PLANNING STRATEGIES: COVID-19 Rewrote the Rules on Cultural Relevance

Michelle Hayward and Eric Staples, Authors

Before COVID-19 disrupted life and business around the globe, brands treated Cultural Relevance as a trend chase. But brands can never go back to solely engaging the world through easy associations with sports wins or meme-worthy entertainment world gaffes. With the Delta variant still spreading, today’s consumer is now enduringly connected to their humanity, their vulnerability and to the communities they’ll speak up to defend. The pandemic transformed their relationship to big events. So to build influence in 2022 and beyond, brands must establish clearer, more credible points of view-and their participation in cultural moments needs to be far more real.

Reordered Priorities

Crises upend all norms, and traditional bonds of brand loyalty proved remarkably thin when the pandemic hit the United States. Shopping rewards app Shopkick surveyed over 24,000 American consumers in March 2020 and learned 85% “don’t care about brand names” under such conditions. Whatever the big players spent in prior years producing creatively-aligned Super Bowl ads, jumping on bandwagons like the now-quaint fascination with Netflix’s Stranger Things or engaging in snarky Twitter combat, it couldn’t build equity for them that year.

It would be a step too far, however, to state that people no longer cared about brands at all. Twitter conducted its own research in April 2020, discovering that 77% of surveyed users felt “more positively about brands making an effort to support society at the moment.” A March study from the 4As found that 43% of consumers felt “reassured” when they heard from brands they already knew and trusted, with 40% saying they specifically wanted to know what brands were doing in response to COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, many brands avoided wading into Cultural Relevance waters. They wanted to skirt controversy and potential misfires like Pepsi’s infamous Kylie Jenner ad, which appeared to trivialize the issue of criminal justice reform in a way that would’ve been unforgivable by the time the Derek Chauvin trial took place. But consumers of 2020, living in equal parts anxiety and conviction, expected brands to jump in. This precedent set, people now demand meaningful cultural participation. They expect and want to know a brand’s position, not its positioning.

Accelerated Stakes & Expectations

Cultural Relevance was already growing in its brand-building power before COVID-19 (plus mass protests over racial injustice) spread around the world. In 2019, a study from IPG Media Lab, MAGNA GLOBAL, and Twitter found that “Cultural Relevance accounts for 25% of product purchase decisions.” C-suites across categories discussed finding stronger cultural footing as an emerging priority, and they funded countless low-risk excursions across topics and platforms. Who can forget Peloton Girl or Baby Yoda?

But as the pandemic simmers on, mere “relevance” (defined only loosely, signifying any relationship at all) to events taking place in “culture” (a schema that must now include difficult and even painful moments, no matter leadership’s risk aversion) is insufficient. Consumers expect brands to know where they stand in the maelstrom of our current world, to speak with clear voices from within those beliefs, and to act purposefully-engaging events directly and in real time. They want to see evidence of an actual perspective at work.

Consumers mandate this brand behavior as their tolerance for inauthenticity vanishes, burned away in the exhaustion of living in long-term fear of falling ill or losing loved ones to the virus. In the short term, cultural tone-deafness and perceived brand opportunism will do twice the damage. Looking ahead, brands should assume that consumers will remain skeptical of marketing ploys cloaked as action or activism. The bar is simply higher. When consumers hear from brands about cultural moments, they want to know that the businesses’ positions and intentions are good.

Modeling Cultural Relevance

To meet consumers’ demands for involvement, authenticity, and constructiveness, brands must reimagine Cultural Relevance not as a collection of positive associations but a foundation for participation in future moments, known and unknown. This can be built purposefully. And once constructed, it guides brand behavior across contexts-even those as fraught and complex as a pandemic.

Following this “Four Pillars” model, brands claim a Domain, associate themselves with causes or Movements important within that Domain, show up at the most relevant Moments, and do so by engaging consumers through the right Mediums.

When a brand engages these interrelated pillars, they anchor their voice in a stance. Domains and Movements help them develop their own pointed, poignant perspective. Over time, Moments offer brand-aligned spaces to participate. And when the brand chooses the most relevant Mediums to share their distinct POV, they achieve that holy grail of brand perception: authenticity.

