversation, we are too.

Published By Eric Staples

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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