As risky as it may seem, developing a cultural POV actually minimizes the chances a brand will make loud mistakes, as it helps determine when a perspective is relevant and when it is not. It’s neither necessary nor advisable for a brand to address all Moments. In 2018, McDonald’s tried what seemed uncontroversial: changing its logo temporarily to celebrate International Women’s Day. But with no history of support for women and in fact, a poor internal track record, the brand only faced backlash.

Successful Investments in Cultural POV-building

Nike, an early Cultural Relevance innovator, worked from this model to embrace a message of equality years ago. The brand leapt into the Kaepernick controversy in 2018-long before it was fashionable to support Black Lives Matter-with an Emmy-winning commercial highlighting his activism. They later released shoes emblazoned with the player’s face that sold out in a day. The brand’s perspective? Victories in the domain of elite sports aren’t enough. It’s important to “ Believe in Something.”

Oft-cited Nike, though, wasn’t the only brand to put in the hard, early work to develop a credible POV that consumers would respect. Ben & Jerry’s released a powerful statement denouncing white supremacy after the death of George Floyd in June 2020, but only after a long, consistent history of championing justice. Not only had the brand actually released flavors related to activism (“Pecan Resist” and “Justice Remix’d”), founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield personally joined a protest against the influence of money in politics in 2016-remaining until they were both arrested.

Following the model doesn’t require engaging potentially-divisive topics. Back in 2004, Dove launched its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” taking a clear position: the definition of beauty should include grace, strength and confidence. In the 10 years that followed, the brand led a dramatic shift in cultural conversations about beauty-actually moving the perception needle on how consumers viewed it. So when PPE began ravaging nurses’ faces, producing some of the COVID-19 era’s most enduring images, the brand recognized its moment and spoke-believably. Consumers were prepared to receive Dove’s “ Courage is Beautiful “ ad celebrating those nurses as genuine.

Think participation and conversations about something as broad as beauty can’t stay relevant? Throughout the pandemic, Dove has been tracking how much young people rely on social channels to stay connected. The brand noted girls’ excessive use of photo retouching apps with concern and launched #TheSelfieTalk, a program designed to help parents speak to their young daughters about self-image.

From Chasing Trends to Finding a Voice

Looking ahead, brands should harvest the opportunities sown in our current upheaval. Disruption has provoked people to rethink their priorities, and brands can make initial investments in their new Cultural Relevance by joining them. What matters? What should? Where can we help? As history and life flows forward, what will we stand for?

The pandemic led to many forms of scarcity, some practical (who could forget the toilet paper shortage?) and many emotional. Core human vulnerabilities like loneliness and yearnings for community, once hidden, are now live cultural topics. How can your brand participate to safeguard connection, visibly and with purpose? How can you come through for consumers as they labor for normalcy today, whether with a new product or service, an empathetic delivery system, or a supply chain that stabilizes every community it touches? How will you let your consumer know you understand what matters-and that you will always act accordingly, today and tomorrow?

The stakes are high, as only brands that can develop their perspective (treating “relevance” in human vs. marketing terms) will navigate the future successfully and transform to build loyalties in a new age. COVID-19 won’t be the only large-scale cultural phenomena we’ll experience. But when brand legacies no longer matter more than shared priorities and positive participation, the rules have changed.

Authors Michelle Hayward (Founder and CEO of Bluedog Design and graduate of The Kellogg School of Management’s Chief Marketing Officer program) and Eric Staples (Senior Growth Strategist, Bluedog Design) are career business and marketing strategists, advising and guiding organizations as they make decisions that matter. They specialize in solving tough problems for a client base that includes the world’s most complex businesses.

IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS is an article series from Bluedog’s most creatively strategic minds, launched to engage the many challenges and emerging opportunities facing the business leaders of today and tomorrow. About Bluedog Design Bluedog is a marketing and growth consultancy that works closely with its client-partners to shape better decisions that land in sustainable growth. It is a Certified B Corp, dedicated to doing business as a force for good, and was recognized by Crain’s Chicago Business as the city’s #1 Place to Work in 2021.

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